Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway, Colorado

Carson, Colorado by Mike Sinnwell, Rocky Mountain Profiles

Carson, Colorado by Mike Sinnwell, Rocky Mountain Profiles

Wager Gulch-Carson Ghost Town – About 5.5 miles beyond the south side of Lake San Cristobal, the road comes to Wager Gulch. Here, the Alpine Loop intersects with County Road 36, which heads south for about five miles to the ghost town of Carson. The five-mile stretch up Wager Gulch is a rough road that requires a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle. It actually to the remnants of two old mining camps – Carson and Old Carson. Carson is very well-preserved with several old buildings. As visitors continue west, Red Mountain rises into view as the byway climbs toward the townsite of Sherman. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, which are often seen along the rocks in the area.

Sherman Mining Camp – The old mining camp of Sherman is about 4.4 miles west of Wager Gulch. The mining camp was active from the late 1870s through the 1910s but was never very big. There is very little left of the old camp today, but foundations, the remains of collapsed log cabins, and some old equipment. The townsite is located on private property. To get there from Wager Gulch, continue on Co Rd 30 for three miles, then take a slight left onto Co Rd 35 for 1.4 miles to the old townsite. Alternatively, continue past Co Rd 35 to an overlook on Co Rd 30 that provides a birdseye view of the old townsite. 

Burrows Park – About four miles beyond Sherman is Burrows Park. Located along the Hinsdale-San Juan County line, Burrows Park is a five-mile-long grassy meadow area that once encompassed a number of mining camps, including Burrows Park, Whitecross, Tellurium, Argentum, and Sterling. There is little left of these old camps today except two cabins restored by the forest service. This is the starting point for hikes to several nearby fourteeners. In the mountains can be found traces of foundations and the remains of fallen buildings.

American Basin, Colorado, courtesy US Forestry Service

American Basin, Colorado, courtesy US Forestry Service

American Basin – Just a few miles beyond Burrows Park is the American Basin. Part of the Gunnison National Forest, it is a high alpine basin at an elevation of 12,365 feet surrounded by vertical cliffs. It is well-known for its spectacular scenery and beautiful displays of alpine wildflowers.

Tobasco Mine & Mill – Continue on County Road 30 for about a half a mile to a spur to the right that makes its way for 0.3 miles to the Tobasco Cabin. This is the last standing structure of the old Tobasco Mine and Mill property. Farther up the mountain are the scattered remains of collapsed buildings, foundations, and the mill itself, which is completely collapsed. Several tram towers can also be seen.

Cinnamon Pass – The trail continues along Cinnamon Pass for 1.7 miles before reaching the summit. Cinnamon Pass is one of the highest passes in the San Juan Mountains, sitting at an elevation of 12,620 feet. The summit provides breathtaking views of the alpine tundra and the high mountain peaks of Handies, Redcloud, and Sunshine, three of the fourteeners in the area. At the summit of Cinnamon Pass, the trail continues westward, leaving Hinsdale County behind and entering San Juan County. The road then becomes San Juan County Road 5 and continues for 2.8 miles to Animas Forks.

Silverton to the Alpine Loop

Silverton to the Alpine Loop, Colorado map.

Silverton to the Alpine Loop, Colorado map.

From Greene Street (Highway 110), the main road through Silverton, turn east onto Blair Street, which becomes County Road 2. This road makes its way northeast through a number of interesting sites before it arrives at Animas Forks 12 miles later.

Silverton – Established in 1874, Silverton quickly became the center of numerous mining camps in the area and stole the county seat from Howardsville. Today, Silverton is called home to about 630 people. The town’s rich history, coupled with the stunning natural beauty and ample recreation opportunities, draws thousands of visitors and tourists to the area each year.

Arrastra Gulch – From Silverton follow County Road 2 for two miles to Co Rd 52, which veers right off of the County Road 2, just before the Mayflower Mill. Co Rd 52 makes its way southeast into Arrastra Gulch, gradually deteriorating along the 2.6-mile trek to the Mayflower Mine. Here, there is a trailhead that climbs 1,050 feet over 1.3 miles to Silver Lake and the Silver Lake Mine. Silver Lake is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for its record snowfall of 76 inches in a 24-hour period in April 1921. Return to Co Rd 2 to continue to the Alpine Loop.

Mayflower Mill near Silverton, Colorado, Historic American Building Survey

Mayflower Mill near Silverton, Colorado, Historic American Building Survey

Mayflower Mill – Just beyond Arrastra Gulch, is the Mayflower Mill sits on the north side of Co Rd 52. A National Historic Landmark, this mill was the last and the most advanced of the big mills to be built in the San Juan Mountains. Tours of the mill are provided by the San Juan Historical Society in the summer.

Side SpurCo Rd 4 – Two miles beyond the Mayflower Mill is a side spur on Co Rd 4 that will take travelers to the Old Hundred Mine and the Highland Mary Mine.

Old Hundred Mine Boarding House by the San Juan County Historical Society

Old Hundred Mine Boarding House by the San Juan County Historical Society

Old Hundred Mine – One mile southeast of Co Rd 2, along the side spur of Co Rd 4 is the Old Hundred Mine. A German by the name of Reinhard Niegold was one of the earliest prospectors to find rich ore on Galena Mountain in 1873. The Old Hundred Mining Company was organized in 1904 and mining occurred sporadically until 1972. Today, the mine can be explored in the summer on a tour that takes visitors 1/3-mile into Galena Mountain.

Highland Mary Mine – This mine is located 5.4 miles south of the Old Hundred Mine on County Road 4, a side spur of the Co Rd 2. Minerals were first discovered here in 1875 by the Ennis brothers. Failing to make a profit, the brothers declared bankruptcy in 1985. In 1907, new owners reopened the mine, which became the second largest operation in the Silverton area. There are remnants of the old mill today. The Highland Mary Lakes Trailhead is located here that connects with Whitehead Peak Trail and also leads south into the Weminuche Wilderness. Return to Co Rd 2, to continue north to the Alpine Loop.

Howardsville, Colorado in its heydays.

Howardsville, Colorado in its heydays.

Howardsville – Just a half mile northeast of the side spur is the old mining camp of Howardsville. Established at the mouth of Cunningham Gulch in 1874, it became one of the largest and most prosperous towns in the area. It was the site of the first Sunnyside Mill and in its earliest days was the county seat of La Plata County, before the county was divided up and San Juan County was established in 1876. Today, there are several old buildings at the townsite.

Middleton – Located just 1.6 miles beyond Howardsville once stood the town of Middleton. This community was named because it was in the middle between Howardsville and Eureka. The first claim was made in 1883 and before long, there were over 100 mining claims in the nearby Minnie and Maggie Gulches There is nothing left of the townsite today but mining remains can be seen in the area.

1 thought on “Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway, Colorado”

  1. Working from memory from 2+ decades ago. A side road that goes through Howardsville leads up and over Stoney Pass, where the Rio Grande River starts. The road up Wager Gulch, in 1996, was in good shape. Everything I read said it was awful, but I found it fine. Maybe I was just used to really crummy trails. The start of Cinnamon Pass, from Animas Forks one used to have to crawl over a big rock. The last time I was there, dirt had been filled in and it was completely unnoticable. And, when I was first in the area as a kid (1960’s? 1970’s?), there was one standing cabin at Rose’s Cabin, and Engineer pass, on the west side of the summit, seemed to me to be a lot narrower than when I drove it in the 1990’s.

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