Marshall Pass Colorado

Marshall Pass, Colorado: The Complete Explorer’s Guide

Marshall Pass is one of Colorado’s lesser-known mountain passes in the southern Sawatch Range. Unlike its famous neighbors to the north, like Independence Pass and Monarch Pass, Marshall Pass does not follow a major highway and is off the beaten track. As a result, it is a quiet reprieve from large RVs and obnoxious tourists driving 10 mph below the speed limit. Topping out at 10,842 ft, it is an excellent destination for hiking, dispersed camping, and mountain biking. Here’s everything you need to know to plan your next visit.r

Table of Contents

Why Visit Marshall Pass?

In case you still need convincing, here are four of the best reasons to visit this spectacular backcountry in Colorado.

Spectacular Dispersed Camping

The road leading up to the pass has dozens of great spots for dispersed camping – no fee or reservation required. Pull up with your tents or trailer, find a site you like, and claim it as your own for up to 14 consecutive nights.

Peace, Quiet, and Solitude

Marshall Pass gets a fraction of the visitors as other popular mountain passes like Loveland Pass or Independence Pass. If you want an easily accessible place without much traffic, this is for you.

Historical Exploration

The pass was originally a toll stage road, followed shortly after by a narrow gauge railroad connecting Poncha Springs with Gunnison to the west. While the rails were removed in 1948, many cabins and other ruins testify to the area’s historic past.

Easy Hiking & Biking Access

With the pass reaching near the tree line, and multiple trailheads and trails running along its summit, there are great opportunities for outdoor recreation to enjoy here.

The History of Marshall Pass

Marshall Pass, located in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, has a rich history that dates back to the late 19th century. Originally constructed in 1881 as a part of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, the pass served as a vital route for connecting the towns of Gunnison and Salida. Named after John W. Marshall, a chief engineer on the Wheeler Survey, the pass was primarily used to facilitate the transport of ore, coal, and agricultural products. At its peak, the narrow-gauge railway was a marvel of engineering, featuring steep grades and tight curves that required specialized locomotives to navigate.

Marshall Pass History

Over the years, the significance of the Marshall Pass as a rail route declined, especially after the closure of the narrow-gauge line in the late 1950s. However, the pass found a new life as a scenic route for automobiles and outdoor enthusiasts. Now accessible via Marshall Pass Road, which closely follows the old railway line, the area has become a popular destination for hiking, mountain biking, and off-road adventures. Despite its transformation, the remnants of its railroad past, including several historic trestles and the old O’Haver Lake Station, can still be found, offering visitors a glimpse into the pass’s storied history.

Getting There

To reach Marshall Pass from Salida, Colorado, head west on US Highway 50 for approximately 9 miles. Turn left onto County Road 220, which soon becomes Forest Road 200, or Marshall Pass Road. Follow this road for about 16 miles to reach the summit of Marshall Pass.

From the Gunnison side, take US Highway 50 east for about 37 miles. Turn right onto County Road 32C, which merges into Marshall Pass Road. Follow this road for approximately 12 miles to reach the summit.

Road Conditions

The road is a well-maintained gravel route suitable for most passenger cars, though a high-clearance vehicle is recommended for better comfort. The drive offers stunning vistas and scenic pull-offs, allowing you to take in the beauty of the surrounding Rocky Mountains. The pass typically closes from November through May when the snow melts completely.

Marshall Pass Road Map

The map below shows the entire route from Poncha Springs, over the Continental Divide, and down to Gunnison. Download a map for navigation before you go as cell service is weak or non-existent in this area.

Pre-Trip Planning

Before visiting Marshall Pass and other parts of the Colorado backcountry, take time to plan and prepare for your visit. Safety is your responsibility when visiting the mountains – never forget it.

Check the Weather

Weather conditions are notoriously variable at high elevations like those along the pass. Check the National Weather Service Forecast for Marshall Pass 1-2 days before you go and pack accordingly. Never put too much weight on a single forecast though, as they often end up wrong in practice.

Check the Road Conditions

Before leaving for the pass, take a moment to visit the CDOT website and confirm that the pass is open and that conditions are good. When snowfall is heavy or comes early, closures may surprise you if you do not check ahead.

Check Your Vehicle

If you have not gotten an oil change or tire rotation recently, plan to do so before driving up Marshall Pass. Having car problems in the backcountry without a cell signal is not a fun situation – best to avoid it if you can.

Seasonal Closures

Marshall Pass is only open from early summer through late autumn until the snow begins to fall. If you are visiting during the early or late season, double-check to ensure the pass is open and snow is not expected during your visit.

To confirm the pass is open, contact the Salida Ranger District at 719-539-3591.

Things to Do Nearby

Once you reach the summit of Marshall Pass, snag a parking spot and start exploring. Here are a few of the things to do nearby.

Visit Historical Sites

The Hutchinson & Burnett Cabins, located just a 5-minute walk from the summit, date back nearly 100 years to the ranching days of the 1930s. Built to house cowboys herding cattle, it is still available for use on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Wildlife Viewing

The first time I visited Marshall Pass, I drove past two large bull moose just 100 feet from the summit. This area is quiet and ideal for spotting moose, elk, deer, falcons, eagles, marmots, pika, and other wildlife. Make sure you give them plenty of space to roam.

Climb a Colorado 13er

The summit of Mount Ouray, the 59th tallest peak in Colorado, is just a 3.3-mile hike from the Marshall Pass trailhead. This class 2 scramble is a fantastic route that most people can complete in 4-6 hours.

