THE ALPINE LOOP National Backcountry Byway
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The ALPINE LOOP
is a seasonal Scenic Byway, a special designation noted by signs showing the blue Columbine, Colorado's state flower. Unlike most byways, this 64-mile loop is a rugged, four-wheel drive route over steep mountain passes, some topping 12,000 feet. The byway follows mining and stage trails laid out more than a century ago, and relics winds through many ghost towns, past mining relics,
cascading waterfalls, fields of wildflowers, alpine tundra, and some of the most
in the world! Although generally traveled by jeep or ATV, the byway is also a favorite of high altitude hikers and backpackers, who can access five of Colorado’s “fourteener” peaks (14,000 feet or more) from connecting trails. Our favorite way to do the Loop is by jeep, going east from Silverton on
Engineer, stop for lunch in Lake City, then return to Silverton via Cinnamon Pass. It's a full day!
National Scenic Byways - Alpine Loop.
Three old mining towns still survive, and even flourish—Silverton,
Ouray and Lake City.
Although distinctly different, they all have four things in common: 1) mining got them going, and with the Silver Panic of 1893, loss of mining nearly finished them; 2) all grew with the arrival of the railroad to carry supplies in and ore out from the mines; 3) none ever suffered a major fire, common to mining towns of the late 1800s, so all have well-preserved commercial and residential districts, easily accessible by downtown waking tours sponsored by local historical societies, and 4) all three towns are designated as a National Historic District.
The main towns on the loop had another common bond. The postman and the preachers made regular weekly rounds, bringing news and saving souls. Travel was by mule (in good weather) or by skis (much of the year). Even today, the Catholic priest, albeit by four-wheel drive, not four-footed animal, still makes the rounds, serving mass on Saturday in one town, on Sunday in another. Mail carriers didn't fare quite as well as their clerical counterparts. A few sad stories are told of mail lost for the winter, only to be discovered at the bottom of a ravine many months later. Mail today goes by truck on the highway.
The roads are pretty rough on the passes...but fun if you go carefully and obey the road rules. Don't even think of taking the family car up there, though. And absolutely no trailers or motor homes are allowed. The best way to see the Loop is to rent a jeep or ATV in Silverton or Lake City. (The road up to Engineer from Ouray is not recommended, and most jeep rental companies do not allow their equipment on that section of the Loop. If you're going from Ouray, take Hwy, 550 south to Silverton, then go east to the passes.) Although there are a few miles of trail navigable by most any vehicle (first part of Cinnamon, west of Lake City, and up to Eureka, east of Silverton), you need high clearance and a short wheelbase for the high passes. (Rental companies will not allow you take your vehicles on certain roads; be sure to ask before you take off). One of the best ways is to go with a guided 4x4 tour. We recommend Switzerland of America, out of Ouray for the best way to see Engineer Pass. You'll appreciate their knowledgeable guides driving well-maintained equipment.
If you drive yourself, PLEASE observe the rules of the road: 1) Safe & Slow; 2) When in doubt, pull over and let the other guy go; 3) Uphill has the right of way (makes sense, once stopped on a steep incline, it is difficult to get going again without a mishap); 4) Stay on designated roads and respect private property; 5) When driving, keep your eyes on the road not the scenery; stop in a pullover, leaving room for others to pass, if you want to look and take pictures. Best of all, go with professional guided tour—guides no all the rules, are comfortable and careful with the equipment, and leave you free to ogle scenery and take photographs.
You'll see incredible scenery, lots of wildflowers, and plenty of wildlife. (Watch out for sheep and cattle, too; this is open range country and they do wander onto the road.) Less easy to spot, but there if you look closely are all kinds of wildlife: Big Horn Sheep (the guys with the curly horns); wild goats (both white and brown); moose—yes, really, moose!; big cats—mountain lion, bobcat, and lynx; black bears (that are really brown, cinnamon, even blond!; marmots—once nearly extinct (miners ate them), their population is growing rapidly now;, chipmunks, elk, deer —no, they don't turn into elk in the fall; and all sorts of other critters including hawks, eagles, wild turkeys, even emu. Be careful around all of them. This isn't a zoo. Don't get too close and never try to pet or feed wild animals.
