Classic Roads: Independence Pass

Classic Roads: Independence Pass

If you’d like to get high, you can’t do much better than Independence Pass. This stretch of road (technically SR 82) between Twin Lakes and Aspen, CO, is among the highest paved mountain passes in the U.S. at 12,095 feet.

Yes, you read that correctly. The entire 32-mile road is paved (and has been since 1967), making it suitable for practically any bike—although large tourers may want to exercise caution in the narrow hairpin twisties.

And what twisties they are! The scenery around Independence Pass is nothing sort of astounding.

During the climb, marvel at the rugged, rough refinement of the rocky cliffs and sparse conifers. Upon hitting the summit, the views open up, allowing you to take in the alpine tundra of the Colorado mountains in all its glory.

I personally got a kick out of the tiny pond at the summit (there’s just something about seemingly misplaced things) but that may be dry depending on the month you travel in.

Thanks to the short length of the route, you can ride through it in roughly an hour and a half (if you don’t stop often). It’s perfectly possible to ride through Independence Pass twice or even thrice in one day. The views are definitely worth it.

The first road to cross Independence Pass—historically also known as Hunter’s Pass—opened in 1881, funded by the wealth generated from the discovery of gold in the area in the late 1800s. The ghost town of Independence, located along the road, stands as a testament to the very brief gold rush in these mountains.

If you’re not historically minded or want to do more than just gawk at deteriorating log cabins, the area surrounding Independence Pass is an outdoorsman’s Mecca.

There are multiple top-notch hiking trails on the pass and in the nearby towns of Aspen, Leadville, and Twin Lakes. Trout of various kinds, including rainbow and cutthroat, populate the two reservoirs at Twin Lakes, and boating is a possibility.

As fantastic of a ride as Independence Pass is, a word of caution is always necessary on narrow mountain roads like this. In many places, the road can only accommodate one vehicle, whether a motorcycle or car, so be prepared to let people pass.

There are steep inclines and tight switchbacks in addition to deep drop-offs with no railings. Rockfalls are always a risk and there may be ice and/or snow around all year.

Points of Interest

Independence Pass Summit

The summit of Independence Pass sits pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the route, 19 miles from Aspen and 18 miles from Twin Lakes. Needless to say, it offers the most gorgeous views of the area.

There is a paved trail that takes you to a viewing platform, allowing you to stretch your legs while observing the vistas. There isn’t much in the way of services at the summit (although no one probably expects that) but you can find vault toilets so you don’t have to rush down the other side of the pass with a “full tank.”

Independence Ghost Town

The prospector town of Independence was founded on July 4, 1879—hence the name. The discovery of gold in the area led to a boom, and in three years, the town grew to 1,500 residents.

However, the veins began to run dry already in the following year, and by 1900, the place was virtually abandoned (although its official death took until 1912). Today, many of the old log cabins and the burned-out remains of the Farwell Stamp Mill still stand on the mountainside as if yelling into the wind, “Independence once existed!”

While there are no official entrance fees, a $5 donation to the Aspen Historical Society is both a sign of good manners and helps the organization maintain this historical site.

Twin Lakes Historic District

Most of the buildings in Twin Lakes are historical, but the town still has a dedicated historic district. This is one of the best still-standing examples of a late-1800s mountain village in the U.S. frontier.

Locals take very good care of the 12 buildings and the place looks practically the same as it did nearly 150 years ago. The structures, built out of native fir and aspen logs, went up between 1860 and 1890.

A walking tour takes you through the village to see the fascinating buildings, including the dance hall and Red Rooster Visitor Center. I have a soft spot for Patrick Ryan’s Home, which the man built as a wedding present to his wife in 1896. What a catch!

Grottos Trail

The area around Independence Pass bristles with amazing hiking opportunities, but the Grottos Trail is one that anybody can tackle. This short, 0.6-mile loop is an easy way to get blood flowing back to your legs.

The trail takes you to gorgeous ice caves and waterfalls that cascade into tranquil pools of water. People say they’ve done this hike in nothing but sandals, so accessibility is not an issue.

With the ease of access come large crowds, so space at the paved parking lot at the trail head may be limited. If you’re looking for solitude, hit another trail, but Grottos Trail is a beautiful spot if you want a quick jaunt out of the saddle.

Facts & Info

The quaint Mount Elbert Lodge sits right on SR 82 going up to Independence Pass, making it a great base for exploring the pass and the general region. The lodge accommodates both single and group travelers with bed-and-breakfast rooms and separate cabins.

The cabins and rooms are all well-furnished and cozy for a relaxing stay in a mountain environment. There are outdoor fire pits, grills, and a hot tub. The cabins have options for home cooking, with utensils, pots, and pans provided.

Since it sits right on the route, Mount Elbert Lodge is close to everything Independence Pass has to offer. Make this your home away from home for your motorcycle adventure or hit the hiking trails from comfort. Just book your stay well in advance, as the B&B rooms in particular are limited.

In case you prefer more primitive conditions, there are multiple campgrounds in the Independence Pass area. Free camping options are available along Lincoln Creek Rd.

Best Time to Travel

The best time to head to Independence Pass is between May and September—because that’s the only time you can get there. The road opens around Memorial Day and closes in late fall, although the exact dates depend on the prevailing weather conditions.

The changing of the leaves is gorgeous in this area, so August to September is the best for that. In June and July, you can catch wildflowers blooming along the road.

Be aware that snow and ice may be present at all times on and by the road. The area is prone to high winds, so check the forecast before riding.