Go for a Shorter Hike

For those looking for a shorter walk through nature, hike along a portion of the Colorado Trail that crosses the pass, or walk along the road itself to view creeks, alpine lakes, and distant mountain summits.

Visit a Mountain Town

To get a bite to eat after your drive, consider stopping by Poncha Springs, Gunnison, or Salida. Each mountain town is home to charming restaurants and a unique culture. I included more info below on each of these communities.

Nearest Mountain Towns

If the idea of a burger and cold beer sounds compelling, here is a rundown on the three towns closes to Marshall Pass.

Poncha Springs, Colorado

Poncha Springs, often referred to as the “Crossroads of the Rockies,” is a small town situated at the intersection of Highways 50 and 285. Known for its laid-back atmosphere and proximity to outdoor adventures, it’s a great place to refuel—both your vehicle and yourself. The town offers a variety of dining options from casual eateries to craft breweries, making it a convenient stop before or after your trip to Marshall Pass.

Gunnison, Colorado

Located to the west of Marshall Pass, Gunnison is a more substantial mountain town that serves as a gateway to an array of outdoor activities including fishing, mountain biking, and hiking. The town has a larger selection of amenities such as grocery stores, outdoor gear shops, and a wide range of dining options. Its location near the Gunnison River and Blue Mesa Reservoir also makes it popular for water-based activities like kayaking and fishing.

Salida, Colorado

Salida sits to the east of Marshall Pass and is renowned for its vibrant arts scene, historic downtown, and access to some of the best whitewater rafting in Colorado. The Arkansas River runs through the town, providing opportunities for river sports and a charming riverside area for dining and relaxation. With its mix of outdoor adventure and cultural activities, Salida offers a well-rounded experience for visitors looking to explore beyond the Marshall Pass area.

Marshall Pass Road

Where to Stay Nearby

There are lots of different options for camping and lodging nearby. Here are some of the easiest options to consider:

Camping Near Marshall Pass

The road along Marshall Pass has dozens of dispersed campsites that rarely fill completely. On my last visit on Labor Day weekend I spotted numerous available spots. If you prefer developed campgrounds, here are several options nearby:

Lodging Near Marshall Pass

If you prefer staying at a motel or hotel, there are many great options in Salida and Gunnison. Here are four lodging options to consider for your next visit:

Don’t forget about the numerous airbnbs available to rent in the surrounding mountain towns and rural areas.

Remember to Leave No Trace During Your Visit

When you’re exploring the natural beauty of Marshall Pass, it’s crucial to minimize your impact on the environment. Adhering to Leave No Trace principles helps ensure that the area remains pristine for future generations. Here are some quick tips:

Plan Ahead and Prepare

Know the area’s rules and regulations, including any fire bans or restrictions, and prepare for rapidly changing weather conditions.

Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

Stick to established trails and campsites, and avoid trampling vegetation. In more remote areas, camp at least 200 feet from lakes and streams to protect water quality.

Dispose of Waste Properly

Pack out all trash, including food scraps and litter. Use established bathroom facilities when available, or dig a small hole at least 200 feet from water sources to dispose of human waste.

Leave What You Find

Do not pick plants, remove rocks, or disturb historical artifacts. Leave natural and cultural features as you found them for others to enjoy.

Minimize Campfire Impact

Use established fire rings or portable stoves for cooking. Keep fires small, and burn all wood to ash before extinguishing and scattering the cool ashes.

Respect Wildlife

Observe animals from a distance and never feed them. Store food and trash securely to avoid attracting wildlife to your campsite.

Be Considerate of Other Visitors

Keep noise levels down and respect the privacy and tranquility of other adventurers.

By following these guidelines, you contribute to the sustainability of this beautiful mountain pass and set a good example for others to follow.

Moose on Marshall Pass

Marshall Pass: Now You Know

Visiting the summit of Marshall Pass is an amazing way to spend an afternoon driving across the Continental Divide. With these tips, maps, and other information, you have everything you need for a safe and successful adventure to this backcountry paradise. Remember to Leave No Trace during your visit to help keep the mountains open and protect the fragile alpine ecosystem for future generations. Safe travels on the trails.

Additional Resources

Check out these websites and resources for more information about the Marshall Pass region, Poncha Springs, and Gunnison, Colorado:

FAQs

If you do not see your question addressed below, leave it in a comment at the bottom of the guide and our team will get you an answer and more info as quickly as possible.

Q: Where is Marshall Pass?

A: Marshall Pass is located in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, roughly midway between the towns of Salida and Gunnison. The pass can be accessed from either side via Marshall Pass Road, which is also known as Forest Road 200.

A: Marshall Pass is generally open from late spring to early fall, depending on snow conditions. The road may be closed or impassable during the winter months due to heavy snowfall. It’s advisable to check the current road conditions and any seasonal closures before planning your trip.

A: The drive up to Marshall Pass is considered moderate. The road is mostly gravel and well-maintained, suitable for most passenger vehicles. However, some portions can be rough, particularly after heavy rains or snowmelt, so a high-clearance vehicle is recommended for better comfort.

A: The distance to the summit of Marshall Pass is approximately 16 miles from the Salida side and about 12 miles from the Gunnison side. The total drive time to reach the summit can vary, but it generally takes about 45 minutes to an hour from either side, depending on road conditions and stops for scenic views.

A: The summit of Marshall Pass sits at an elevation of 10,842 feet above sea level. Due to the high elevation, visitors should be aware of the potential for altitude sickness and take appropriate precautions.

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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