Now that spring’s just around the corner and the snow is starting to melt, it’s one of the best times to plan for a summer getaway! One of the best places that you can head to this summer is Colorado’s famed Alpine Loop, constantly ranked as among the best off-roading destinations in the country
But why the Alpine Loop? The Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway have a narrow window where it is snow-free (June to September). But the waiting game is worth it as every inch of the 65-mile drive will take you through a magnificent landscape. Aside from that, you can explore Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton.
So, are you planning to go to Alpine Loop this summer? Here are all the things that you need to know:
How Do I Get to Alpine Loop?
From Denver, you can follow this route:
- Head northwest towards Cleveland PI
- Turn right onto Cleveland PI
- After 328 ft, turn right onto N Broadway
- Turn right onto W 8th Ave after 0.9 mi
- Use the center lane to turn left onto Kalamath St
- Use the right lanes to turn slightly right onto 6th Avenue. Look for signs for I-25
- Continue onto 6th Avenue
- After 220 ft, keep left to stay on 6th Ave
- Continue onto US-6 W/6th Ave
- After 7.7 mi, take the exit onto I-70 which leads to Grand Jct
- Use the right lanes to take the exit 260 for 470 which leads to Colorado Springs
- Merge onto CO-470E
- After 5.1 mi, take the exit onto US-285 S/US Hwy 285 S heading to Fairplay
- Continue onto US 285 S
- After 110 mi, turn right onto US-50 W
- Turn left onto Hillcrest Drafter 122 mi
- Take the 1st exit onto Sunnyside Rd after 1 mi
- Sunnyside Rd turns left and merges onto S 12th St
- After 0.5 mi, turn left onto US-550 S/Townsend Ave
What Should I Know About Alpine Loop?
Alpine Loop is a spectacular drive with a length of 63 miles located in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado, USA. The road climbs up two 12,000-foot passes (Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass) and is recommended for high clearance four-wheel drive with a short wheelbase.
Passenger cars, RV’s, camper vehicles and vans are not recommended. Semi-trucks with trailers are prohibited. Uphill traffic has the right-of-way on all roads. The speed limit is 15 mph. Depending on winter snows, the Loop opens about late May/early June and closes in late October. The Alpine Loop is a combination of two great 4×4 roads, Engineer Pass and Cinnamon Pass. These trails are roughly centered in the spectacular San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado between Lake City, Silverton, and Ouray.
The Alpine Loop National Backcountry Scenic Byway winds through the alpine terrain of the San Juan Mountains. Rental services for off-highway vehicles are being offered by surrounding towns. Along the way, you can fill your camera with unbelievable shots of soaring mountain peaks and seven ghost towns. Recommended if you are not afraid of heights. Stay on your side of the road on blind curves. Honk to warn on-coming traffic.
The road is winding, in some places only wide enough for one vehicle, and many places bordered by a drop of hundreds of meters (many hundreds of feet) unprotected by guardrails. The trail leaves pavement and people behind, crossing the remote, rugged, spectacular heart of the San Juan Mountains. It’s demanding – the two 12,000-foot passes (Cinnamon and Engineer) require a high-clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicle – but the well-prepared motorist reaps unparalleled rewards: pristine mountain views, hiking and biking trails, great camping opportunities, and ample solitude. The place is now literally crawling with ATV’s, dirt bikes, and small 4×4 vehicles coming and going every which way. It’s usually open from late May through October, depending on snow depths and damage from spring run-off
How Are the Off-road Trails at Alpine Loop?
These are some of the best trails that you can explore East of Silverton:
This is one of the granddaddies of the network with simply stunning views from start to finish. Engineer pass connects Silverton to Lake City. It takes at least 5 hours one way and has some fairly rough, narrow sections along with a series of high alpine switchbacks along the western side. The top of the pass rewards you with a very cool lookout point you can drive out on (make sure to set your parking brake.) There is also a lower section to this pass which connects to Highway 550 near the waterfall a few miles up from Ouray.
