Off-Road Travel: Colorado's Scenic Alpine Loop
The San Juan Mountains of Colorado is one of the most scenic regions to explore off-road during the summer and fall. Old buildings, rusty relics and the colorful stories of people that once inhabited these hills make it one of our favorite places to visit.
Located in the southwest corner of the state, about one hour north of Durango, CO, the San Juan Mountains have an extensive system of backcountry trails that are world class. They range from easy to difficult, with the majority being moderate and accessible with a high-clearance 4x4s, ATVs, UTVs and dirt bikes.
One of the most popular trails in the area is the famous Alpine Loop. It’s been called a “Colorado Classic” by well-versed backcountry enthusiasts and visitors alike. A good balance of scenic trail and historic mining sites make this a memorable journey for explorers big and small.
Anchored by the mining towns of Silverton, Ouray and Lake City, the Alpine Loop travels over Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass, both with elevations of over 12,000 feet. A collection of rugged dirt trails weave together the longest backcountry route in the San Juan Mountains--over 60 miles.
Although not the most difficult trail in the region, the Alpine Loop does pack in a lot of different terrain with varied elevations and panoramic vistas.
DISCOVER THE SAN JUANS
Home to the Ute people for over 500 years, the San Juan region was first discovered by Spanish explorers in search of silver and gold. Documented expeditions into the region are noted as early as the 1700s.
By the mid 1800s “Gold Fever” was running rampant amongst settlers moving out west. In 1860, Charles Baker found gold in the San Juan Mountains near what is Silverton today. This started the southwest Colorado Gold Rush.
The increased number of white settlers in Ute country made the tribe hostile at times. In 1873 Felix Brunot negotiated a treaty with Chief Ouray so that miners and settlers could legally enter the San Juan Mountains. The treaty opened the Animas Valley and eventually pushed the Ute Indians out of the region.
With mining in full swing, camps and mills were built in the San Juans. By 1879, the population of Silverton was over 3,000 and Lake City had nearly 1,000 people. Mining camps such as Capitol City, Mineral Point, Poughkeepsie, Gladstone, Howardsville, Eureka, Animas Forks, Sherman and Argentun sprang up. Freight and stage services along with toll roads were developed to meet the growing demands of the region. Remnants of the San Juan District’s heyday can still be seen along the Alpine Loop today.
THE ALPINE LOOP
We’ve been fortunate to explore much of this amazing region, doing sections of the Alpine Loop and neighboring trails. What we’d never done was the entire loop in a single day. It’s a long trip and it takes a dedicated group to be able and cover that much ground in a single trip.
We finally got a chance to do the entire Alpine Loop this year. We joined Jonathan Harris from Grand Junction, Colorado, over the summer and had a great time exploring the San Juan Mountains. He was leading a group from the FJ Summit so we talked Jonathan into letting us tag along. (See related article FJ Summit No.6 Off-Road Gathering).
The group met in Ouray, a total of eight trail rigs ready for adventure. We traveled south on Hwy 550 for 3.8 miles and then turned left at the sign for Alpine Loop (Co Rd. 18). This stretch of trail is known as Mineral Creek and is the most direct path to Engineer Pass from Ouray. It is rated difficult, with some rocky sections in the first few miles.
The steep and rocky terrain heading up Mineral Creek can be slippery when wet. It had rained earlier that morning, so we had to pick our lines carefully. We did feel the tires slip sideways off a rock, which made things interesting. Low range was used in places to have better traction and control.
Near the end of the Mineral Creek trail we reached Mineral Point, founded in 1873 by Charles McIntyre and Abe Burrows. Ore from this mining camp was shipped to Silverton, Lake City or Ouray using the roads that make up the Alpine Loop today.
Moving past Mineral Point, the trail eventually runs into Co Rd 2. From there we proceed to the left toward Engineer Pass. Travelers are also able to go right from this point if they wish to access Cinnamon Pass or Silverton.
The distance to Lake City from this point is around 21 miles following Engineer Pass road. The route is rated moderate, with some steep climbs and narrow stretches near the pass. That said, the majority of the way is easy going and the scenery is amazing. Views from Engineer Pass go for miles.
Up and over Engineer Pass (Elev. 12,800 ft.), we continued toward Lake City along Henson Creek. Engineer Pass Road becomes Co Rd 20 from this point. It’s hard to believe that this was once a major stagecoach and freight route. The old toll road built by Otto Mears opened in 1870, connecting Ouray to Lake City.