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Independence Pass a road worth traveling

By Jeremy Harlan, CNN
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View from the top of the Rockies
  • The drive along Independence Pass to Aspen, Colorado, will take your breath away
  • The nation's highest paved pass offers sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains
  • The road is usually closed from mid-November through Memorial Day
  • Silver miners built the road about 130 years ago

Leadville, Colorado (CNN) -- Sometimes it's not about the destination -- it's about the journey.

Some might say that doesn't apply to visiting Aspen, Colorado. I would say those folks went the wrong way.

For this native Coloradan, there are very few places in the United States that take my breath away. Independence Pass, the route between the frontier mining town of Leadville and the tony ski resort of Aspen/Snowmass, does just that ... literally.

There's no shortage of amazing views as you twist up and around the two-lane road, eventually summiting atop the Continental Divide at 12,095 feet above sea level.

"It's the highest paved pass in North America," boasts Sam Smith of the Aspen Historical Society. "There are a couple higher paved roads and there are a couple higher vehicle passes, but this is the highest where you can get both."

Hugging the Roaring Fork River, the pass cuts through the Sawatch Mountains, which stretch almost 14,500 feet into the bold blue Rocky Mountain sky. Each mountain peak is colored with the crisp white of a winter's snow, dark blue-green lodgepole pine trees and the bright green of newly bloomed Aspen trees (which turn a magnificent gold in the fall).

Below the towering peaks are roaring rivers, crashing waterfalls and clear lakes, all owing to the massive snowmelt of late spring and early summer.

But don't expect to get on the pass anytime before that melting begins.

"It's actually closed part of the year. From mid-November to about Memorial Day, Aspen is a dead-end city," Smith says. "The only way to get in is the bottom of the valley or your jet."

Every year, the Colorado Department of Transportation uses bulldozers, front-loaders and other heavy equipment to clear the road of snowdrifts, which can climb as high as 25 feet. The department also triggers avalanches to reduce the likelihood that any will occur while the road is open to visitors, typically beginning around Memorial Day. One trip up and back down the pass provides plenty of visual proof of these massive snow slides.

The men who built the pass some 130 years ago probably weren't too interested in the pretty trees, rushing rivers and awesome avalanches that draw visitors today.

They cared about two things: silver, and how to get to it faster.

"The pass was built because folks were initially mining in Leadville. Leadville eventually developed as a silver-based city. As prospectors are wont to do, they came up and over, found wherever they could and actually, July 4, 1879, struck gold here at Independence ... thus the name," Smith says.

Over the next few years, crews used hand tools to slowly carve out a route to the silver and gold mines.

Smith describes the road back then as a "a narrow, bumpy stagecoach road with a number of crossings at the creek on flimsy log bridges."

As the road became functional, the town of Independence quickly grew with prospectors searching for metallic fortune.

"Within the course of a couple of years from the first strike of gold, [Independence] boomed from a camp into a city of anywhere from 300 to 500 people," Smith says. "It was consolidated, had 40 businesses, a mining mill, a saw mill and something like 10 saloons. These are miners after all. But the ore played out. It started in 1879, and by about 1883, the town was bust. Twenty years later, there are four or five people living here."

Now, with only a handful of its original structures still standing, the ghost town serves mostly as a backdrop for family pictures, or a snapshot glimpse into mining history.

"The thing a lot of people don't realize is that before they built the railroads, Independence Pass was the main way in and out of the Roaring Fork Valley," Smith says. "So every person and everything that came into Aspen, before about 1886, came up and over the pass."

Today, visitors have a much easier time getting from point A to point B on the asphalt-paved road. But the pass can pose issues for those who are unfamiliar with high altitude and mountain pass driving.

"Watch the altitude," Smith cautions. "If you are not used to it, 12,000 feet means you're huffing and puffing. Watch the sun. I burn like nobody's business, so I'm always careful to wear my hat and hit the sunscreen."

Also, a tip about driving down the winding pass: Go low, as in low gear. It will help save your car's brakes.

"Shift down into 2 or 1, and that way the engine will brake so you don't have to," Smith says.

Being under control is important on this road, which can become extremely narrow at times with sharp curves and a limited view of oncoming traffic. Smith says drivers need to keep their focus on the road ahead and not the nature all around.

Technical advice aside, don't forget to take advantage of the many pull-offs on the pass. You won't be disappointed with the postcard views of the majestic Rocky Mountains.