In the heart of the San Juan Mountains, the Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway traverses sweeping tundra landscapes and crests two alpine passes. Tiny, fragile flowers hug sheer slopes tinged with cinnamon and saffron hues. On lower elevations, creeks gurgle through forested canyons.
The 63-mile backcountry route connects Lake City with Silverton and Ouray. The recommended direction for following the loop is clockwise, especially for first-timers. This places vehicles on the “safer” mountain side of the narrow road. Nearly two-thirds of the dirt and gravel byway is accessible to 2-wheel-drive automobiles. Climbing Cinnamon Pass or Engineer Pass, however, requires a high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicle.
Besides admiring spectacular alpine vistas that few people see, byway travelers can fish, hike, picnic in mountain meadows and explore ghost towns and historic mining communities.
As the Alpine Loop curves south from Lake City, it passes Lake San Cristobal. Major landslides hundreds of years ago formed Colorado’s second-largest natural lake when they blocked the flow of the Gunnison River. Today anglers gravitate to its waters.
Brilliant Red Mountain rises into view as the byway climbs toward the town site of Sherman. Lake Fork of the Gunnison gurgles past remains of the former 1870s silver mining camp. Lucky travelers may spot Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep bounding up boulder-strewn slopes.The rocky road scales through deep, dark forests, then reaches the tundra landscape of American Basin. In summer months, green and gold flora clad the terrain. Perky yellow flowers called alpine avens glimmer along the roadside like gold coins.
At 12,620 feet in elevation, the byway crests aptly named Cinnamon Pass. To the east, three peaks — Handies, Redcloud and Sunshine — soar more than 14,000 feet high.
The descent leads to the ghost town of Animas Forks. In the 1880s, mule-drawn wagons negotiated the same narrow stretch to reach the site, which then boasted 450 residents. Some of its predominant structures still stand. The Duncan House, a two-story wood frame residence with front bay window, epitomizes the town’s temporary affluence. Other homes and the jailhouse are within walking distance of the ruins of the Columbus Mill and mine portal.
Travelers have the option of turning north, the way back to Lake City, or exploring the segment that leads southwest to Silverton, a former silver boomtown. The latter parallels the Animas River and passes several abandoned mine sites. The Mayflower Mill sits on the outskirts of Silverton. Now a tourist attraction, the mill once crushed and processed ore that was delivered from the Shenandoah Mine via a 10,000-foot aerial tram.
The dirt streets of Silverton’s National Historic Landmark District lead past the Grand Imperial Hotel and other distinctive 19th-century buildings. Eclectic shops have replaced notorious Blair Street’s brothels. Mid-day, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad scenic train pulls into town.
From Silverton, travelers can either retrace the route to Animas Forks or take U.S. 550 to the byway’s Mineral Creek entrance near Ouray. Only well-experienced 4-wheel drivers should attempt the latter.
Back at Animas Forks, the route heads north and switchbacks up Engineer Mountain on a rocky, narrow road. Alpine lakes mirror clouds dancing across the sky. What at first appears to be hundreds of boulders strewn across the landscape are sheep grazing on the tundra. At the top of the 12,800-foot pass, their bleating penetrates the thin air.
Engineer Pass traverses a narrow saddle. The sweeping view captures a panorama of stunning peaks: Mount Ouray, Whitecross Mountain, Mount Sneffels, Potosi Peak and Mount Emma. For an even more exhilarating sight, those not faint-hearted can follow a spur to Oh Point.
On the descent, the byway re-enters forests and passes Rose’s Cabin, a former stage stop. Heading east, the route parallels Henson Creek. Whitmore Falls tumbles into a deep chasm. For a better view, travelers can descend a short forest trail to a scenic overlook of the cascade. The road then passes through Capitol City, named by a 19th–century smelter owner who was convinced it was destined to become Colorado’s capital. A few vacation homes now dot the peaceful mountain meadow. Tall trees offer cool shade for a roadside picnic.
The byway completes its loop through the San Juan Mountains in Lake City, a popular high-country destination nestled at the base of towering peaks.
If You Go
The Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway traverses the San Juan Mountains on rugged mountain roads between Lake City at Colorado 149 and Silverton and Ouray at U.S. 550. The total length is 63 miles; drive time is four to six hours. The route is great for tundra landscapes, 4-wheel driving and ghost and mountain towns. Open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, weather permitting. Wildflowers make midsummer a great time to explore.
Lake City Visitor Information, 800-569-1874
Ouray Chamber Resort Association, 800-228-1876
Silverton Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, 800-752-4494
Rose and David Muenker, who live in Denver, are co-authors of the Colorado Front Range History Explorer, which features history-oriented sites and attractions of our state’s most populous region, and Colorado Front Range Scenic & Historic Byways.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.