Tucked away in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado is the Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway. Located northeast of Silverton, Colorado in San Juan and Hinsdale Counties, the circular route makes its way from Lake City south along CO-149, to County Road 30, which turns west over Cinnamon Pass to Animas Forks, and then returns east over Engineer Pass back to Lake City along County Road 20.
Sculpted by the forces of volcanoes, glaciers, wind, and rain, the resulting mountains, valleys, streams, and lakes are a masterpiece of nature’s artistry. The Ute Indian tribe long inhabited this area before they were replaced by miners in the 1800s, who came in search of 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, the mines and mills are closed but, the roads still remain. Many still visible exploration pits and tunnels give evidence of extensive prospecting. The Hidden Treasure, Ute-Ulay, Golden Fleece, Little Giant, and Pride of the West mines are only a few of the more than 70 mines with lodes that beckoned 19th-century entrepreneurs. Many of the area mining towns such as Animas Forks, Mineral Point, and Capitol City, boomed when the railroad brought mobility and transportation to Lake City. Now, only the skeletons of these ghost towns remain.
This system of historic roads is now the Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway. Part of the National Scenic Byway system the Alpine Loop was one of the Bureau of Land Management’s first backcountry byways. Unlike most scenic byways, which are located on paved highways, backcountry byways focus on the out-of-the-way sights to be found on gravel and dirt roads. These are routes are not suitable for all vehicles; however, for those with appropriate transportation, backcountry byways offer views of a variety of areas off the beaten track.
The backcountry 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. Today, visitors can follow the routes used by the prospectors, miners, and settlers that ventured into the mountains to seek their fortune. Portions of this road are not paved and require a four-wheel drive, high clearance vehicle. The Alpine Loop has narrow twists and blind curves.
In addition to the outstanding scenery, visitors enjoy a wide array of other outdoor recreation activities. The rivers, streams, and lakes attract fishermen and hikers enjoy the many trails that can be accessed up to 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.
The Alpine Loop has rustic facilities including three campgrounds, a picnic area, and 10 restrooms along the way. The driving time of the Alpine Loop is estimated at 4-6 hours. The loop can be accessed from Lake City, Silverton, or Ouray.
The Alpine Loop is truly a backcountry experience. Make sure someone knows your travel plans and do your homework before you start your trip. Make sure you have plenty of water, food, and fuel to make it to your destination. Electronics and wireless devises DO NOT work in most places on the Alpine Loop. It is recommended that you download or print hard copy maps prior to your trip.
The main loop is only part of the experience as miles of designated side routes allow visitors to access a number of other sites.
Courtesy Rules of the Alpine Loop
- Stay on designated roads.
- Obey posted signs for parking and trails.
- Please drive slowly and watch for on-coming traffic.
- Stay on your side of the road on blind curves. Honk to warn on-coming traffic.
- Uphill traffic has the right-of-way.
- Do not park or stop on narrow sections of the road. Use pull-outs or wider areas of the road to park.
- The majority of the traffic moves in a clockwise manner — it is highly suggested you do so also. This helps with traffic jams on the narrow shelf sections of this route.
Sites along the Main Alpine Loop:
Animas Forks – This town was established in 1875 and was occupied until the 1920s. Retaining several historic buildings, it is one of the most popular destinations along the popular Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway. This was once a bustling community with numerous buildings and mill sites. Today it continues to display nine buildings, including the two-story Duncan House, the Columbus Mill, and the jail structure which is the oldest building on the site. Foundations and other falling buildings dot the area. Interpretive signs tell the history of the town. The Alpine Loop Road continues north along County Road 2 to Engineer Pass. In the other direction, San Juan County Road 2 makes its way southwest to Silverton. (See Silverton Road.) A side spur of the Alpine Loop, Co Rd 9, leads west of Animas Forks, making a loop around Treasure Mountain back to Co Rd 2. See Side Spur – County Road 9. A number of mines and mills can be seen along this loop including the well preserved Sound Democrat Mill