STAFF / 4x4ing

Colorado 4x4ing . . . the right way

Story by staff writer Teresa Davis. Photos Copyright © Teresa Davis.

THE QUESTION MOST PEOPLE ask when they know we’ll be going to Colorado is What do you do up there? Do you hunt or fish? I always laugh and say, “Nope, we just ride the back roads and enjoy the scenery.” Colorado has some of the most magnificent 14-ers (14,000-foot mountains) that are 4-wheel drive accessible.

Some people may say we’re crazy, or adrenalin junkies—and they may be right—but we keep it safe and we know the rules of traveling the mountains. Never head out into the mountains without a good topo map and one of the many great direction books on the market. The first time we tried our hand at 4x4ing, we got lost because we did not have a direction book—we never made that mistake again.

Authors Jeanne Wilson & Peter Massey and Charles A. Wells have the best books, giving you exact driving directions and telling you whether the trail is easy, moderate or difficult.

If you have never driven in the mountains, please let an experienced guide take you on a tour the first time. Probably every mountain town in Colorado offers Jeep tours. They have half-day, whole-day and self-guided Jeep rentals. These people do tours all the time and they know what they’re doing.


Great white aspens of Colorado

In our 16+ years of backroading in Colorado, we have taken a variety of 4-wheel drive vehicles, but the Jeep has been our vehicle of choice. You want a vehicle that is short and high off the ground, with skid plates to protect the undercarriage. You MUST have a true 4-wheel drive vehicle, not all-wheel drive, with 4L (low-range gears) for climbing, but more importantly to hold you back when descending the mountains. Without 4L and the ability to shift down, you will burn your brakes up.

This year, though, we took our Ford F150 4×4 with a 6½’ bed and it was really too long. Colorado back roads have some really tight switchbacks and if your vehicle is too long, as ours was, you will wind up having to back up in order to make the switchback—not a good idea when you’re getting above tree line.

Ford F150

This is actually not a Ford truck commercial ;~)

I know all this sounds like a lot to think about, but if you do it right, you will see some wonderfully beautiful back country. The air is so crisp and clean and the smell of fir trees envelopes you. You will see gorgeous lakes and valleys, old mines sticking out from the sides of the mountains, and breathtaking panoramic views. Because there was at one time a lot of mining going on, you’ll pass shambles of old log homes where families were born and raised and dreams of fortunes were never quite reached. You can see so much history up in the mountains of Colorado.

Old mining camp, Colorado

Once a home in a mining camp . . . now just a reminder of what was

There’s something that grabs you in the pit of your stomach the first time you’re traveling down a normal gravel road and you see a sign that reads 4×4 Vehicles Only Beyond This Point. The road will change from gravel to much larger rocks and the climb will begin. The first time you feel the 4-wheel kick in and the vehicle jumps and the tires grab and you know you are climbing . . . that is true 4x4ing.

4x4 back road, Colorado

A true 4×4-only back road

Most of the back roads are not maintained by the state and they are two-way roads, but usually only wide enough for one vehicle at a time. You will find pull-outs where one vehicle will have to hug either the mountain or the sides of the cliff so don’t panic. The vehicle climbing usually has the right of way.

The most dangerous part of any 4-wheel drive road is the “shelf road.” This is a narrow unpaved road with a sheer drop, usually with the edge of the cliff being just a few feet from your truck’s tires. When we went on Hayden Pass, I had to get out and spot for my husband so we would not get hung up on the boulders. The road was littered with boulders from avalanches and rock slides. It was a very narrow and intense climb for us.

Beautiful backroad of Hayden Pass

Beautiful backroad of Hayden Pass

Hayden Pass Summit, CO

Hayden Pass Summit

The valley from Hayden Pass, Colorado

Looking out onto the vast open valley from Hayden Pass

Remember, taking a back road will take you all day so don’t expect to make more than one a day. Besides, by the time you are bounced all over your vehicle, you will look forward to some down-time in your camp.

There are many good forestry campgrounds with clean restrooms, but if you want showers, you’ll have to stay in privately-owned camps in or near towns. We stayed one night at South Mineral Campground. We got there around 4 p.m. and boy were we glad to be out of that truck. We have a tent which is made to fit the bed of our truck so this way we are up off the ground. We set up the tent, blew up the air mattress, put the cook stove on top of the picnic table and set out our chairs.

South Mineral Creek

South Mineral Creek

Camping in South Mineral Creek

Camping in South Mineral Creek outside Silverton, CO

We decided to walk around camp before it got too late. I grabbed my camera and we walked along a stream with water so clear you could see everything in the bottom. I took a photo of a large orange mushroom and a beautiful yellow lazy Susan. By this time, the air already had a chill in it. We got back to the camp and decided to brew some coffee. There’s nothing like sitting around a campfire with a sweater on. Okay we didn’t have a campfire that night, but we did sit around and enjoy our hot coffee with our jackets on until it started raining.

Colorado nature

Capturing nature with my camera

It seems to rain every afternoon in the mountains but, that’s OK, we just moved to the truck. Nothing beats hearing the rain drops on your tent and snuggling under your sleeping bag. The temperature dropped to around 40 that night.

The next morning, I was able to get a nice photo of the sun rising. I enjoy cooking breakfast on our cook stove and smelling the coffee brewing in the open air. Bacon and eggs just tastes so much better in the mountains. The caveat with cooking in the mountains is that you have to eat fast because at higher altitudes the food gets cold faster. Your bread will go stale in a matter of minutes.

There is something so magical about standing on the summit at about 12,000 feet and seeing a 360° view of mountains sitting under a sky so blue and clear—it just makes your heart happy and you feel so alive.

I hope you will find out for yourself.


Teresa Davis

Teresa Davis

TERESA DAVIS was born and raised in Texas. She is a writer on HubPages (tjdavis), tweets as @agyspyheart and blogs at She works at Lufkin Industries, LLC, has a great family—husband of 18 years, two grown daughters and a wonderful granddaughter— and she loves travel and adventure!

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  1. Wow, such beautiful pictures, Teresa, wish I could visit Colorado! I’m not sure I’d survive the bumpy roads (car sick in a matter of minutes – perfectly fine on a plane though… weird), but the scenery seems to be worth it.
    The camp ground is gorgeous, too, and that first picture of the great white aspens? Perfect!

    Are the mines open for visits? I loved your thought on them and the remains of old homes you can see – a place with so much history is always fascinating to me. Makes one think 🙂

    • Estrella,
      So glad you enjoyed my article. The Aspen trees are my favorite trees. when the wind blows through their leaves, they sound like rain falling.

      The mines are not open, but you can go into some of the buidling. You have to be very careful when you do go in looking around.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. First, I must mention how much I miss trees. Sure, we have trees in Southern California but they’re small and more tree “like” than a real tree. My yard is full of palm trees and although they turn yellow from a lack of nutrients, it is nothing like you showed in all your pictures.

    I especially like the orange mushroom. I found a red mushroom in Costa Rica and it’s by far my most favorite picture.

    Your description of coffee and breakfast made my mouth water. I can only imagine how lovely those scents are mixed with pine and dirt.

    Great article!

    • So glad you enjoyed my article. I do love the back country and the smell of all the different trees. Fir, blue spruce and pine are just a few of the fragrant trees Colorado offers.

      It’s still amazing everytime someone tells me they like my Thanks for saying that 🙂

  3. Brian Naennals says:

    Awesome. Colorado looks breathtaking.

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