Tucked away in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern
Colorado is one
of the true gems of our public lands. Sculpted by the forces of
volcanoes, glaciers, wind and rain, the resulting mountains, valleys,
streams and lakes are a masterpiece of nature’s artistry.
Americans came to these mountains for centuries to hunt and gather food.
In the late 1800s they were replaced by miners who came in search of a
different livelihood – silver, gold, lead, and zinc. These hardy
pioneers carved a network of roads through this rugged terrain to enable
them to transport ore and supplies by mule-drawn wagons to and from
Silverton, Ouray, and Lake City.
Today, most of the mines are closed but, the roads still remain. They
are used by a different sort of adventurer -- folks who travel by
4-wheel drive, motorcycle, or mountain bike.
Although technology has made it easier for us to visit these mountains,
it has not diminished their beauty or the adventure to be found here.
Along the Alpine Loop travelers will view
Photo by Sally Pearce.
This image available for photo prints &
This system of historic roads is now the Alpine Loop National Back
Country Byway. The Alpine Loop is part of the National Scenic Byway
system -- a selection of the country’s most scenic roads identified and
managed for the enjoyment of the millions of people who drive for
pleasure. Unlike most scenic byways, which are located on paved
highways, back country byways focus on the out-of-the-way sights to be
found on gravel and dirt roads. These are routes that may not be
suitable for all vehicles. However, for those with appropriate
transportation, back country byways offer an intimate view of a variety
of areas off the beaten track.
Most of the area is public land managed for you by the Bureau of Land
Management and the U.S. Forest Service. It is wild country and perhaps
not suited to everyone’s taste. But, if you are able to appreciate
nature on her own terms, we think you will agree this is a very special
The back country byway covers 65 miles of roads between the towns of
Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton, Colorado.
Depending on winter snows, the Loop opens about late May/early June and
closes in late October. About two-thirds of the route is dirt road,
suitable for 2-wheel-drive cars, so everyone can experience a portion of
this scenic area. In order to traverse the entire route, however, you
will need a 4-wheel-drive, high clearance vehicle.
In addition to the outstanding scenery, visitors can enjoy a wide array
of other outdoor recreation activities. The rivers, streams, and lakes
attract fishermen in search of rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout.
Hikers will enjoy the many trails that can be accessed from the Alpine
Loop including routes up five peaks over 14,000 feet.
History buffs will want to explore the many structures, mines, and ghost
towns left over from the late 1800s. Photographers will especially
appreciate the abundance of colorful alpine wildflowers in late July/early
August and the explosion of fall colors during September.
More and more mountain bikers are enjoying the Alpine Loop for challenging
single and multi-day rides. Winter sports enthusiasts can find ample area to
snowmobile or ski on the 80 miles of groomed trails near Lake City.
The Alpine Loop itself has rustic facilities including three campgrounds, a
picnic area, and 10 restrooms along the way. More developed facilities are
available in the surrounding communities including visitor information
centers, motels, resorts, RV sites with hookups, restaurants, groceries, gas
stations, auto repair, sporting goods, and much more.