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Cutting through two National Forests and crossing the Continental Divide at 12,154 feet, Tincup Pass offers beautiful high alpine views while following the same route used by miners and prospectors searching for their fortunes in the late 1800s. This relatively easy route takes you from one historic mountain town right into another. St. Elmo is a true ghost town built during the mining boom of the 1880s, while Tincup, originally called Virginia City, has been resurrected as a popular summer destination with many historic buildings still in use today.
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Tincup Pass is a straight-through trail that can be run in either direction. Starting in the ghost town of St. Elmo, follow signs through town to reach the start of the trail. The route begins fairly smooth but quickly becomes rocky and rough and stays that way the entire length of the trail. Driving through the trees, you pass many awesome primitive camp spots that tend to fill up rather quickly during the weekends. Once above the treeline, the trail narrows a bit with a few switchbacks that lead you across a shelf portion that can have snow covering it into early or even mid-July. The north side of the pass is slightly more rocky than the south but is still relatively easy if you stay on the primary road. The route can be made more difficult if taking the old Tincup trail, which has one large boulder section and is very narrow with overgrown brush. Follow the trail down to a water crossing at Mirror Lake, which may be totally impassable during early summer. Water depths vary week to week depending on snowmelt and evaporation. If crossing the trail when it is flooded by the lake, users should stay uphill of the large orange snow poles that have been installed to mark the edge of the roadway. After passing the parking area for Mirror Lake, the trail becomes a graded dirt road and passes many more dispersed campsites before ending in the town of Tincup.
This trail is suitable for aggressive, high-clearance stock vehicles with good offroad tires. Users should always check the depth of any flooded sections of trail before attempting, as the water depth could surpass your air intake height.
After Passing through St. Elmo and crossing over Chalk Creek, the eastern trailhead begins on Gunnison Avenue. Follow signs for Tincup Pass.
St. Elmo was once home to 2,000 people after it was founded in 1880. The declining mining industry of the 1920s and the discontinued railroad service drastically changed the town, and by 1952, even the postal service was discontinued.
After passing a few cabins, you come to a Y-intersection with County Road 294 and Forest Service Road 267. Continue uphill, following Forest Service Road 267. If you have not aired down yet, this intersection is a good time to do so.
A kiosk has important information regarding fire bans, potential trail closures, and other pertinent information for forest users. The seasonal gate here is open from 5/16 to 2/28.
This campsite offers a lot of open space but is not very level, and the ground is fairly rocky. The site is large enough for a few ground tents and a few vehicles. Hammock camping would be great at this site.
This campsite downhill from the road, next to North Fork Chalk Creek, is suitable for one vehicle and a ground tent or a small off-road-style trailer. The ground here is level and mostly rock free.
Campsites exist on both sides of the road here, with a large, roundabout-style site on the north side. The northern campsite is suitable for trailers and is an extremely scenic spot in the fall due to the vast number of Aspen trees. The campsite on the south side of the road is small and tucked back in the trees, suitable for one or two vehicles and ground tents.
This large campsite next to North Fork Chalk Creek is a bit rocky and rutty to enter into, making it tricky for any trailers, but the site is great for several tents, hammocks, and small groups. Fantastic creekside and mountain views will ensure you don't regret snagging this site if you see it unused.
This campsite is a bit off the road and suitable for trailers and vehicle camping. The ground is very uneven and shows signs that water often flows through the camp.
This large, open, scenic, and grassy campsite is good for groups and trailers. The ground is a little uneven, but small level spots can be found along the site.
Tucked back in the trees, off the road, is an excellent creekside campsite with tons of room for tents, hammocks, and vehicle camping that can easily accommodate a small to medium-sized group. Before reaching the next waypoint, two additional campsites are west of this location.
The trail passes through a large avalanche chute area known to block and close the trail at times. Motorized action groups like CORE, based out of Buena Vista, have adopted many of the trails in the area and conducted countless volunteer projects to help clear these trails in the spring and ensure regular maintenance keeps the trails in good condition.
This large, grassy campsite is good for any camp setup except hammocks. The site can accommodate several vehicles if needed and offers fantastic mountain views.
Tucked back off the trail, in the trees, is a small, creekside campsite good for 1-2 vehicles and a ground tent or ideal for hammock camping.
