Off-Road Travel: Colorado's Scenic Alpine Loop

Sep. 12, 2012 By Jaime Hernandez

Colorado's Alpine Loop Trail Ride Cont.

After being on the trail for over four hours, we reached Ute-Ulay Mine & Mill ghost town--one of the most intact historic sites along the Alpine Loop. The Ute-Ulay area contains numerous buildings, including a boarding house, assay office, barn, water tank, mill, and even a dam that once served to power the mine and mill.

The failed Ute-Ulay Hydrolectric Dam along Henson Creek.

The historic Ute-Ulay Mill and adjacent buildings are in a state of arrested decay. The site is Private Property, but visitors can take photos and explore from a safe distance. “No Trespassing” signs are posted.

LKA, owner of the Ute-Ulay, recently signed a "Letter of Intent" to transfer ownership to Hinsdale County. It will be interesting to see what happens with the area.

The remaining four miles into Lake City are fairly smooth. There’s a popular fishing spot along this stretch of Henson Creek, so be on the lookout for anglers.  There’s also wildlife. On one of our previous trips to the area we encountered a doe and her fawn as we came around a corner. Be alert and stay safe.

We finally reached Lake City at the end of Engineer Pass road. Founded by Enos Hotchkiss, Lake City was incorporated in 1875. The town grew from the mining boom of the 1900s, but population fell following the end of mining era. Today it has a population under 400 and survives mostly on tourism. The quaint and picturesque town is a fun place to walk, shop and get a Limeade or ice cream from the old San Juan Soda Co. There are over 200 historic buildings from the 1800s that make up downtown.

Wooden boardwalks along manicured storefronts make Lake City a nice place to take a stroll. Classic Willys can be spotted in town, along with other symbols of simpler times.

After spending some time in Lake City and having lunch, our group headed toward Cinnamon Pass trail (Co Rd. 30). Built in 1874 by Hotchkiss, this portion of the Alpine Loop was originally known as the Saguache & San Juan toll road.  The 19-mile trail is rated moderate, with most of it being relatively easy. There are some steep and rocky sections that deserve attention. From Cinnamon Pass trail side trips to Carson ghost town and the American Basin can easily be accessed. 
Many of the 4x4 trails in the San Juan Mountains today were at one time toll roads developed by Enos Hotchkiss and Otto Mears (photo WikiCommons).

The American Basin is a popular spot for seeing wildflowers. Also along Cinnamon Pass trail, three fourteeners are visible: Redcloud, Sunshine and Handies. Let us not forget Lake Cristobal, the second largest natural lake in Colorado. It offers good fishing and kayaking.

Climbing past the American Basin on Cinnamon Pass trail, we passed several mine workings along the way.

Once we reached Cinnamon Pass (Elev. 12,640 ft.), we stopped to take in the site and fly a kite. Really, one of the guys with our group had a GoPro and mounted it on his kite to get some aerial video. The wind picked up as a storm rolled in, cutting our playtime short.

Back on the trail, the group continued down into the east side of Cinnamon Pass.  Traveling just two miles down the mountain we soon were in plain sight of Animas Forks.

Animas Forks is a mining ghost town located along the Alpine Loop, 12 miles north of Silverton. There are several buildings and structures onsite dating back to the 1870s that can be appreciated from a safe distance.

From Animas Forks, we chose to take ¬¬¬County Road 2 south toward Silverton.  On our way back it started to rain and hail so hard that we actually had to stop and let the worst of it pass. It made for an exciting day on the trail with no major mishaps.

We came across this old wooden dam along the Animas River, north of Silverton along County Road 2.

We enjoyed our trip through the Alpine Loop. Having done sections at a time before, doing it all in one day made it a quick trot through slow country. This was my wife’s first time in the area, and it made for a great way to show her a small piece of this beautiful country in a short period of time. There’s a lot more to see and do along the Alpine Loop and the San Juans. We’ve only touched the tip of the mountain.

As I write this piece, I’m already making notes of places along the Alpine Loop that we would like to go back and explore some more. No matter how you do it, one day, multi-day—you always end up wanting more. It never gets old and just makes you appreciate this piece of heaven on earth even more. 

Hopefully you too will someday make your very own off-road adventure into the San Juan Mountains.

Guide to Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails by Charles A. Wells & Matt Peterson (Funtreks) makes a great trail companion.

To help get your ready, we highly recommend the latest edition of “Guide to Colorado Backroads & 4-Wheel-Drive Trails by Charles ! Wells & Matt Peterson (Funtreks). This informative guidebook gives mile-by-mile directions, GPS waypoints and good trail information. More info at


Lastly, a special thanks to Jim Lockey, owner of Red Mountain Motel & RV Park ( Before we began our Colorado adventure, we noticed the panhard bar bracket on our trail rig had a crack in the weld. Jim, an avid off-roader and master welder in Silverton, CO, got right to it and had us back on the trail in no time. If you’re ever in Silverton, make sure to look up Jim. He can be found in the shop wrenching on Jeeps or working at his park near the edge of town.

See you on the trail!


Silverton, Colorado
(970) 387-5530

Ouray, Colorado
(800) 228-1876

Lake City, Colorado
(800) 569-1874

Red Mountain Motel & RV Park / Jeep Rentals
(970) 387 5512

Ouray RV Park

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