Colorado Mountain Passes: Rabbit Ears Pass
June 5, 2010
Rabbit Ears Pass has a false summit, so don’t be fooled! Driving east from Steamboat Springs on US 40, you approach what appears to be the summit, but it is actually a high point at 9,400 feet. In the next 8 miles, the road descends a little, passing some beautiful alpine meadows along Walton Creek, then climbs again to reach the true summit of Rabbit Ears Pass. The highway crosses the Continental Divide here at 9,426 feet. Snowmobilers find easy access to the high country from Rabbit Ears Pass and use the area heavily in the winter months. When US 40 was extended over Berthoud and Rabbit Ears Passes, it became the first transmountain-transcontinental highway to provide year-round travel.
On Oct. 25, 1997, a major wind event flattened approximately 20,000 acres of trees 20 miles north of Rabbit Ears Pass. On that same day, a blizzard buried the plains of eastern Colorado, and winds literally flattened 31 square miles of old-growth trees in Routt National Forest.
The extent of the blowdown near Rabbit Ears wasn’t discovered until foresters doing an aerial survey flew over the area days after the storm passed. It appeared to the foresters that a giant had stepped on the 100-foot tall, 200- to 350-year-old trees. They were all blown down to the west, against the normal west to east wind flow. It’s estimated that the winds that flattened these trees may have reached 150 mph. The howling windstorm trapped many hunters in the area, some of whom literally chain-sawed their way out of the woods.
The storm system dumped a tremendous amount of snow on the Front Range, but left no snow on the area of the blowdown. Many of the blown down trees could be salvaged through logging, but 12,000 acres were inside the Mount Zirkel Wilderness and off-limits to timber harvesting. A massive infestation of spruce bark beetles feasted on the felled timber the following summer.
Travel about 3.5 miles east of Rabbit Ears Pass on US 40 to reach one of the most interesting passes in Colorado: Muddy Pass. Also on the Continental Divide, it is the only pass in the state where two major roadways converge at the summit of a pass, and you reach it by driving downhill! The summit is at the junction of CO 14 and US 40. Proceeding south on US 40 takes you to the town of Kremmling, and proceeding north on Colorado 14 takes you to the town of Walden. Within the Muddy Pass/Rabbit Ears Pass area, US 40 crosses the Continental Divide twice in 2 miles, and it crosses three counties (Routt, Grand, and Jackson) within 6 miles.
On the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass is the town of Steamboat Springs. According to local lore, the town got its name from three French fur trappers who traveled down the Yampa River in 1865. One of them heard what sounded like the chugging of a paddle-wheel steamer. What was actually making the noise was a bubbling mineral spring, just one of 150 known in the area. They named the area Steamboat Springs, and the name stuck.
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Steamboat claims something no other community can. Since 1932, Steamboat has produced eighty-four Winter Olympians, more than any other town in the United States, and has sent athletes to all but two winter games.
Howelsen Hill, on the south side of Steamboat, is Colorado’s oldest ski area that is still in operation. It opened in 1915 and is named for Carl Howelsen, a Norwegian skier who lived in Steamboat. The city of Steamboat Springs owns and manages Howelsen Hill. Steamboat’s larger resort, Mt. Werner, opened in 1963 under the name Storm Mountain. It was renamed when Steamboat lost its hometown hero, Olympic skier Buddy Werner, after he died in an avalanche in Switzerland on April 12, 1964. In 1969 the area became known as Steamboat Ski Area.
Steamboat’s Winter Carnival, hosted yearly since 1914, is the longest running winter carnival west of the Mississippi. The carnival started with cross-country ski races and ski jumping competitions, and now includes skijoring races, where horses pull skiers. Other carnival attractions include a film festival, dual slalom bicycle race, snowboarding, and the Steamboat Springs High School band on skis.
ORIGIN OF NAME: A nearby peak has a distinctive rabbit ears appearance.
ELEVATION: 9,426 feet
NEARBY CITIES: Steamboat Springs/Kremmling
POINTS OF INTEREST: Muddy Pass, Old Rabbit Ears Pass
HIGHWAY: US 40
GPS: 40°23’05″N by 106°36’42″W
TOPO MAP: Rabbit Ears Peak
GETTING THERE: From Steamboat Springs, head east on US 40 for 21 miles. From Kremmling, drive west on US 40 for 30 miles.