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Rocky Mountain Ride
German G-Wagens in Colorado's San Juan Mountains

By Tony Huegel

Note: Visit my blog, Backcountry Byways Journal, for details of driving the Imogene Pass road.

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Like a working-class kid bent on proving he's as good as the country-club set any day, the modified Jeep CJ charged again and again up the primitive four-wheel-drive trail. But it just couldn't make it.

Ahead, 12,000 feet high in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, a black, factory-stock 1991 Mercedes-Benz Gelaendewagen 300GE — G-wagen for short — presided over the scene. Its $72,500 used-car invoice dangling on a window like a matador's taunting muleta, it had made it to the top of the track on the very first try.

High Achievers

World-class sport-utility vehicles by any measure, G-wagens cloak off-road prowess beneath a deadpan veneer — until they are unleashed by competitive spirits who just love coming in first. Being from society's upper crust — movie stars, entrepreneurs, the Pope — those who travel in guh LIN de vahgens are achievers. That's why they can buy new, hand-built, $100,000-plus sport-utility vehicles.

And they expect their vehicles to be like themselves: the best.

Still, G-wageneers do have something in common with commoners: Few ever use their SUVs' off-highway abilities.

In defense of G-wagen owners, though, one can understand why, after paying a price bigger than many retirement accounts, they would be loathe to really see what a G can do.

Still, in the rarefied company of this 4x4, some do risk bending their Benzes. They explore the world's superlatives — its great deserts, canyons and mountains — in a marque that is a superlative itself.

Jumbo-Jet Set

One August day, five G-wagens with a combined value exceeding $300,000 left the lot of the firm that was, at the time, the sole U.S. Gelaendewagen distributor, Europa International of Santa Fe, New Mexico. They would link up at Durango, Colorado, with a band of die-hard adventure motorists, the G Club of Germany, and explore some of the Rocky Mountains' most famous backcountry and four-wheel-drive roads.

The 1,500-member G Club had chartered a Lufthansa 747 jumbo jet to fly 18 vehicles, their owners and their families to Las Vegas, Nevada. There they began a three-week odyssey through the Southwest, mixing highways and rudimentary back roads. It was their first trek through the Lower 48.

G-Wageneers

For three days and 600 miles, a group of Europa employees, customers, friends and family members enjoyed Rocky Mountain splendor and driving challenges from the comfort and security of what some consider the world's best SUV. The group was assembled by Europa president Dave Holland, who had helped the G Club plan its itinerary.

The G-wagen lineup reflected the vehicle's evolution from utilitarian models from the '80s to a 1995 G320 with leather and a four-speed automatic. One couple, Richard and Michele Martinez of Santa Fe, drove their blue 1990 two-door 300GE, the fifth G-wagen they've owned. The Martinezes were avid off-highway travelers.

"If you don't go off-road," Rich explained, "you really don't see what there is to see in the United States."

Forest to Tundra

The late-model G-wagens cruised in hushed Benz style as we followed U.S. 285 across the tawny high desert north of old Santa Fe. Before long we were soaring through the sylvan Tusas Mountains on State Highway 64.

We crossed the Continental Divide, and meandered through the pastoral Jicarilla Apache and Southern Ute Indian Reservations on the dirt-and-gravel bed of the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad.

In Durango, where we settled in for the night, the air was pungent with smoke from the steam-powered locomotives of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. In the 1880s, millions of dollars worth of gold and silver were hauled along its route. Today, tourists are the ore.

In the morning we met the G Club, camped outside of town. Forty-five men, women and children had come to America with the club. Some of their vehicles appeared factory stock, which still says a lot: full-time 4WD and push-button center, front and rear differential locks for superb traction on the most villainous terrain. Some, on the other hand, were loaded with expedition gear, including rooftop tents.

Our visit was short. Nearby loomed the imposing San Juan Mountains, which rise more than 14,000 feet above sea level. Amid their heights are sky-scraping passes, cascading waterfalls, ruins of the region's bygone boom and off-highway adventure galore.

After a stop in Silverton, a rustic mining town that has retained much of its 19th century visage, we took U.S. 550, a.k.a. The Million-Dollar Highway, to Red Mountain Pass. There, we turned onto the exhilarating 4x4 road, No. 823, over 12,840-foot Black Bear Pass.

As we climbed, forest gave way to Alpine tundra and talus fields luxuriant with wildflowers. On the descent, we inched down rocky pitches, through the rushing water of Ingram Falls, around a notorious series of tight switchbacks, past 350-foot Bridal Veil Falls, and then cruised into Telluride, a trendy old mining town framed by hanging valleys and cirques quarried by glaciers.

Heads turned at the sight of the unfamiliar SUVs. "I didn't know Mercedes made one," a pedestrian said.

We pulled into town at about 4 p.m., tired but not done for the day. Ahead of us still was 13,114-foot Imogene Pass, our route to Ouray. Out of Telluride, we edged along a crude mountainside track, Forest Road 869, toward the 19th century Tomboy Mine, a former gold operation 3,000 feet above town.







Imogene and Engineer Passes


From Imogene Pass we scanned the geologic meringue that is the San Juans, glazed by early evening alpenglow. Then the line of G-wagens crawled along the crest of a ridge, and began the long descent to Ouray.

In the morning we set off for Engineer Pass, 12,860 feet high, and the final leg of our journey. We followed Forest road 878, part of the stunning 65-mile Alpine Loop National Back Country Byway, and road 876.2, up the muddy trough of Poughkeepsie Gulch.

Duel in the Clouds

The duel between Holland's G-wagen and the Jeep occurred up here as they climbed under a leaden sky toward 12,930-foot California Pass.

In the crowded SUV marketplace, it's important to demonstrate what these uncommon military spinoffs can do, Holland says. "And it's fun."

Our caravan scaled Engineer Pass for a final gaze across the restless sea of peaks. Then we cruised down to the hamlet of Lake City. There, our rough-country tour ended.

The G Club paraded by while we gassed up. Suddenly the air was pierced with first one shrill, salutory blast of a horn, then another and another as they headed to a campground rendezvous. We waved. Then those of us in the newer and better-mannered G-wagens succumbed to their quiet comfort, letting them carry us home in a whisper.

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All content © 2011 Tony Huegel. Permission to reproduce is denied without written consent.
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