RVs, Mountain Passes and off the beaten path roadways

At the end of this month, we will be heading back to Colorado where we will spend the month of August in Estes Park. With the thoughts of the Colorado mountains entering my mind come the thoughts of mountain highways and passes. I recently saw a reference to steep mountain highways in one of the letters to the editor in a popular camping magazine. That made me think of some of our experiences while traveling out west. We pull a large 5th wheel camper so we have to be aware of the mountain passes and road grades. That’s not to say that those not pulling a large trailer shouldn’t be aware of mountain grades, but when you have a 14,000 pound trailer pushing on the truck going down a long steep grade, your awareness level heightens.

When we decided to make our first trip to Colorado with our new Everest 5th wheel, we were very concerned about how things would go when we started up the first real mountain grade. We had driven to Colorado several times over the years but always in a car. Our route typically took us out to Raton, NM to join up with I-25 and then over the Raton Pass. The Raton Pass would be the major hurdle for us on our first trip with the camper. The road up the Big Thompson Canyon to Estes Park is fairly steep in places but didn’t seem as daunting to me as the Raton Pass.

Having driven over the Raton Pass a number of times in the car, I knew that the descent on the north side was fairly long and steep. Therefore, I decided to bypass the Raton Pass on the leg out by leaving The Woodlands and going north to Oklahoma and picking up I-70 and approaching Denver from the east. What a boring drive to Denver! After making our way through Denver, we went to Loveland and picked up Highway 34 that would take us into Estes Park. The road up the Big Thompson Canyon into Estes is a steady winding climb. As we started the climb, I was very apprehensive but that apprehension gave way to being pleasantly surprised with the climbing ability of my GMC Duramax. My confidence grew with each mile and by the time I got to Estes Park I thought that there is nothing to this mountain climbing with a trailer.

After hundreds if not thousands of miles later of mountain driving, I have come to realize that there is more to it. First, I learned that I have to put up with my wife grabbing the arm rest a saying “there’s a steep grade ahead”, every time we see one of those yellow signs with a truck pointing down. It’s as though I don’t know how to read! Also I have learned that there are some pretty steep grades in the mountains and you have to really be aware of where they are when you plan your trip. If you inadvertently find yourself on a 10 percent grade, you will wish that you had stayed in bed that morning. I have seen what 10 percent looks like in my truck but without the camper attached.  After going up and down the Wolf Creek Pass on Highway 160 in Colorado, I wouldn’t try an 8 percent grade with the camper. In fact, I’ll never get my wife to cross the Wolf Creek Pass again. The grade is only 7 percent on the west side but it is a steady 7 percent for 9 very long miles.  When you crest the Wolf Creek pass going west bound, the view is both spectacular and scary at the same time.  It is truly a trip!

So how do you know where the problem passes are?  There is a publication that we were introduced to while in Estes Park talking with some fellow campers about driving in the mountains.  It is a Mountain Directory West for Truckers, RV, and Motorhome Drivers. There is a companion for the eastern half of the states.  It list all of the mountain passes and gives as much detail about the grades as is available.  It is truly an invaluable tool for driving in the mountains.  It will tell you if a particular mountain road and pass is suitable for pulling a camper.

There is another thing that I think about when I’m pulling my camper and that is the suitability of some off the beaten path roads that are scenic in nature.  Some of the scenic roads will have sharp switchbacks where you might not have room to make a curve in your lane.  I’ve seen some that I know I could not make while pulling my camper.  Not only are the switchbacks a problem but there is also the issue of underpasses.  My 5th wheel is 12′ 8″ high.  One day while driving on a scenic road, without the camper, we came to an underpass that was not but about 11′ high.  The camper would not have fit.  Backing up and turning around would have been a real problem.

Traveling down the road in your home away from home is truly an adventure but it can be a challenging adventure at times.  Good prior planning will help to make it a joyful adventure all the time. 

RV on highway

Two RVs going down Red Mountain Pass into Ouray




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