Updated: Sep 8, 2021
The mighty Colorado Rockies have drawn people to its majestic alpine peaks and meadows for hundreds of years. This section of the San Juans provides some of the most awesomely jaw dropping mountain scenery in the lower 48.
Adventure Rating: Baja
Trip Length: 180 miles, 3-5 days
Season: Late June - September. This route traverses some of the highest elevation roads in the United States. Check with local land managers to see if mountain passes are open.
Avg Trail Rating: 3
Peak Trail Rating: 5
Typical Terrain: A mixture of dirt and pavement. Most roads are well groomed and mild, but Black Bear Pass has some technical sections (spotter recommended). A few other trails like Imogene and Ophir passes have some moderate sections, but nothing in comparison to Black Bear Pass.
Recommended Vehicle: Truck or SUV with 4 low and all terrain tires. Trailers are not recommended on this route.
Adventure Vans: Sprinter 4x4s not recommended. Quigleys and Sportsmobiles may have issues navigating the tight switchbacks on Black Bear pass.
Alternative Routes: n/a
Directional Traffic: Black Bear Pass is a one way trail. The direction of traffic descends from the pass into the town of Telluride.
The Alpine Loop within the San Juan National Forest is one of the most sought after and iconic off road routes in North America. Despite its name, the Alpine Loop isn't much of a loop at all, but rather an extensive network of trails and roads separated by the iconic Rocky Mountains. Along the way you'll be blessed with magnificent vistas, high alpine meadows and mountain likes, ghost towns, and the remains of old mining operations. We've pieced together what we think is the perfect route through the San Juans, with the goal of providing maximum payoff for the mileage.
Your journey begins in the quaint mountain town of Silverton. Over the course of 180 miles, the route summits no less than 10 mountain passes, with the majority being above 12,000' elevation. Due to the high elevation across the entire route, it's recommended that anyone traveling to the area check with the San Juan National Forest on the statuses of the various passes. Severe weather events may temporarily close down high elevation passes, even during the summer months. From Silverton, jump onto highway 550 heading north. Keep an eye out for Road 825 (Brooklyn Road), which is your first excursion onto dirt and into the alpine. As the road ascends the mountainside, a series of old and some still standing buildings comes into view. This is the old Brooklyn mine, which is just the first of many old mines and mining settlements along the route. Brooklyn Road tops out at just under 12,000' before descending back down to highway 550. Cross the highway and start making your way towards Black Bear Pass.
The road up to Black Bear Pass (Road 823) is rather tame, and like many of the other passes along the route, the views from the top are superb. As you make your way over the pass, consider stopping to check out the Andrus and Black Bear mines. Below Black Bear mine is where the route begins to get technical. For those that aren't expert level off roader drivers, a spotter is recommended for off-camber portions of the trail as well as a few of the tight switchbacks that Black Bear Pass is famous for. If you're not a big fan of cliffside exposure, you should probably consider a different route. But if you take it slowly, and you have a good spotter, you should be fine-- and the rest of the route will seem like cake! While you may be putting your full concentration and making it through the switchbacks, there are two picturesque waterfalls along this section of trail (Bridal Veil and Ingram falls). Once you've made it through the switchbacks, the rest of the trail is rather tame as it makes its way into Telluride. If you're looking for a great meal or drink with friends, Telluride is a great place for a pit stop. But don't get too acquainted with the luxuries of civilization, as the pass number two is just around the corner. Sitting at 13,114', Imogene Pass is a mildly technical trail and the highest mountain pass along the route. There are a number of old mines (Cinnamon, Argentine) and mine settlements on both sides of the mountain. As you make your way up and over the pass, the idyllic hamlet of Ouray comes into view. Ouray also happens to be the annual venue for the FJ Summit, a favorite among FJ Cruiser and Toyota aficionados. From town, take highway 550 south back towards Silverton. Within a few minutes, you're ready to hit the dirt again, and bring on pass number three: Engineer Pass, elevation 12,800'. While the trail up and over Engineer mountain is considered moderate, it will likely seem like a kiddy trail after hitting Black Bear and Imogene passes. Take road 878 east towards Engineer mountain. As you make your way to the pass, Odom point is a must visit location, with perhaps some of the best views within the Colorado Rockies. The east side of Engineer Mountain loses elevation quickly as it descends into the Henson Creek drainage. The views from the canyon bottom are nearly as magnificent as those from the mountain peaks. On the way to Lake City, you'll pass the old mining settlements of Capitol City and Henson. Capitol City being the more impressive of the two.
The road ends at Lake City, which provides an opportune time to refuel. The route departs the Alpine Loop and traverses the pavement along the the northern slopes of Jarosa Mesa. A few minutes past Slumguillion Pass, turn right onto Road 547, which happens to be the CDT, or Continental Divide Trail. With its wide opens meadows and grass mountain slopes, Jarosa Mesa looks more like Switzerland than the United States. If you're lucky, you may even catch a flock of sheep grazing the alpine slopes. Those that seek a bit of backcountry luxury may want to consider booking the Jon Wilson yurt along the lower slopes of Jarosa Mesa and Pt 71 mountain. Once you've made it to the valley floor, swing a left back onto the pavement of Road 30. Follow Road 30 until the fork in the road, and then stay right onto Shelf Road, which soon turns into dirt.
The road up and over Cinnamon Pass (elev 12,640) has a few moderate sections. Be sure to check out the picturesque alpine valley of American Basin as you make your way up to the pass. Descending from Cinnamon mountain, the route drops into the Animas river basis. A well preserved ghost town, Animas Forks is perhaps one of the most visited old mining settlements in the San Juans, with many buildings still standing. Sitting at over 11,000 feet elevation, it was one of the highest mining settlements in the contiguous United States. Next up is the relatively mild Picayne Gulch trail (also referred to as Picayune Gulch), an area with numerous mines and old pioneer remnants. From Picayne Gulch, the route snakes its way through the glacier carved alpine valleys, until it meets the neighboring California (elev 12,960) and Hurricane passes, and soon thereafter, Corkscrew Pass (elev 12,244). This portion of the Alpine loop is well known for its wildflowers and healthy marmot population.
Once you've descended Road 886 from Corkscrew Pass, it's time to burn some pavement miles along highway 550 back towards Silverton. Swing a right onto the dirt of Road 679 and towards your final alpine pass. At 11,789', Ophir Pass isn't the highest or most technical along the route, but it does have quite a bit of exposure along a trail that's made mostly of scree. Follow the road through the tiny hamlet of Ophir, and then across highway 145 and onto the graded dirt of Road 625. Over the course of 180 miles, you're conquered no less than 10 mountain passes. Telluride awaits just around the corner, and is ready to reward you and your crew.
Camping Recommendations While there are numerous developed campgrounds along the route, the dispersed camping is second-to-none in the San Juans. Check out those side trails and backroads, and you'll surely be rewarded. Please obey signage where camping is prohibited.
Recommended Points of Interest
Ophir Pass, elev 11,789
Black Bear Pass, elev 12,840
Slumgullion Pass, elev 11,529
Imogene Pass, elev 13,114
Engineer Pass, elev 12,800
Cinnamon Pass, elev 12,640
California Pass, elev 12,960
Hurrican3 Pass, elev 12,407
Corkscrew Pass, elev 12,244
Jarosa Mesa Pass
Animas Forks ghost town
Capitol City ghost town
Bridal Veil falls
Maps + Navigation
>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions.
Gaia GPS (NatGeo Trails Illustrated, USFS 2016, Gaia base layer)
San Juan National Forest paper map
Download GPX files