Four for the Road

There's nothing more American than a long stretch of highway (or a winding stretch of dirt), a full tank of gas—and nowhere to be until work on Monday. Whether you're looking for luxurious hot springs, Technicolor waterfalls, small-town beer tastings, or some down-and-dirty four-wheelin', we've got the perfect trip for you.

May 2010

3. Road to Nowhere

Navigating a rollicking four-wheel-drive adventure in one of the remotest parts of the United States.

The route: Lake City to Ouray to Telluride to Silverton to Lake City
The distance: 100 miles off-road, 50 miles on pavement Driving time: 2 full days, 2 half days

I'm only nine miles of bumpy and rutted dirt road into my journey when I come across the ghost town of Capitol City. I hop out and wander among the decaying log houses—Capitol City went bankrupt after the gold and silver mines busted—reveling in the surrounding craggy peaks. This is the joy of the San Juan Mountains: tiny towns—some disappearing, others thriving—in the midst of unrivaled wilderness.

I left this morning from Lake City, an itty-bitty town in southwestern Colorado that owns the distinction of being the remotest community in the Lower 48, on a four-day off-roading journey. The plan? Spend as little time on pavement as possible, crisscrossing the San Juans in my lovingly abused 1999 Jeep Cherokee.

After a stroll and a few snapshots in Capitol City, I point my tires up Engineer Pass, the highest point of the trip at 12,800 feet, where I admire wide-open vistas before descending the steep, rocky route and picking up Highway 550. I turn north and cruise four miles into Ouray. (No wonder they call it the Switzerland of America—the town squeezes itself inside a tight box canyon.) Famished from the drive, I head to The Outlaw Restaurant for a steak and live piano music before turning in for the night at the Alpenglow condos, right in the center of Ouray.

Day two finds me humming along Highway 550 before turning west onto Highway 62 through Ridgway. Leaving the pavement behind, I bank south onto Last Dollar Road. This is the tamest segment of the journey, the only one I'd attempt without four-wheel drive and high clearance. The road is still bumpy, though, and the breathtaking views of the San Miguel River's canyon and the Sneffels Range stop me mid-bounce.

Last Dollar Road eventually finds paved Highway 145, where I turn east and motor into Telluride. The dirt and grime and dust have left me spitting sand, so I decide to quench my thirst at Smuggler's Brewpub and Grille. I happily tuck into a pint of Powder Night Espresso Porter, with dark roasted malts and Italian espresso, before retiring at The New Sheridan Hotel, which dates to 1895 and combines a rich history and a convenient in-the-heart-of-downtown location.

Continuing my counterclockwise loop, I churn south along Highway 145, which plays host to blown-open views of Wilson Peak (of Coors commercial fame), before turning east to Ophir and more off-roading. My destination is Silverton via Ophir Pass, but at the summit I take a 20-minute hike to the icy-blue waters of Crystal Lake. Back in my vehicle—and still puffing a bit from my excursion—I glide down the mountain to Highway 550. At the bottom of the hill, I turn south and roll into Silverton. My first stop is the tasting room at Montanya Rum, a local distillery serving two award-winning varieties of rum, where I spend an hour sipping cocktails. Then it's a quick jaunt over to the historic Teller House Hotel for my last night.

The final leg of my itinerary has me heading back to the start, following County Road 2 northeast over Cinnamon Pass. After about 12 miles, Animas Forks ghost town peeks over the horizon, and I spend a few minutes wandering among its worn-out houses, jail, and mining ruins. After the summit of Cinnamon, I head downhill into Lake City. My loop complete, I decide paved roads never felt quite so good. —Pete Bronski