Cumberland Pass between Pitkin and Tin Cup is one of the highest standard car road for summer use in the nation — elevation 12,037 feet. The pass generally opens a little before Memorial Day each year and closes before the first snowfall each winter. The open and close dates all depend on snowmelt and snowfall each year.
Frenchy’s Café, the only place to eat in Tin Cup, is located at the start of the trail to Cumberland Pass. French was an old prospector who decided he could make more money selling whisky than looking for gold. The original saloon consisted of a plank set across two barrels. Eventually he moved his operation indoors and began serving food as well. Local legend says that Frenchy enjoyed his grub and grew to enormous size. When he died, residents had to cut out a wall to remove his body for burial.
From Tin Cup, the pass climbs through beautiful pine forests, clinging to the side of mountains and winding its way upward through many sharp curves and switchbacks. The dirt road is generally in good condition although it can get bumpy in places. Eventually, the road moves above the tree line and the view is stunning. From the summit you can view over 50 miles of the Continental Divide.
In summer, the pass becomes a riot of color as the wildflowers bloom — delicate Columbine, bright purple Lupine, Indian Paintbrush, a wide variety of wild daisies, wild roses, and many more.
The summit also happens to be one of Colorado’s best places for ATVs and dirt bikes, with trails crisscrossing the mountain in all directions. It also tends to draw the artistic to the area — painters, artists, musicians and more. One day on a trip over the pass, my companions and I found a guitar sitting all by itself atop the pass. We waited for several hours to see if someone came for it, but no one did. We figured a musician had made his way to the top to play to the mountain winds and had become so lost in the beauty that he forgot his guitar. In fact, this turned out to be the case when we left the guitar at the post office in Pitkin with our card and shortly thereafter received a grateful call from the owner.
The pass itself was constructed in 1882 to connect Tincup to Pitkin and the Denver South Park and Pacific Railroad, thus creating a way for the many mining camps take their gold and silver ore to be smelted. Today, dozens of mining sites dot the mountainsides, although the most prominent is the Bon Ton mine. Tucked just below the summit on the way down to Pitkin, and ringed by steep mountain cliffs, the Bon Ton is a great place to stop and do a little exploring, or have a picnic lunch.
On the drive down to Pitkin, watch the mountain stream carefully. Busy beavers have dammed the creek in many places and you can occasionally catch site of these furry critters. These beaver ponds also happen to be fantastic places to fish for trout.
Pitkin is the oldest incorporated city on the Western Slope of Colorado. Prospectors first came to the area in 1878 and named their camp Quartzville. The town incorporated on August 11, 1879, and changed its name to Pitkin to honor Colorado Governor Fredrick Pitkin. Settlers chose the area for its mineral deposits of gold, silver, copper, lead and iron, and numerous mines boosted the economy.