Off-Road Travel: Adventuring in Southwestern Colorado

Aug. 18, 2010 By Justin Fort, Photos by Justin Fort and Jaime Hernandez

Locals on Baker Bridge in Durango – 85 degrees in town, 50 in the hills.Why is Colorado one of the most interesting states in the union? Consider its history, jammed deep into its canyons, littering mountainsides with the debris of man past. It’s there for you to touch, should you invest the effort to reach it. Colorado has been a focus of mining and mineral recovery for hundreds of years, and that means the most wealthy and powerful entities to stalk the earth wanted what the state held. That intense focus and powerful interest put its leverage and manpower to the task, and what remains, like headstones in a cemetery cast aside, are staggering remains, a broad spectrum of examples of the power of the cumulative hand of man.

What you see in Colorado is not from the advanced pit and power mining that rapes entire counties, but a residue of men with picks and scary machinery, who burrowed into mountains in the worst of conditions, bent on recovering elemental things – gold, silver, gemstones, plus specialized materials like marble, talc and lead (to name a few). This is the strength of the American, and a trip through this state’s backcountry is a testament to the power of men’s will.

Silverton is honestly quaint, but fire season must be a little scary.

To boil the essence of the adventure down, the state of Colorado – in particular regions – has been extensively laced with mining roads and cart paths that wander up and down miles of mountain faces, deep canyons, and cling-to-cliff walls, into and out of many supremely remote nooks and crannies that otherwise wouldn’t have interested a marmot, let alone thousands of men. But work brought them, and now the desperately gorgeous overlooks, mountains, and wilds of Colorado keep its historic remnants as bait for the hook of adventure to bring you.

At the base of the Sunnyside Mill’s remnants, south of Animas Forks.

How to Start Off-Roading in Colorado
The Bagley Mill was a high-production facility at the turn of the century.Colorado’s off-road adventuring can be sectioned, with gangs of trails roughly corresponding with hotbed areas of the state’s mining past. Don’t deny yourself the historic facets of the adventure – there’re a solid variety of guide books for the state’s backwoods, and many deal heavily in the back-story. Knowledge of that history will improve your experience, and with such a dense artifact presence in certain regions, not knowing about all you see could drive an inquiring mind off the rails (a little mining pun there).

If you know the Colorado thing, you can cherry-pick trails all over the state. Our off-road buffet started in southwestern Colorado. There are so many options in this area, you need to spend quality time so the depth of the experience can stick. Durango is just 12 hours from San Diego, and the Durango/Silverton/550 corridor is home to one of the most celebrated historic regions, the Alpine Loop. More stories of other regions will follow – stay tuned to

Essentially an interconnected series of rough trails and two-tracks winding up, into and down out of the heavily explored and mined southwestern ranges spread amongst the Uncompahgre, San Juan, Gunnison and Rio Grand National Forests, the Alpine Loop contains dozens of marked trails to and from the mining claims and the towns that supported them. What’s now the skeleton of American history provides the willing adventurer hands-on examination via these byways. Many more trails exist outside of the specific “Alpine Loop” area as well, though all are easily accessed and take you someplace else interesting, with interesting sprinkled all along the way.

Local Colorado for Off-Road Base Camp
Explorer? Adventurer? Tourist? Which are you? The Alpine Loop area can be a whole week’s worth of action (at least - there are at least 40 trails within 30 miles of it, many interconnected, all supremely interesting) from a base-camp somewhere in the neighborhood. Towns here thrive on explorer expenditures, so rent a room or parking spot, and buy some food and a beer.

We based ourselves in Silverton. It’s about as centralized for the Alpine Loop as you can be. Our plans were to camp at altitude, but we spied a clean and well-populated campground just into town, the Red Mountain RV park (yes, we have the website: For $20, we pitched a tent on their front lawn (the rest of the spots were full) and had full showers, bath facilities and a ton of other off-roaders to chat up. Several followed us on the trail the next day.

Animas Forks: remains of the Gold Prince Mill with the Columbus Mine in the background.

A number of towns in the area are perfectly charming as well as camper friendly. Lake City is a well-maintained old depot town to the east, and sits on two of the eastern entry points to the ‘Loop – State Road 3303 to Engineer Pass, and SR30 to 3306, which lead to Cinnamon Pass. A lot of rich folk own big spreads in and around Lake City, pretending to hide. Ironically, they still drive their Bentleys and Porsches to town, so unless they’re the stupid kind of rich, they’re not actually hiding, and still feed on the self-aggrandizement of being seen in a G-Wagon.

