The Alpine Loop is not your leisurely Sunday-morning drive.

The National Backcountry Byway—with two passes rising more than 12,600 feet, rugged and remote four-wheel-drive-only roads, verdant meadows teeming with wildflowers and ghost towns galore—is an ideal opportunity to get onto a beaten path. The loop crosses the craggy terrain that connects the former mining towns of Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton, and follows trails blazed first by Ute and other Native Americans, and later by intrepid miners seeking their fortunes (zinc, silver, gold and lead) in the area’s mineral-rich volcanic rocks. The dilapidated mills, mining ruins, and camps scattered along the 63-mile route offer glimpses into the region’s glory days.

The loop, which is best driven clockwise and takes four to six hours to complete, passes three fourteeners—Redcloud, Sunshine, and Handies—before crossing Cinnamon Pass at 12,620 feet. The rough road drops to Animas Forks, a ghost town with several well-preserved buildings. The “town” includes three-story Duncan House. The building was reportedly purchased in the 1880s by Irish immigrant-turned-millionaire Thomas Walsh, who discovered Telluride’s prolific Campbird Mine and whose daughter, Evalyn, was the last private owner of the stunning 45-carat Hope Diamond.

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From Animas Forks the loop veers north, then eastward to climb over Engineer Pass, which, at a breathtaking 12,800 feet, is the high-point of the loop. After descending from this stunning vantage point, the route passes Rose’s Cabin, the area’s first permanent resident built in 1874. This stout structure served as the stopover for the daily stagecoach runs that linked Animas Forks with Lake City along a pricey toll road, completed in 1877. Today’s route continues eastward past Whitmore Falls and the optimistically named silver mining town of Capitol City before returning to Lake City.

The Alpine Loop also features several side spurs, the longest of which branches off near Animas Forks and snakes its way down to Silverton, once one of the San Juans’ rowdiest towns, with over 40 saloons. A much shorter spur, located on the east side of Cinnamon Pass, accesses American Basin, a gorgeous spot known for its abundant summer wildflowers, including vast carpets of columbine. The challenges of accessing and exploring this byway—typically open only from early June until mid-October—only increase its appeal.

Visit: A high-clearance 4WD vehicle is necessary to cross the Alpine Loop’s highest—and most scenic­—portions. You can rent one in Lake City, Ouray, or Silverton, or take a guided 4×4 tour.

—Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at