Road: Dirt: 2/3 = 2-wheel drive accessible; 1/3 = high-clearance 4×4 – rated difficult
Round-trip from Denver: 750 miles
Length of Byway: 65 miles
Vehicle types: Car and 4×4
Elevation change: 6985 to 12,993 feet above sea level
Location: Southwestern Colorado
The San Juan Mountains
It’s no secret that this mountain range is the most spectacular in Colorado. Just do a Google search and check out the images that come up. And while I know that I had said that the Flattops Trail had spectacular unsurpassed beauty, many people would argue with me when it comes to the San Juans. I will still rank the Flattops in the same category as this mountain range. The difference is that the San Juan Mountains do not have flat tops.
Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway
This particular byway is the only 4×4 (required) byway in Colorado’s 25 scenic and historic byways and is one of several located in the San Juan Mountains. While a small portion, about one third, requires a high clearance 4×4, many jeep books mention that this section of the byway can still be driven by stock SUVs “with proper wheel placement.”
If you think you cannot drive this byway because you don’t have a 4×4, then fret-not. There are at least a dozen jeep rental companies in several towns close to the byway, including Ouray, Silverton and Lake City. The nice thing about renting a jeep is that the different companies have detailed maps of not just the Alpine Loop, but of all the other jeep trails in the area.
Camping at Ridgway State Park
Imagine a kid jumping around like a little monkey with complete and utter delight. That was me the day my husband and I set our sights westward and drove to Ridgway State Park just north of Ouray and the western side of the Alpine Loop. I was so excited to be not only traveling with my husband, but to be setting up camp in one of Colorado’s most beautiful state parks. There are a ton of RV/travel trailer type sites in this park and about a dozen ‘walk-in’ only tent sites.
These sites are located just along the Uncompahgre River and just far enough away from the park’s roads and parking areas to give you the feel of ‘being away from it all’. But…that does not mean that you are roughing it when tent camping at Ridgway. The park campgrounds all have camper services buildings which include showers, washer/dryers and snack machines. Not only that, but when the campground hosts come around to check on the campsites, they will also deliver bundles of wood for your fire pit, as well as bags of ice when asked. I liked to call this ‘campsite concierge service’.
My husband’s delight
The wonderful thing about bringing my husband on this trip was bringing my husband on this trip…that and the smile on his face when we drove the Alpine Loop in his full-size Bronco.
After an amazing breakfast of fruit, scrambled eggs, pork chops and potatoes – all conjured up by my amazing husband and camp cook – we took off for our day-long adventure in the San Juan back country. The start of the Ouray side of the Alpine Loop is about 4 miles south of Ouray along the infamous San Juan Skyway. This starting point of the loop is the 4×4 only portion of the byway and is about seven miles long. Most 4×4 books and websites rate this section of the byway as ‘moderate to difficult’.
On this first leg of our journey, we drove to Engineer Pass over the span of about two hours. Yep, I said that right…two hours to drive a seven mile road. I would say that it was because of all the boulders in the road, but that would be only half true. I seem to have developed this intense fear, mostly when I’m on the outside edge of a narrow road with cliff overhangs on the left above and a hundred-foot (or more) drop-off to my right. That fear intensifies as the Bronco leans to the right while my husband navigates the boulders in the road and I’m sitting in the passenger seat looking down into a ravine. So suffice to say…I did a bit of ‘hiking’ on this leg of the tour. But….that just helped me to produce some spectacular images, as well. Oh and made for quite the justification for eating a hearty meal at dinner time.
As for the scenery…unrivaled. Spectacular. Magnificent. Serene. These are just a few of the words that entered my mind as we travelled up and over the pass.
Just before you come to the actual pass, the road circles around the edge of Engineer Mountain and at one point, on the northwest side, you come to this place which has been termed, “OH! Point”. Well, you can imagine why it’s called that. I just wish I had thought about turning my camera’s video feature on as we drove out to this point. When you get out to this point, you have an almost 360-degree unobstructed view of more than a dozen San Juan mountain peaks; five of them being 14’ers – Uncompahgre, Handies, Red Cloud, Sunshine and Wetterhorn. I’ve included a link to a blog and YouTube video taken by someone else, but hopefully translates the imagery I’m trying to conjure up here…
That’s right! I said ‘monsoons’ in Colorado. Well, maybe not what you might think, but in mid-to-late summer, the weather pattern over this part of the US brings monsoonal moisture up through Colorado. When this heavy moisture flow reaches the Colorado Rockies, it creates afternoon rain showers especially in the mountain areas of the state.
