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  • Scenic views from Engineer Pass from Colorado's Alpine Loop near Ouray
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    Ouray: Outdoor Adventures in the 'Switzerland of America'

  • ATV adventures on trails surrounding Lake City
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    Lake City: Mountains Immersed in Mining History

  • Taking a break in the mountains outside Silverton in San Juan County
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    Silverton: Outdoor Life at High Altitude

Directional signs for Alpine Loop trail explorers in the Lake City area
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Lake City/Hinsdale County Chamber of Commerce

Colorado’s Alpine Loop: A Rugged Road to Scenic Mountain Towns

By Idoia Gkikas

  • Route distance:
  • Suggested Time:
    4 days

Adventurous travelers looking for an off-the-grid road trip in Colorado can find it on the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway.

During the 19th century, gold and silver miners used this unpaved trail to transport precious metals between the towns of Ouray, Lake City and Silverton. The rugged loop is just 105 kilometers long, but you’ll want to spread the trip out over several days to take in the scenery and discover historic mining towns, wild mountain passes and an abundance of uncrowded outdoor recreation. Plan for a summertime visit (June – September), and be sure to reserve a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle (such as a Jeep) for this off-road experience.

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Scenic views from Engineer Pass from Colorado's Alpine Loop near Ouray
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Ouray: Outdoor Adventures in the 'Switzerland of America'

It’s a six-hour drive from Denver International Airport (DEN) to Ouray, and there are plenty of amenities along the way to prepare for your adventure. The town of Ouray is nestled in a narrow valley almost entirely enclosed by 4,000-meter-high mountains, giving it the nickname the “Switzerland of America.” Enjoy the bird’s-eye views of the Ouray Perimeter Trail hike, which circles the town, and relax afterward with a soak in the naturally sulfur-free Ouray Hot Springs pool. Enjoy outdoor activities including rafting and tubing on the Uncompahgre River, fishing, horseback riding and rock climbing. The beginning of the Alpine Loop from Ouray takes you through Engineer Pass at 3,900 meters for a spectacular preview of what’s ahead. Fill your camera with unbelievable shots of soaring mountain peaks and the Uncompahgre Wilderness. Continue on to Lake City, taking in the awe-inspiring scenery along the way.

49 km
2.75 hours by car
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ATV adventures on trails surrounding Lake City
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Lake City: Mountains Immersed in Mining History

It’s less than 50 kilometers on the Alpine Loop to Lake City, but the drive will take you nearly three hours – stay tight on the road and make use of the vehicle’s low gears. Just before you arrive, tour the Hard Tack Mine to appreciate what a 19th century silver miner’s life was like in these harsh conditions. In downtown Lake City, life is much easier. There are no stoplights, high rises or chain stores to be found. Instead, you’ll discover a quaint city center that looks like it’s straight out of the early 1900s. This award-winning National Historic District boasts more than 200 historic structures – and a breathtaking backdrop of “Fourteeners” – mountain peaks more than 14,000 feet, or 4,200 meters, high. Drive out to Windy Point Overlook located 20 minutes outside Lake City for an outstanding view of the peaks jutting like shark fins above the horizon. If simply seeing the scenery isn’t enough, you can take advantage of the world-class hiking, horseback riding and ATV (all-terrain vehicle) off-roading found in the area. Despite its small size, Lake City has a satisfying array of restaurants and lodging options. Stay the night to rest up after all the activity.

54 km
3 hours by car
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Taking a break in the mountains outside Silverton in San Juan County
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Silverton: Outdoor Life at High Altitude

Wake up refreshed for your three-hour drive to Silverton. Along the way, you’ll traverse Cinnamon Pass, the Alpine Loop’s second highest pass at 3,852 meters. Keep your camera ready for spectacular long-range views and a shot of Animas Forks, a ghost town dating back to the 1870s. As the name suggests, Silverton was built on silver and gold mining and is the ending point of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a rail line built in 1882 that hauled silver and gold from the town of Durango to Silverton. This pioneering history still resonates in the downtown National Historic District and the many 19th and early 20th century-era buildings. Don’t miss a tour of the Old Hundred Gold Mine, a guided trek that goes half a kilometer into Galena Mountain. Pick up a Heritage Pass to gain entry to the San Juan County Historical Society Mining Heritage Center and 1902 Jail, as well as the Mayflower Mill, a preserved gold mill and National Historic Site, where you’ll see how metals were extracted from the hard rock. Professional tour outfitters can create custom backcountry tours to include historic sites, the Animas Forks ghost town, outstanding scenic overlooks, the area’s best hikes and even ATV trails. Stay the night in Silverton. The drive back to the airport is about seven hours, though you’ll welcome the paved roads after the Colorado adventure you’ve just had.

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