Alpine Loop Back Country Byway
Lake San Cristobal, eastern end of the Alpine Loop, looking southwest
Special Considerations: No services, roads can be muddy, closed in winter.
Special Features: 7 ghost towns plus Cinnamon Pass and Engineer Pass
The Alpine Loop crosses the rugged heart of the spectacular San Juan Mountains. Cinnamon and Engineer Passes are above 12,000 feet and require high-clearance 4WD vehicles. These roads were first used by miners carrying their ore to Silverton, Ouray and Lake City in the early 1900's. Be prepared for the finest in remote solitude, pristine mountain views, hiking and biking trails, and great camping opportunities. You can also spend days exploring abandoned townsites, structures and old mining haunts.
In 2006, the Alpine Loop suffered some serious damage as the result of heavy winter snows and seemingly unending summer rains. There's lots of deep and wide new ruts in the road and some pretty good washouts in some areas. It's "hardness" rating as a 4WD road has increased significantly.
This 65-mile Back Country Byway is usually open from late May through October, depending on snow depths and damage from spring run-off. About 2/3 of the route is dirt road suitable for 2WD vehicles but if you want to cross Engineer Pass, Cinnamon Pass or Mineral Creek, you'll want dependable, high-clearance 4WD. Along the way there are 3 campgrounds, a picnic area and several restroom facilities, but be prepared for rustic. Outside of Lake City, Ouray and Silverton, there are no services available.
These mountains were occupied by the Utes for centuries but in the late 1800's, wave after wave of miners came in, searching out lodes of silver, gold, zinc, and lead. In the process, they carved out an elaborate network of roads and trails. In some places, they even used aerial tramways to transport their ores from the mines to the mills where the rock was crushed and the minerals extracted. Today, the roads are still here but most of the mines and mills are closed. And rather than finding miners with horse-drawn wagons you'll find four-wheelers, motorcycles and mountain bikes on the road. That said, please be aware that most mine and mill sites are privately owned and the mines and historic structures you'll come across out here are unstable to the point of being ready to collapse at any time.
North entrance to the Alpine Loop, Lake City, February, 2008