The One Thing You Can't Miss: San Juan Mountains

Deep in the alpine terrain of Colorado's San Juan Mountains, dusty backroads lead you through the closest thing you'll get to the historic American West.
July 28, 2016Words by Amanda CiesielczykPhotos by Amanda Ciesielczyk

Nestled in the lower left corner of Colorado, the San Juan Mountains are still the rugged, wild and awe-inspiring alpine country you only read about in books these days. From the thirteen summits that exceed 14,000 feet to the pristine high-country lakes; from the charismatic historic mountain town to the slew of abandoned gold and silver mines, the San Juans are one of the only spots left in Colorado to truly experience the wilderness of the American West. 

Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of the San Juans is the endless number of old mining roads weaving through the alpine tundra. With this comes an uncommon opportunity to hop between old ghost towns and mining towns, avoiding the highway altogether, on one of my favorite drives: The Alpine Loop.

Comprised of sixty-five miles of old mining road and connecting the Colorado towns of Ouray, Silverton and Lake City, the Alpine Loop is truly a drive to experience. Jeep day-tours are available, but turning the venture into an overnight (or two) camping trip is really the way to go. As Colorado’s only four-wheel drive scenic byway, you’ll need a reliable rig and some cojones in a few switchbacks, but it’s worth it for the magnificent views and access to some outstanding high-country basins.

The Alpine Loop is near and dear to my heart, a true gem not often seen by many traveling to the San Juans, and while it is not necessarily secret it is a spot that most locals treasure. So enjoy the route. Take in the outstanding views. And be kind and courteous to the alpine tundra. It's a privilege to take a vehicle to this place and we may not always be so lucky. 

For bright grassy mountainsides, high-country wildflowers and snowless fourteeners, routes will be best between mid-July and late-September

I’d suggest driving this route between July and September. It opens up a bit sooner, around mid-June and will stay open until significant snowdrifts close the roads. For bright grassy mountainsides, high-country wildflowers and snowless fourteeners, routes will be best between mid-July and late-September, when the aspens glow gold with wildflowers and the changing of the seasons.

The Recommended Route: Silverton to Lake City 
The route to Ouray is more technical and only recommended for experienced offroaders.

Begin the day in Silverton, an excellent place to grab some coffee or a breakfast burrito before heading up to the old mining town of Animas Forks. Spend the morning touring the old 1870s mining ruins of Animas Forks. You can venture inside many of the restored buildings and the photo-ops here are plentiful.

There’s no “right direction” for driving the loop to Lake City and back, but taking the Northern loop first, instead of Engineer Pass, will provide some great views that are the perfect way to start the afternoon. The top of this pass is pretty epic, easily one of the most memorable views of the San Juans. 

Once over the pass and below treeline there are several roads that lead north to more old mining towns and remote, magnificent alpine basins. These are good spots to camp for the night, especially if you’re looking to bag Wetterhorn or Uncompaghre Peak, both fourteeners, the next morning. 

Have lunch at Packer Saloon and Cannibal Grille, named after Alfred Packer, a prospector that confessed to cannibalism during the brutal winter of 1874

After a morning summiting Uncompaghre (the highest mountain in the San Juans and my personal favorite), head on down the main road the panoramic town of Lake City, just outside Lake San Cristobal, the second largest natural lake in the country. I love lunch on the patio at the Packer Saloon and Cannibal Grille, named after Alfred Packer, a prospector that confessed to cannibalism during the brutal winter of 1874 while trying to traverse a nearby alpine plateau with his crew. Not only are the views breathtaking, but the history of the region harbors a rich story as well. 

Head back on the Southern route of the loop towards Cinnamon Pass. Just before you reach the pass, you’ll come to a fork for American Basin. Make the turn. Revered for some of the most beautiful high country wildflowers in the state, enjoy a hike to Sloan Lake or hike Handies Peak, another famous Colorado fourteener. 

See you out there.

What to Do and See in the San Juan Mountains

Ice Lake 
Just outside of Silverton is the hike to Ice Lakes, acclaimed by locals and tourists alike, and for good reason. After a 2,500 foot climb in just over three miles, the turquoise blues of glaciated Ice Lake sits come into view amidst a magnificent cirque amid subalpine tundra dotted with wildflowers. A quick hike east and north along the tundra will bring you to the less visited but just as impressive Island Lake.

Red Mountain Pass
The pinnacle of the San Juan’s “Million Dollar Highway,” Red Mountain Pass is an excellent spot for a summer day hike and a prized ski touring destination in the winter. Several four-wheel drive roads lead higher into the alpine from the pass or nearby, including Ophir Pass and the infamous Black Bear, both dropping down into Telluride. 

Ouray Hot Springs
Town pool? Check. Local hot springs? Check. Ouray Hot Springs is definitely worth a visit. Soak in one of two pool-sized baths heated with water pumped from a nearby hot springs, then shower off and head right into town for a cold beer on the balcony at Ouray Brewery and the best burger in the San Juans at Maggie’s Kitchen. [H]

Amanda Ciesielczyk is a writer and co-founder at BoldBrew. Based in Colorado's San Juans, she is fond of camping at high country lakes, Wolf Creek powder days, and her heeler pup, Reins.


 

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