Hancock Pass, Napoleon Pass, Tincup Pass Loop

Text and photos by Jim Peavler

This is a moderately long (about 44 miles) trip of intermediate difficulty and spectacular scenery. It is in the heart of Colorado's mining country, so there are lots of remnants of mines and ghost towns to explore. And, from point 6, below, it is only a few miles to the west portal of the famous Alpine Tunnel, where you will pass over the spectacular Palisades, considered by many to be an engineering marvel. The difficulties lie only in loose rocks and one slimy beaverdam. There are no heart-stopping exposures except along the Alpine Grade road, during which you are on the "inside", so don't have to get close to the edge. If you decide to take the Cumberland Pass automobile road instead of Napoleon Pass (add about 10 miles), you can expose yourself to plenty of heart-stopping exposure if that is your idea of a good time.

Maps (in order used)

National Geographic Trails Illustrated. Salida, St. Elmo, Shavano Peak.

National Geographic Trails Illustrated. Buena Vista, Collegiate Peaks. (only needed for short Tincup section)

U.S. 7.5 minute Series

  • St. Elmo Quadrangle
  • Garfield Quadrangle (only two tiny little loops into this quad)
  • Whitepine Quadrangle (only the critical Alpine RR junction on this quad)
  • Tin Cup Quadrangle (Tincup and part of Tincup Pass
  1. St. Elmo: Parking lot at East end of St. Elmo: Trip Odometer set 0.0

    GPS: S 0383111, 4284636    Elevation (by GPS): 10,000

    Go back east to the junction with the railroad grade to Hancock. Turn hard right and continue up bumpy long railroad grade, past several mines and remains of mining towns.

  2. Hancock Bridge:    Trip Odometer 6.3

    GPS: S 0381522, 4277452    Elevation (by GPS): 11,100

    You are sitting in the Sewanee Peak from Hancock.middle of what was once the town of Hancock, home of the notorious "Sawmill Curve" where so many trains jumped the track and where Mark Twain took his famous flatcar ride. To your left is a nice hike up to the East portal of the Alpine Tunnel, but if you take that hike today you won't have time to finish this nice trip I have laid out for you. The big colorful peak down at the end on your left is Sewanee Peak. At the junction ahead you turn left toward Hancock Lake. Only about 100 yds up that road, on that small ridge, you make a hard right to get onto the Hancock Pass wagon road.

  3. Turn at treeline:(near mine)    Trip Odometer 8.0

    GPS: S 0381000, 4275789    Elevation (by GPS): 11,800

    Turn at timberline on Hancock PassAt this point the road leaves the trees and enters the shelf-road to the summit. There is an old mine down to your right. The slope above the mine is a dangerous avalanche route in winter. The winter route to the top of Hancock is not up this summer road, but is considerably to the north of this spot.

  4. Top of Hancock Pass    Trip Odometer 8.7

    GPS: S 0380361, 4275398    Elevation (by GPS): 12,200

    Hancock Summit.You have topped the first of the three passes on your itinerary today.

    Tomichi PassAll three passes are almost the same altitude. Looking west you see Brittle Silver Basin and Tomichi Pass cutting up across the mountain on the other side.

  5. Hancock Pass/Tomichi Pass Junction    Trip Odometer 9.7

    GPS: S 0380004, 4274357    Elevation (by GPS): 11,500

    Junction with Tomichi PassLooking back up the Hancock Pass road you have just descended. Tomichi is a beautiful pass (in summer) and well worth a trip another day. But today we will turn right, down through the bottom of Brittle Silver valley to join up with the old Alpine railroad.

  6. Alpine Tunnel Grade Junction    Trip Odometer 10.4

    GPS: S 0379007, 4274618    Elevation (by GPS): 11,200

    Brittle Silver BasinOur trip turns left at this junction, past the old town of Woodstock, destroyed by an avalanche about a century ago, and down the railroad grade to the Cumberland Pass road.

    If you turned right you would go to the west portal of the Alpine Tunnel, which has been wonderfully restored and preserved, and is well worth the trip. I did not include it on this trip because I tend to spend too much time exploring the tunnel area to finish my planned trip over the three passes. Reserve the tunnel for another day. You are near the green spot in the middle of the picture. I shot this from the mouth of the valley where the tunnel is. The slash across the cliffs on the left is the famous Palisades.

