If you’ve ever dreamed of completing historic, epic trails on your 4×4, then the Alpine Loop in Colorado must be on your bucket list. Its difficulty and incredible history make it one of the most fantastic off-road destinations for riders from around the world. While this 73-mile backcountry byway attracts many attempts every year, it’s also legendary for the difficulty of getting across Engineer Pass, one of Colorado’s highest mountain roads and a notoriously dangerous road.
How can you get across Alpine Loop Colorado, and what are the best off-road tips for your first attempt driving through Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass? Here is a quick guide on the history of Alpine Loop, what makes it such an exciting drive, and how to get through it while enjoying it to the fullest.
What Is the Alpine Loop?
The Alpine Loop covers high-elevation passes in the San Juan Mountains. It links Silverton and Ouray with Lake City, its official beginning and end.
The total distance covered by the Alpine Loop trail is roughly 65 miles, which you would expect to cover in around 7 hours in normal conditions. However, it’s not an easy trail, and the altitude it crosses through the mountains at makes for some intense driving!
To cross the Alpine Loop, you’ll need a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle. You can rent one in the area, including in Lake City.
As for the famous alpine passes, they are Cinnamon Pass (12,640 feet) and Engineer Pass (12,800).
How Difficult Is the Alpine Loop?
You’ll find hairpin bends, rocks, rarefied air, and narrow passing points on the road from Ouray to Silverton and Lake City. In the San Juan Mountains, you’ll also be remote from “civilization,” which adds to the danger level on the trail.
However, as long as you’re well-equipped in a suitable vehicle (Jeep Cherokee Trailhawks seem to fare the best) and bring with you adequate supplies and emergency items, you’ll enjoy some amazing mountain views while completing a tremendous challenge.
Some of the most challenging sections are on Engineer Pass Road (or Ouray County Road 18). Built by Russian engineer Otto Mears in 1877, this used to be a major route between Silverton, Animas Forks, Ouray, and Lake City. Today, it’s a rough gravel road that can’t be driven from late October to late May. The high altitude combines with snow and tough weather conditions to make it a rough ride. Moreover, in severe weather conditions, travelers have been trapped by avalanches, heavy snow, and even landslides.
In the rain, the track also becomes muddy and slippery – which, in addition to the high gradient, can make the Alpine Loop a challenging drive in summer, too. Therefore, it’s always important to check the Alpine Loop conditions ahead of setting off.
Preparing to Drive the Alpine Loop
The first step towards preparing to drive the Alpine Loop is ensuring you have the right vehicle. As mentioned above, parts of the trail will require a high-clearance four-wheel drive. You also need to have ample storage room, to bring supplies, spare fuel, tools, etc.
Next, make sure you are ready to be stuck out in the wilderness. Bring water and food, as well as warm clothes and a sleeping bag. Even if you’re not planning to camp and hope to complete the whole route in one push, you’ll be caught out by changing temperatures and weather conditions. Besides, you might need to make an emergency stop.
It’s also a good idea to have adequate repair tools and spare gas with you since you’ll be far away from any gas stations or towns where you can get appropriate mechanical help on the road.
Finally, don’t forget to check the Alpine Loop conditions. Lake City’s Facebook page puts up regular updates about travel and weather alerts, while the Colorado Department of Transportation has a dedicated Alpine Loop travel center page featuring useful contact numbers as well.
You should also not rely on mobile phone signal and GPS. Instead, download or buy a highway map, as well as an Alpine Loop trail map highlighting interesting sights and points you won’t want to miss on your way.
Things to Do and See On the Way
The natural beauty and history of the Alpine Loop make it an excellent destination for off-roading and sightseeing, backcountry hiking, mountain biking, and camping. When you’re on the trail, you can choose to have a multi-day adventure taking it all in while also getting the adrenaline rush of the toughest driving sections.
Roads appeared here in the 1800s when mining activity took off in the San Juan Mountains, creating access to remote towns like Animas Forks, Ironton, and Gladstone. These mining towns are now ghost towns you can stop to check out, along with abandoned mining camps and cabins.
Animas Forks is one of the trail’s highlights, 12 miles northeast of Silverton and situated at 11,200 feet. Most of the residents lived here in the summer but moved to Silverton in winter when conditions got too harsh. By 1876, this was a booming community with 30 cabins, a hotel, a general store, an unlicensed saloon, and a post office. There was also a large mill built by the Dakota and San Juan Mining Company.
By 1904, the Silverton Northern Railroad reached Animas Forks, making it a more easily accessible destination and further boosting its attractiveness. However, Slowly, decay came to town after some devastating fires, and eventually, most of the population left by 1917. Today, you can visit Frisco-Bagley Mill and Tunnel, the remains of several mines, and the old town’s skeletal ruins.
Once you’ve enjoyed the history of mining in the area, you’ll also take in scenic alpine meadows and breathtaking views. On the summit of Engineer Pass, you’ll be able to enjoy panoramic views of 14,000 peaks all around, including Mt Sneffels (14,150 ft) to the west and Uncompahgre Peak (14,309 ft) to the east. The ridges around look truly epic, and the extinct volcanic caldera you’ll be on the edge of makes for exceptional views.
Finally, Silverton is a famous winter holiday destination and, in the summer, offers excellent outdoor activities: fishing, horseback riding, hiking, camping, and of course, ATV riding. Ouray also has a rich history complete with gorgeous scenery and some hot springs to soak in for some much-needed relaxation. And, once your drive is over, you can head for a great night out in Lake City, which is full of bars, restaurants, theaters, and good shopping.
Alpine Loop Colorado – a Unique Driving Adventure in the San Juan Mountains
You could drive the whole Alpine Loop in one tough 7-hour stint in a well-equipped high-clearance four-wheel vehicle with steady hands and nerves of steel. But you would probably miss out on lots of activities, views, and history all along the way. Instead, combine the unparalleled experience of driving some of the world’s most dangerous, high-adrenaline off-road trails with learning about the environment and stopping off to enjoy all that the San Juan Mountains have to offer.
You’ll find great hikes and climbs, fantastic mountain biking, lots of fun activities like fishing, camping, and horseback riding. By stopping at ghost towns like Animas Forks and Capitol City, you can be transported back to the mining history of the area, while your destination towns of Ouray, Silverton, and Lake City all have great shopping, eating, and accommodation options.
This is why we recommend planning a few days on the trail, combining the legendary Engineer Pass that is at the origin of the Alpine Loop difficulty with more mellow side activities and stops. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so enjoy it to the fullest!
Kris is an avid off-roader and outdoor enthusiast who loves to brave the elements and take on challenging terrain. He also enjoys sharing his passion and knowledge with others so that they, too, can appreciate the ride.