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Alpine Loop Scenic Byway: Colorado at its Loftiest

By on June 14, 2011

Beyond the sleepy hamlet of Lake City, pavement ends and the forest road I follow turns to dirt. Mountains define our state and provide its identity. Within Colorado’s rectangular borders, the Rockies thrust their highest summits. Peaks form backdrops for our cities, provide venues for our recreation, control our weather, capture our water and furnish scenes for our beer labels. Architects even designed the Denver airport’s tent-like roof to mimic the mounts.

I follow the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway, a bygone mining route that winds across southwestern Colorado’s silver-rich San Juans. It crests a pair of lofty passes, linking the onetime mining hubs of Ouray, Silverton and Lake City. Navigating its course requires four-wheel-drive and a lack of acrophobia.

The Alpine Loop clings to a 300-foot ledge above the river near Redcloud Peak.

“The first year we had it designated, people tried to take their Buicks up,” says Colorado Scenic Byway coordinator Sally Pearce. “I suspect a few left mangled mufflers and more along the way.”

Past the townsite of Sherman, the route clings to a ledge 300 feet above the river. I soon enter a valley bounded by naked mountains that include Redcloud and Sunshine peaks, two of Colorado’s 54 summits towering over 14,000 feet. A father and daughter prepare for the ascent.

“These will be my 33rd and 34th fourteeners!” the teenager exclaims. “Only 20 more to go.”

Whether it’s motorized or muscle-powered recreation, mountains are our playground. At seemingly every chance we get, we head for high ground, which creates problems. On weekend mornings, the highways out of Denver become clogged with stop-and-go traffic, and on Sunday afternoons, it’s bumper-to-bumper back. We call it “mountain jam.”

At a sign marking the end of the road for conventional cars, I engage four-wheel-drive and begin climbing the steep grade toward timberline. Atop Cinnamon Pass, drivers and passengers stop to photograph each other standing beside the sign marking the 12,640-foot elevation. Here in Colorado, altitude is our passion.

City-limit markers for nearly every community tell how many feet it lies above sea level, and the towns of Leadville and Alma battle over which is Colorado’s highest community. In mile-high Denver, a step at the State Capitol indicates the 5,280-foot point, and a band of purple seats identifies the 1-mile level at baseball’s Coors Field.

Up here, well over 2 miles high, towering summits now appear at eye level. Wildflowers carpet the alpine lawn, and snow fields drape from nearby knobs. Some bear carved S-shaped tracks.

Skiing and snowboarding are one of Colorado’s biggest industries.

“I can’t believe someone skied up here,” a woman in a Texas Jeep remarks. “Don’t these Colorado people ever give up?”

The answer is no.

One of the state’s most-popular pastimes, skiing and snowboarding have become one of its biggest industries. The sport has transformed towns such as Aspen, Telluride, Breckenridge and Crested Butte from mining camps to snow meccas, and new communities such as Vail and Beaver Creek have been bulldozed from wild lands.

The growth of the industry has not come without controversy. While other places offer bids and bribes to host the Winter Olympics, Colorado voters turned the games away in 1976. Environmentalists continue to fight ski area expansions, and mountain town residents often oppose growth.

When I first visited Telluride 35 years ago, it was a hippie-haven where the rich were rare and showers at the local coin-op laundry were often coed. Telluride’s new upscale residents, the ones who drove away the long hairs, now hope their community does not become another glitzy Aspen, while those in Crested Butte pray theirs doesn’t become another Telluride. None wants to become another Animas Forks.

The Loop’s best-preserved ghost town began in 1873, and within a decade grew large enough to become the county seat. It boasted general stores, saloons, assay offices, shops, hotel, post office and a newspaper. Prosperity ended when the mines played out.

Twelve miles down the road, Silverton still prospers, saved by the rails that gave it life. In the late-1800s, the current San Juan County seat was a rowdy town that attracted Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. It’s much tamer now, with the former bars and brothels of Blair Street now sporting gift shops and restaurants. The town lies calm and empty in the morning, but as soon as the first Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge locomotive delivers its tourist cargo, the demeanor will change.

Animas Forks is the byway’s mining ghost town.

“Silverton provides us with the best of two worlds,” says merchant Dave Yates. “Mornings and evenings offer mountain serenity. Midday trains bring customers.”

From Silverton, I follow U.S. Highway 550 toward Ouray. The place still fancies itself the “Switzerland of America,” even though its layered rocks and Victorian-era buildings bear scant resemblance to the Alps. The boast comes from a time when the state had to pretend it was something it’s not.

The northwestern leg of the Alpine Loop begins about 3 miles before town. The path is rocky, narrow and in places hugs the brim of a plunging precipice. I creep upward, and after topping timberline turn toward Engineer Pass.

In three directions, grassy hillsides tumble toward emerald valleys, their slopes freckled with alpine sunflowers. Snow lingers in gullies and along shady ridges. Across the void, cliff-terraced peaks bulge against the horizon.

Heading down the Loop’s final leg, I re-enter the forest and stop at Capitol City, founded in 1877. George Lee thought the location would be ideal for Colorado’s seat of government, but in spite of his urgings, the legislature never moved here. Only two log structures still stand amid a peaceful smattering of summer homes. It’s a far cry from the sprawling density found in the state’s current capital.

The road widens, pavement reappears, and I re-enter Lake City. After a cup of coffee at a small cafe 156 miles from the nearest Starbucks, I turn toward home. At least for the next few hours, I will still be comfortably ensconced in Colorado’s mountains.

Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora, Colorado. Visit his website, lookingfortheworld.com

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