So, now that my limited meteorology knowledge has been imparted, let’s just say that after Engineer Pass, the rest of our tour along the Alpine Loop was covered in clouds. Trust me though, this weather was not unwelcome. Remember…I had been doing quite a bit of hiking on the rough portions of the byway…uphill (above 7000 feet)…in the blazing sun…get the picture? And what was interesting about the weather on this day was that we had noticed a bit of what looked like snow on one of the mountain tops. Turns out, it had hailed earlier in the week, but it was kind of fun to think that the mountains could be getting snow this time of year, if only for a short while.
Travelers along the Loop
Like I said, my hubby was smiling all the way along this byway. His joy was just infectious. I loved sharing this byway with him and since this was my first time on the byway as well, it was a double pleasure.
Besides the amazing scenery along this byway, the Alpine Loop is home to many old mines and ghost towns. Other travelers along the byway don’t just drive it to get from one place to another; they’re there for the 4×4 thrills, for the scenery, the adventure, the history and for land use. As we climbed above tree-line, one of our photo-op stops was when we came up on a shepherd tending his sheep with his two dogs. I was struck by the scene, so I just had to capture it. When I asked if he minded me taking a picture, he just nodded as I pointed to my camera. What I learned after mentioning that he has an interesting job, was that he did not speak English. Either way, I thanked him for letting me intrude and loved on his two dogs for a bit. They were so very friendly.
As we were leaving the sight of the Engineer Pass sign, an older couple had arrived by Jeep and was happily studying the scenery, when my husband called back at them to ask if they would like us to take their picture. They said, “Sure!” And so, I happily jumped out of the Bronco to capture a few images for their ‘Christmas card’. Turns out, they were vacationing from Texas and had rented their Jeep for the day from the Lake City side of the loop and had driven the southern stretch of the loop over the first half of the day. I loved their excitement over the beauty of the San Juans.
Here’s a tip…if you do not want to attempt the more strenuous section of the loop from the Ouray side, you can always complete the loop by starting in Lake City and traveling the loop all the way around and back to Lake City again. You would miss the Silverton end of the loop, but you would still get to see about two-thirds of the byway.
Alpine Loop Route
Our route took us down the other side of Engineer Pass, through the ghost town of Capital City, through Lake City and then Lake San Cristobal and over the southern side of the loop to Cinnamon Pass and then down through Animas Forks and back down to Silverton.
Some maps include Corkscrew Pass as part of the Alpine Loop, but that road is not marked on the original byway and it would extend the 65-mile loop to more than 80 miles. This was one reason we opted to not drive the pass, as well as the fact that by the time we made it to Silverton, it was after 6:00 pm.
I think what I love most about this byway was the sheer beauty. The idea of potentially being able to come back here and hike and camp along the byway is what will bring me back. Not only that, but now that I know much of the road is passable by regular car, I want to come back to drive those parts in my car and linger longer.
One place in particular that we opted not to stop at was American Basin. This particular point is reachable by car and is at the end of the easy dirt road, just before signs that are posted which mark the loop for 4×4 travel only. I’ve seen many photos of American Basin and they are spectacular. I will go back!
I think Bill Decker, our Ridgway Campground host said it best when he said he gets conflicted sometimes…he loves the pristine, untouched beauty of much of Colorado, yet he had a hand in developing parts of it, as well. He mentioned this as my husband and I had a nice conversation with him the day we left. He is a Colorado native and among other things, had a hand in building up parts of Colorado, like Vail in the 1960s as he helped to build the second building in that ski resort town. For me, my conflict comes in the way I used to view OHV’s and 4×4’s…I used to hate how they tear up the land and back country…and now, I’m getting a kick out of being able to see that back country on well-marked, 4×4 trails. What I’ve come to understand is that although these types of vehicles can get into the back country without much effort, they stay on the trails. The back country is still the back country in that respect.
Driving along the mountain roads of Colorado reveals a ton of its beauty…but, taking a back road, or a lesser traveled dirt road can reveal so much more. Stopping along any journey to get out of your vehicle and take a walk…even if it’s a short walk can show you wonders which you may have dreamed only attainable through someone else’s viewfinder. I think the things that I appreciated most along this route were the smiles on passersby; the joy in my husband’s voice; the unique and unparalleled beauty of the southwestern Colorado Mountains. There is a reason why the sign just above the southern end of Ouray says, “Little Switzerland of America.”