  7. Alpine Grade/Cumberland Pass Junction    Trip Odometer 18.4

    GPS: S 0371634, 4275954    Elevation (by GPS): 9,670

    watertowerThe next four miles take you along the old railroad grade. You will pass one more-or-less complete water tower, and the base of another. One other water tower was wiped out by the Woodstock avalanche, but its concrete foundation is still in place. The most exciting visual part of this section is about three miles down the grade, where you get spectacular views of the beaver dams and meadows along Quartz Creek a looong way down below.

    At the bottom of this grade you cross the north fork of Quartz Creek and join the Cumberland Pass road. If you turn left you will come to Pitkin in about three miles (also worthy of a separate trip). But today we are turning right, to the mountains to the north.

  8. Turnout to Napoleon Pass    Trip Odometer 22.7

    GPS: S 0372650, 4281945    Elevation (by GPS): 10,700

    The turnout is a little hard to find. Perhaps the best guide is to use your odometer or altimiter. The pass turns off to your right directly across from a prominent avalanche path to your left. If you miss this one, there is another turnoff a few hundred yards up the road. If you are still on the Cumberland Pass road when it turns west (left) you have passed the entry to Napoleon Pass. You can continue on the automobile road over Cumberland Pass, but you add about ten miles to your trip, and expose yourself to some dizzying drop-offs. It is better to just go back and find the turnoff to Napolean.

  9. Top of Napoleon Pass    Trip Odometer 24.8

    GPS: S 0373042, 4289224    Elevation (by GPS): 12,100

    Looking up south side of Napoleon Pass

    Napoleon Pass is only about 100 feet lower than Hancock or Tincup, but its views are still spectacular. It is primarily an ATV road, but the day I was there a jeep had made it across. The major difficulties are some very steep sections, many with loose boulders, and some areas that are moist and slick. There are not, however, any intimidating technical obstacles or serious exposure to vertigo-producing precipices. Mostly you are in the bottom of the valleys.

    Looking North from Napoleon Pass. Click for larger image.

    Descending the north side (right) takes you through a forest of huge spruces and firs, over tangled roots and loose boulders. It is dark and moist and wonderful. You will think you are in the Forest of Fangorn.

  10. Beaver Dam Obstacle    Trip Odometer 26.9

    GPS: S 0372378, 4286795    Elevation (by GPS): 10,900

    Crossing the beaver pond.I added this reference point because, if you are going over Napoleon Pass from the Tincup side (north), you must recognize this spot and take a hard left through the beaver pond. And, it presents an interesting object in the road for anybody. You essentially have to ford a beaver dam, and it is clear that some folks have had problems with it. The photograph shows a successful pilgrim.

  11. Tincup Cemetary    Trip Odometer 29.1

    GPS: S 0371555, 4289602    Elevation (by GPS): 10,300

    Old mine.As you descend from the beaver crossing toward Tincup you pass several old mines with considerable structure and equipment remaining. These are worth exploring.

    The Tincup Cemetery is rather famous, although many of the town's most famous citizens are buried elsewhere. It is a quaint spot -- kind of a mound of graves near a beaver dam. There is also a boot hill cemetery only a few yards away. Time constraints kept me from photographing this site, but you can't miss it.

  12. Tincup Stopsign    Trip Odometer 29.6

    GPS: S 0371413, 4290390    Elevation (by GPS): 10,250

    I use the only stopsign in Tincup as a reference point for you to check your odometer, altimiter, etc. I figured you had already seen pictures of stopsigns.

  13. Pit Toilet    Trip Odometer 32.7

    GPS: S 0375373, 4289991    Elevation (by GPS): 10,900

    This is a good place to know about if you are shy about going in the woods. It is a good, modern, clean Forest Service Pit Toilet. A fine place to stop before proceeding on over Tincup Pass.

  14. Mirror Lake    Trip Odometer 33.2

    GPS: S 0375682, 4289394    Elevation (by GPS): 11,000

    Mirror Lake is a beautiful lake in a beautiful setting. However, I was running late and it was snowing so I did not stop to photograph it. If you have a photo that would fit in here send it to me, and I will include it.

  15. Top of Tincup Pass    Trip Odometer 36.9

    GPS: S 0375269, 4285270    Elevation (by GPS): 12,200

  16. St. Elmo: Parking lot at East end of St. Elmo: Trip Odometer 43.6

    GPS: S 0383111, 4284636    Elevation (by GPS): 10,000

Last Updated: December 14, 2009