First known as Baker's Park, after the man who discovered this wide, flat valley before the Civil War, the name was changed to reflect what came out of the surrounding mountains, "Silver by the Ton!" At one time, the town, located at 9,300 feet, boasted over 2,000 residents and was one of the bawdiest, rowdiest mining towns in the San Juans. There were in excess of forty saloons and bordellos on notorious Blair Street, where the red lights stayed on 24/7 and the sound of honky-tonk piano and rolling roulette wheels blared out into the street. The town boasted several breweries.
Four railroads served the town, three of them originating here and leading into the nearby, even-higher mining camps. Today, it's tourists, not gold and silver, that go up and down the mountain on the narrow gauge rails that have served the town for 120 years. Train day riders nearly double (sometimes triple) the population (about 500 year-round residents) while the trains are in town (three at the height of the season—May-through September), making this the only town of the three on the Loop still dependent on the railroad as it was over a century ago.
Silverton Chamber and Town Government
Appropriately called the "Gem of the Rockies" and "Little Switzerland of America," the city of Ouray nestles in a steep v-shaped valley in the heart of the San Juan Mountains. It is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, several topping 14,000 feet that literally shoot straight up on three sides of Ouray. The jewel-like Victorian town, at 7,700 feet, is an historical journey, a scenic feast. Originally named Uncompahgre City, after the Ute word that means "hot water springs" the name was changed in honor of Ute Chief Ouray who signed the Brunot Treaty, opening the San Juans to mining and settlement. Seven-hundred-plus permanent residents lovingly maintain many of the elegant Victorian structures within the town of Ouray. Many came as visitors, then made their stay a one-way trip. Because it is at the northern end of Highway 550 (the Million Dollar Highway), the only direct route to Durango and points south, the town flourishes year-round. Official site, Ouray Chamber and Resort Association.
Named after Lake San Cristobal, the second largest natural lake in Colorado, Lake City, at 8,761 feet, is not the highest on the loop, but some say it is the prettiest. The town is in a sylvan setting, surrounded by forest and crystal clear streams— the Lake Fork of the Gunnison is especially pristine— and Lake Cristobol to the east. The downtown district is small, Lake City never grew like its Loop neighbors—the railroad arrived only four years before the Silver Panic. But the residential district is stunningly lovely, with many well-kept Victorian homes still used today. (Many as second homes for summer visitors. Lake City has been called northern Texas by some!)
Lake City also had the first telephone system in Colorado—yes, phone service before Denver had it!—with connecting service throughout the Alpine Loop to Silverton, Ouray, Capitol City, Rose's Cabin, Mineral Point. and Animas Forks. Another first was a boisterous Fourth of July Celebration, which soon became a big holiday for all mining towns. As with it's neighboring Loop towns, the 4th of July tradition (complete with waterfights and fireworks) continues today. Lake City Marketing Board and Chamber of Commerce.
In various stages of preservation, from nearly non-existent to growing with new buildings, you’ll find several ghost towns. Some, like Carson, are privately owned, but still allow visitors. Animas Forks, perhaps one of the best, is maintained by the San Juan County Historical Society. Sherman is no more than a townsite designated by a historical sign...and a great trailhead for a very scenic hike. In some places a lone cabin is not the remains of a ghost town, but the present-day home of someone who chooses the hermitic lifestyle! Eureka, close to Silverton and accessible by a good road, is marked only by an old mill, but crowded with motor homes and campers. Hard to say what you’ll find, although its a sure bet you won’t find any motor homes much past Eureka. You may find a sheep heder or two in his horse-drawn wagon, and you’ll spot a sprinkling of colorful tents and more campers amidst the ghostly reminders of century-ago civilization.
Red Mountain Town and the Red Mountain vicinity once were home to over 10,000 people. The town hosted balls for people from Silverton and Ouray. Over $30 million in ore was taken from one area alone. Otto Mears, “Pathfinder of the San Juans,” built his “Million Dollar Highway” to Red Mountain in 1883, and within five years his “Rainbow Route” had followed. The entire area was devastated by three major fires, and today only a few headframes and mining structures survive. It's a regular stop though, for jeep tours, because of the large amount of picturesque mining relics.