Jaime was wearing boots (he’s the blur in the middle), so he got to enjoy the Mountain Queen mine.

Ouray is a delightful and less pretentious village north of the ‘Loop, and the drive to it is about as much “interesting” as you’ll find on pavement. Named after the Ute Indian chief, Otto Mears’ toll road (and eventual railroad – the guy couldn’t resist a new road) opened up the town to heavy mining activity, and it still sports some of best examples of the grandiose mountain-town charm that mining riches brought. Just south of Ouray are two killer trailheads, the Yankee Boy Basin Trail on SR361 to 853, a rough interconnect that hits Telluride via Imogene Pass – SR869 (the best view of Bridal Veil falls short of the incomparable Ingram/Black Bear Pass – SR823 to 648), and the western head of Engineer Pass (SR878 to 3303), one of Otto Mears’ first toll roads.

Travel with pals. We paused with our Jeeper buddies at California Pass.

Telluride is an option if you like paying through the nose, but the town is fun. Folks pretend to hide their wealth – Telluride suffers the same rich-hippie invasion as Durango – but if you dig around you can still find its dirty past. Little nooks like Dolores (an hour south on SR145) are much more grateful for your travel bucks, and their history is more conspicuous.

Why everyone pauses at California Pass – the Lake Como basin.

First-Time Route for Alpine Loop Adventures
Starting in Silverton (there are so many ways about the ‘Loop that you should do your own planning), head north on SR110 past the airport and into the throat of the Animas River headwaters. This route will take you – on a relatively easy road – to a host of far more exotic trails, plus dead and active mines. Past the site of old Howardsville, the road becomes SR586 and continues along the route of one of Otto Mears’ railroads, the Silverton Northern narrow-gauge. You’ll pass the bones of the Sunnyside Mill and some very explorable canyons. The mill kept the town of Eureka (more than 1000 strong) working, but almost nothing of the town remains.

History in CO piles up. This is Mineral Creek basin and the London Mine.

In Animas Forks, one of the country’s most honest ghost towns, you’ll pass the remains of the Gold Prince Mill and the railroad’s turntable, which overhang the crossing into the town. You must venture about and explore (mind the rusty nails, and be gentle with the history), then choose your next adventure. From the ‘Forks, you can go west to California and Hurricane Passes on the California Gulch Trail (past the indescribably scenic Lake Como basin), and loop that with SR110, which goes south back to Silverton. Another option is the Corkscrew Gulch Trail (SR886), which loops to Otto Mears’ Million Dollar Highway and pavement back to Silverton.

The road to Engineer Pass gets a little scary – not difficult, but scary.

After Silverton, we were headed to the Colorado 4Runner Jamboree in central Colorado – Buena Vista – but anyone can get there on pavement. We decided to bite off a slice of the state the hard way, as did the settlers and miners of yore, and use a route they’d been stuck with. That meant running one of Colorado’s gems, Engineer Pass (part of Otto Mears’ toll-road system by 1877), which was an essential link for mining hubs like Animas Forks and Ouray with depot towns of Saguache and Lake City, pushing over 12,780 feet Engineer Pass. It must have been a red-bellied pain in the ass in a mule train. Our biggest problem was lots of off-camber rocks covered in water and slime – yay, 4Runner on Goodyear MT/Rs at 20psi. Like elsewhere, Engineer Pass Trail begged us to explore over and over again – this alongside the challenges of the trail itself.

Make your Plans – Stick to Them
Websites from Colorado-specific off-roading clubs like Trail Damage ( do a fine job with trail details, but having a good map book like the DeLorme, or a guidebook like Backcountry Adventures Colorado, is indispensable in finding the confidence necessary to make a few adventurous trail selections.

Just past the barricade? Told you there were paths going everywhere.

There are countless turnoff and sporty spots that explore some more of Colorado, but remember what happens when you venture down the road less traveled – less folks are traveling it. Pull a stupid and you’d better have a crew with you. Point is, don’t travel alone if you’re going to be on a less-than-beaten path. Notifying others of your plans ain’t a bad idea either, so the search party knows where to find your bodies should you take orders from Captain Stupid. These are fun way-backs that you’ll be sure to enjoy, but bad decisions cost you everything out here. Use your head, and you can use the truck in your driveway to see some great America.

The Empire Chief Mill just fell down. Some more. Avalanches help. Newsletter
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