Whenever the locals see an 18-wheeler heading up Greene St after dark they all know that the driver’s GPS is probably showing this to be a shortcut to Lake City… NOT! Fortunately, our Sheriff’s Dept can usually stop them before they get to the ‘point of no return’ around Animas Forks.
Cinnamon is a bit easier than Engineer and is found as an alternate route to Lake City from Silverton. Many people will opt for going over Cinnamon in the morning, having lunch in Lake City, and then returning to Silverton via Engineer. It also tops 12,000 feet in elevation with only one corner which might haunt you later in life. But don’t worry, we’ll have a cold beer waiting for you in Silverton so you can toast your success on the road and drink to your good fortunes at The Golden Block.
This is another route that connects Silverton to Lake City, but it takes a bit longer to travel as it drops you quite a way south of Lake City. However, if you plan on heading on to Pagosa Springs it’s a fantastic option. Stony has some tough narrow sections but is mostly tame on the Silverton Side which makes it a nice option if you just want to go up to the top and back for some pizza. There are also some fantastic camping options on the eastern side of Stoney, including a place named Bear Camp which is not for the faint of heart. If you go over Stoney its a cool fact to know that the very first car to ever visit Silverton crossed Stoney pass around 100 years ago, so keep this in mind if you think it’s tough today!
Stoney pass is located up Cunningham Gulch near the town of Howardsville which is a few miles east of Silverton on Route 2.
At West Silverton, here are the trails that you can explore:
Ophir Pass is a fantastic way to get over to Telluride from Silverton via the small town of Ophir, Colorado. It tops out around 11,000 feet in elevation offering amazing views to the west as far as Utah and beyond. It is one of the easier passes and has been rumored to have been crossed in a Cadillac by a desperate local. However, it does have a lot of steep grades and sharp rocks so good tires, clearance, and 4 wheel drive are a must. It can be found by taking a left about 6 miles south of Silverton on 550.
This is the big bad monster of the group. Do not do this unless you are an expert at off-roading and know how to work a clutch. There are several 3 point corners with very large cliffs. Even jeeps need to know how to pop a clutch into reverse with a 400-foot drop a few feet in front of their tires. Suburban’s and vehicles with long wheelbases are not recommended at all. It is located at the top of the red mountain pass and connects directly to the top of Telluride Canyon.
What Are the Other Things That I Can Do at Alpine Loop?
After your scenic drive, you can head to:
- Garden of the Gods
- National Museum of World War II Aviation
- Telluride Mountain Village Gondola
- Trail Ridge Road
- Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey Tour
- Maroon Bells
- Winter Park Adventure Quest
- Colorado Model Railroad Museum
What Do Other Off-road Enthusiasts Say About Alpine Loop?
“I checked out Ouray and Silverton this year. Ouray had lots of cool breweries and restaurants, which seemed like a nice place. Silverton was dingy and it felt like the snow had just melted off even though it was early September. No idea on the riding from either area, I was passing just through in a car.” -Speedracer4 (https://www.wolverineforums.com/forum/233-around-campfire/19810-alpine-loop-colorado.html)
Where Should I Stay at Alpine Loop?
Dispersed camping is allowed, though we did not observe that many camp-rings since camping above the timberline can be rough. Mind fire notices and a 14 day limit on camping in one spot if you decide to stay along trail.
There are campgrounds near the trailhead including Angel Creek Campground and Amphitheater Campground. One of the largest and busiest campgrounds in the area is the first-come, first-serve Mill Creek Campground. You have to make reservations or get there early if you want to camp this near to the trail. The peak of the season means that the campsites fill up fast.
Is Ophir Pass Open?
The road is open to all motorized vehicles, however, recommended for high clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles. Unlicensed OHV’s are prohibited within the Town of Ophir and on Forest Road #630 from Ophir west to State Highway 145.
Can You Drive from Telluride to Ouray?
Those who enjoy a scenic drive are sure to love the trip that takes you from Telluride to Ouray on the San Juan Skyway. If you choose to travel the entire 236-mile loop, your route will take you through several towns in the mountains with elevations that range from 6,200 feet to over 11,000 feet.