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. Native 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.
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 place
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.
The driving time of the Alpine Loop is estimated at 4-6 hours. The loop can be accessed from Lake City, Silverton, or Ouray. Many side trips are available, but, riders must stay on designated routes.
For southern parts of the loop:
BLM – San Juan Public Lands Office
15 Burnett Court
Durango, Colorado 81301
For northern parts of the loop:
BLM – Gunnison Field Office
216 North Colorado Street
Gunnison, Colorado 81230
Source: Bureau of Land Management