One of the more direct and popular ways to cross the Rocky Mountains is over the Wolf Creek Pass. In this entry about safely crossing the mountains of Colorado, I’ll point out how to accomplish this. As before, with my previous La Veta Pass entry, I’ll assume the flight is coming from east to west (right to left on the map).
In the upper right hand corner is where this route starts, the Hayden Pass. Here’s what CDOT has to say about this pass: “Route: East-west pass across the northern Sangre de Cristo Range. Trail elevation 10,709’ MSL. This pass is not visible to any weather reporting stations. AWOS 119.27 Mhz. Lat/Long N38-19-08, W105-49-38.”
On the right is a picture of the roads around this area and where you should start out (or
finish up heading east). Following along Highway 24/285 from the north (Buena Vista, Leadville) or Highway 50 (from Salida in the west, or Colorado Springs and the Denver metro area to the east) when you get to the Coaldale, CO area of Highway 50 you turn south towards Hayden Pass, which has no roads going through it.
I’ve flown over this pass several times, it’s a fairly easy way to get into the San Juan Valley. Radar and radio contact in this area is fairly non-existent, don’t expect Denver Tracon or ARTCC to keep your VFR flight following active through this area as they won’t hear or see you at any VFR altidude all the way to Wolf Creek Pass.
After crossing the ridge at Hayden Pass and the Sangre de Cristo range, it’s an easy flight through the San Juan Valley. You should aim for the town of Del Norte, where Hwy 112 and 160 join up. If you like what you see west of Del Norte weatherwise, continue west over Hwy 160 towards South Fork and turn south at the junction of Hwy 149 and 160. As you follow along Hwy 160 you’ll head towards the Wolf Creek Pass and ski area. CDOT says this about this area: “Route: Alamosa to Durango. Road elevation 10,857’ MSL. The pass vicinity is partially visible to weather reporters in Alamosa. AWOS station is positioned on this pass. 121.125 Mhz or 970-264-2180 Lat/Long N37-29-21, W106-47-43.”
The weather over this pass can get very dicey at times, with snow and overcast conditions when weather is fair in other areas. This ski area is well known for the huge amount of snow it receives yearly, so use caution crossing this pass. On good VFR days with light to no wind, I’ve crossed it as low as 12,500‘ but I don’t recommend that most of the time since it’s normally windy – unless you have enough power to climb quickly if needed. This pass can get tricky if you need to bail out on one side or the other as the road winds through this area and the terrain climbs quickly in both directions. That’s why I suggest taking the extra time over Del Norte and South Fork to size up how it looks, and listen to the AWOS or get pilot reports (and give them, too) before committing to this crossing.
Once you’re by the pass, continue following Hwy 160 to Pagosa Springs, CO and then you can head west to south and go on your way. Flight following from Denver ARTCC can be obtained on 118.57 Mhz, there is good radar and radio coverage southwest of Wolf Creek Pass.
This is a popular route between Durango, CO/Farmington, NM and points south to the Denver/Colorado Springs area. If weather is a concern, don’t hesitate to deviate south towards La Manga/Cumbres Passes before attempting this crossing as I previously wrote about. But again, I’ll warn: the area between Wolf Creek Pass and La Manga/Cumbres Passes is treacherous. Unless you’re above 15,000′ and the ability to outclimb 1,500′ feet per minute downdrafts, do not wander into this area. As I said before, many airplanes have hit this ridge and there are rarely survivors. Part of the reason I write these stories is to put an end to those incidents. There’s no good reason to be there down low, and it’s taken very good and experience pilots – don’t be the next.