The Colorado Trail is an established, marked, and primarily non-motorized trail open to hikers, horse riders, and bicyclists. From the eastern terminus at Waterton Canyon, southwest of Denver, the trail winds its way for 486 miles through the state's most mountainous regions to its conclusion, just north of Durango. Along the way, it passes through eight mountain ranges, six National Forests, and six wilderness areas. For more information, check out The Colorado Trail Foundation. You can find several small campsites near the trail crossing, primarily suitable for small ground tents and hiking trail users.
Although no significant obstacles exist on the east side of the pass, the trail has numerous loose rocky sections consisting of grapefruit and smaller-sized rocks. This 50-yard stretch is the rockiest section you will encounter.
As you approach the final climb up the pass, two large campsites at the treeline are suitable for several vehicles in each one. These open areas also make for good lunch spots and potty breaks as the trees thin out, providing zero privacy for the next 1.5 miles.
The two switchbacks leading up to the summit are wide and do not require any 3-point turns. The last stretch before the pass is 1.5 vehicles wide at its narrowest point and provides good visibility and several pull-offs for oncoming traffic to pass each other. This stretch is rocky, slow, and consistent with the same terrain you will encounter on the other side of the pass.
At 12,154 feet, the trail passes over the Continental Divide, leaving San Isabel National Forest and entering Gunnison National Forest. The area is large enough to accommodate many users without blocking the trail. To the southwest, you will see Fitzpatrick Peak. To the northeast, you see Emma Burr Mountain.
The terrain once again gets extremely chunky and rough as you traverse many loose boulders the size of basketballs.
Continue following road 267 downhill to the west as you pass 267.3D, Old Tincup. The Old Tincup trail is a much more challenging, rock-crawling type trail with large, frig-sized boulders. In addition, Old Tincup requires an OHV permit to travel.
Continue downhill as 267.3D. Old Tincup reconnects from the south.
The last dispersed campsite before the lake is good for a group or can be separated into two different camps fairly close together. The ground is semi-level and best for vehicle camping, small ground tents, and hammocks.
The road passes through the water on the southeast edge of Mirror Lake, where the water levels change depending on the time of year. Some years, the entire road along the lake's east side can be submerged due to spring runoff. Be sure to drive between the hillside and the orange snow poles to stay on the road surface and avoid falling into the lake.
On the north end of the lake, a small parking area is usually filled with vehicles that bring up the lake's many fishermen.
North of Mirror Lake, the road becomes significantly easier and passes the improved Forest Service campground, Mirror Lake Campground. This first-come, first-serve campground charges a nightly fee and is open June-September. The heavily used campground provides ten single sites with steel fire rings and picnic tables. There are no power or water hookups, but a vault toilet is onsite.
Garden Basin Trailhead is a small parking area with a vault toilet used for the Timberline hiking trail. Many downed trees from a previous avalanche, along with vibrant wildflowers, can be found here.
For the next mile, numerous dispersed camping options exist, large enough to accommodate any style of camp setup, including Tents, RVs, and travel trailers. Be sure to stay at least 100 feet from the creek. Some dispersed sites are signed as "closed" due to their proximity to the creek.
Dispersed camping comes to an end as you enter Tincup town limits and travel through private property.
Tincup ends at FSR 765, as you entire the tiny town of Tincup. Heading north will take you to Taylor Park and Cottonwood Pass, leading you into Buena Vista. Heading south will take you over Cumberland Pass into Pitkin and eventually to Highway 285 on its way to Gunnison.
There are many dispersed camping spots along both ends of the pass, many of them large enough for any size group. If looking for improved camping at a developed campground, this can be found on the west side of the pass at Mirror Lake Campground. Please follow any fire bans that might be in place at the time.
There are additional developed campgrounds off CR 162, east of St. Elmo, including Iron City Campground, Cascade Campground, and many others.
Head south on Highway 285 for 6 miles. Just past Nathrop, head west on C.R. 162 for about 15 miles. Immediately after a parking area with a toilet, bear right and follow signs into St. Elmo. In the middle of town, turn right and follow signs to Tincup Pass. Cross over the wooden bridge and turn left again on Gunnison Avenue, following signs for Tincup Pass.
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