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Get in Gear: How to Start Off-Roading in Colorado

Beginner Trails: San Juan National Forest

Your full-size four-wheel-drive vehicle was made to get dirty on the Alpine Loop.


Living in Colorado, where breathtaking natural beauty abounds, can sometimes have the bizarre effect of making us inured to the splendor. But no matter how immune we think we’ve become to the tableau of snowcapped peaks, the Alpine Loop makes us susceptible once again. A 75-mile system of backcountry trails connecting the San Juan Mountains towns of Ouray, Silverton, Ophir, Telluride, and Lake City, the historic network of roadways no doubt makes other, lesser scenic byways envious. With views of no fewer than eight 13,000-plus-foot mountains and enveloped by five designated wilderness areas, the loop’s environs are stunning, even by Centennial State standards. Finding vistas such as these often requires expert four-by-four skills. Fortunately, the Alpine Loop can be all things to all off-roaders. Open to dirt bikes, ATVs, UTVs, and high-clearance four-wheel-drive SUVs, the majority of its trails are tame enough for beginners, so long as precipitous drops aren’t vertigo-inducing deal-breakers. A few stretches, like Black Bear Pass and Poughkeepsie Gulch, are no-nos for rookies—but if you’ve been itching to work that suspension in a spectacular setting, San Juan National Forest is calling.

Mental Notes: Your 4Runner is perfectly suited to the Alpine Loop for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s also street legal, making it easier for you to access the byway than it is for ATV, UTV, and dirt bike riders, who must trailer—or get a shuttle to take—their unplated rides to and from trailheads. However, your street-legal whip still needs an OHV permit to ply those paths. OHV permits can be purchased online or at nearby authorized sales agents in Lake City (Dan’s Fly Shop or the Sportsman), Telluride (Telluride Outside), and Silverton (San Juan Services).

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