Ophir Pass

High country travelers on Ophir Pass will be able to see first-hand the power that avalanches can wreak on the landscape. (Photo courtesy San Miguel County Road and Bridge)

The winter may have seemed as though it would last forever, but the past week marked the return of summer activities in the high country.

“The turning point is definitely here,” said Sam McNichols, general manager at Mountain Adventure Equipment. “That's always expected this time of year right after Bluegrass.”

San Miguel County Road and Bridge crews plowed and opened Last Dollar Road a few weeks ago and Ophir Pass opened Thursday as crews cut through towering snowpack, providing high-country drivers an otherworldly experience.

“That’s probably 30 to 35 feet vertical cuts that you're going to be driving your vehicle through. And it's definitely a unique situation,” said Tom Hannahs, San Miguel County Road and Bridge district one supervisor.

John Duncan, part owner of Telluride Outside agreed.

“That will become one of the most dramatic, high-country four-wheel drive tours that any visitor has ever experienced here,” Duncan said.

Along with impressive snow-packed walls, Hannahs said that remaining evidence of winter avalanche will add to the Ophir Pass experience.

“We have a section of forest that was taken out by an avalanche that's approximately ,1000 feet wide, probably 2,000 to 3,000 feet in vertical, that just took the whole entire aspen forest out,” he said.

Duncan shared the same sentiments regarding the experience on Ophir Pass this season.

“Visitors are going to see graphic evidence of the raw power of this huge winter and it is stunning. It is incredible to see with your own eyes,” Duncan said. “It's an authentic alpine experience that will be unforgettable, especially for people who've been up on these passes before.”

Crews started working on Imogene Pass Thursday.

“We're not real sure what the timeline is going to be. It looks like there's still quite a bit of heavy snow up in the higher portion of that section of road,” said Hannahs. “We did make some good progress. We're hoping to have it in the next couple of weeks.”

Once Imogene is open, crews will start working on Black Bear Pass, though an estimated opening date is still undetermined, reported officials.

At Alta Lakes, officials reported that the road is plowed and open to about an eighth of a mile from the lake. Additionally, the lake still has some ice, something visitors should keep in mind when thinking of weekend plans.

“Just be aware that you’re not going to be able to go up there and unload your paddleboard,” Hannahs warned.

Hannahs also provided a recap of what roads and areas are currently open.

“Woods Lake is open, 57P all the way to the campground up there, is open. Sunshine Campground over below Alta Lakes is open. The Priest Lake Campground is open,” he said. “Beaver Park Road is open, that goes from Woods Lake over into Beaver Park over around Norwood. Goodenough Gulch is open and County Road X48.”

While crews do their best to clear roads and open public areas, a focus on safety is emphasized.

“Just pay attention to the conditions and pay attention to the weather forecast,” said Ryan Righetti, roads superintendent for San Miguel County Road and Bridge.

Hannahs also touched on the issue of safety.

“Obey the road closed signs when we are working in those areas. We have a lot of people who will go around those signs and then they’ll end up where the machinery is and in these situations when they shouldn’t.”

Warmer temperatures have melted more snowpack, allowing crews to open more trails and providing improved conditions for outdoor activities. “It’s going to be not just a great summer, it will probably be the best summer since 1983, based upon snow levels,” Duncan said.

Summer river sports are in full swing, too.

“Rafting is the best that it's been in a lifetime here,” Duncan said. “We're projecting to have rafting well into or possibly all the way through August. That would be the first time since 1995, and the only reason we had that in 1995 is that it rained a lot that summer. Enjoy the water sports this summer because it’s going to be all-time fantastic.”

Fishing will also benefit from the high waters this season.

Duncan explained that while fishing may have a slower start this summer, the season will last longer, with happier fish and better river conditions.

“This is important to understand the trade-off here. High water years are the best fishing years, but they start slowly,” Duncan said. “What happens in a low water year… is that the fishing is great at first, but the rivers get really low and warm, and as a result, the fishing in late July and August and September is tougher and tougher and tougher.”

This year the fishing will still be good into the fall.

“In a year like this one, fishing starts to slow because the rivers are very high, but that nice, high, that strong snowpack, cold water really preserves river conditions for trout,” Duncan said. “It keeps the rivers more healthy for trout through the second half of the summer and the fall time when trout sometimes are struggling a little more.”

In addition to record conditions for water sports and fishing, officials reported the scenery this summer is anticipated to be exceptional.

“Mother Nature has provided just the right amount of moisture and temperatures to allow for some of the best wildflowers and tall grasses that I have seen in many years” said Rich Hamilton, parks and trails supervisor for San Miguel County Parks and Open Space.

Hannahs added that the remediated mine area near Silver Pick Road is abundant with wildflowers, calling the bloom, “incredible.”

Righetti also noted the unique summer conditions offered to the area by the winter snow. “We have a lot of springs, and who knows 100 years ago, they could have been flowing and now they’re flowing again. It all has unique impacts,” he said.

For more information on road conditions and public access, visit www.sanmiguelcountyco.gov