The town was laid out in
1877. By 1885 it was connected to Ouray, Lake City, and Silverton by
daily stages and by telephone lines running over Engineer Pass. In
1904, at 11,160 feet, Animas Forks boasted the highest railroad
in America. Many of the buildings still stand, including an old school
and the famous three-story Walsh House, owned by Thomas Walsh who
purchased the Hope Diamond for his wife.
Located several miles off the byway (on CR 35) at an elevation of 12,000 feet on the Continental Divide, Carson is near Lake City and only accessible by ATV or jeep. One of the better-preserved mining towns on the loop, it began as a mining camp in 1892, and had a population of 400+ people by the 1890s. The townsite is now privately owned, but the owners will allow you to visit. Check with Jim and Nita Arnold at Rocky Mountain Jeep Rentals for a map and information about how to get there and what you'll see. Besides the numerous buildings, still in good repair, seven moose have been spotted there recently. Maybe a new group of residents are about to take over the old town?
The buildings, which date to the 1890s, are surprising intact. The Auric Mining Company, which owned the entire town and provided leaky, drafty housing, ruled that all single men would have to live in the company boarding house and pay a huge fee for the privilege. In 1899 the miners, mostly Italian, started a lock down strike. Someone also broke into the Lake City Armory and took weapons and ammunition. The Lake City Sheriff called the governor, who in turn called out the National Guard. They arrived, accompanied by the Italian ambassador. The strike was settled, and the company made all the Italian miners leave Hinsdale County.
Founded in 1877 and once considered for the capital of Colorado, following the recession of 1882-1883 and the crash of the silver market in 1893, the town was virtually abandoned by 1910. A few old buildings remain, but some new blood has come to town. Today, visitors see new construction alongside the old cabins.
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Alpine Loop Sign, Cinnamon Pass, Engineer Pass. Animas Forks, Mountains with stream, wildflowers, Mine Headworks. © Kathryn R. Burke
Bouncing Jeep graphic, Courtesy Switzerland Of America 4x4 Tours and Jeep Rentals
Marmot, © Roger Young
Silverton from above, Ouray from above, and Kate on the Engineer pass sign. © James Burke
Lake San Cristobol, Lake City Chamber of Commerce
The Alpine Loop and connecting hiking trails are only open in the summer season, generally June through September. Check with a local chamber and Colorado Road conditions before you set out. Most of the loop is accessible only by high-clearance, four-wheel drive, although the area between Silverton and Animas Forks, and the first part of Cinnamon Pass are easily traveled by most vehicles. Stay on designated roads. Do not trespass on private property. More information on mountain region byways.
All services, including food, lodging, gasoline, auto service, are available in the three main towns: Ouray, Silverton, Lake City. No services are available once you leave any of these towns.
Cell service is nonexistent or extremely limited (tour guides carry radios) service once you are in the backcountry.
There are public restrooms on the trail at Animas Forks above Silverton, and near Lake City at the bottom of Cinnamon and Engineer passes. If you carry and use your own toilet paper, bring a plastic bag—don't leave anything behind!
Drink plenty of water. At high altitude you dehydrate quickly. Carry water with you, and if you must drink from a stream, boil it for 10 or more minutes to remove contamination. If you get sick, it's along way to the doctor. Do not drink alcohol.
Weather changes instantly, In a few minutes you can go from heatstroke hot weather to heavy snow. Any time of the year! Wear layered clothing and a head cover or cap. If you're hiking, pack extra socks, gloves, rain gear, but pack as light as you can. Use sunscreen.
Most of the old mines and buildings in mining towns are unsafe to explore because of rotting timbers, open mine shafts, collapsing buildings, and rotten floors. It is best to explore outside of the buildings. Many of these buildings are on private lands; obey all signs that may be posted and do not trespass.
Most of the roads in the Alpine Triangle start at about 8,000 feet and go as high as 13,000. Hiking may take you above 14,000 feet. Hiking at high altitudes can cause headaches, nausea, and even more serious symptoms of altitude sickness. If you notice these symptoms, stop and rest awhile. If symptoms do not improve, head downhill to acclimate.
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