My Itchy Travel Feet | The Baby Boomer's Guide To Travel

Photo Essay: Driving the Alpine Loop in One Day

2011/07/05by Donna Hull

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The rocky 4-wheel-drive trails of the Alpine Loop in Colordao’s San Juan Mountains, introduce baby boomers to high-country scenery and Colorado mining history. It’s best explored on a 2 or 3-day trip with overnight stops in Lake City, Silverton or Ouray. However, Alan and I drove it in one day. By now, this year’s heavy winter snows should have finally melted. Are you ready to follow our itinerary?

To accomplish this aggressive boomer adventure, let’s begin the day EARLY in Silverton. You can either book one of the historic lodging choices or drive down from Ouray (our choice). You’ll need a 4-wheel-drive vehicle because the going becomes rough after Animas Fork. Don’t forget to air down those tires!

 

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After a 12-mile drive on Colorado state road 110 — accessible for two-wheel-drive vehicles — you’ll arrive at the mining ghost town of Animas Forks, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and San Juan County. Be sure to take the self-guided walking tour of the buildings. How did the miners and their families survive year-round living at 11,000+ feet elevation in the late 1800′s? But don’t stay too long. There’s at least 4 more hours of driving in your baby boomer future, plus a stop for lunch.

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If you’re in a two-wheel-drive car, turn around here. The trail that climbs to Engineer Pass is not for you. For those brave boomers in 4-wheel-drive vehicles, you’re in for an alpine treat as the journey travels above the tree line and into the tundra.

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Stop! Don’t take that turn onto the Cinnamon Pass trail, you’ll be driving it on your return from Lake City later this afternoon. Just keep on climbing up the rocky trail. This one’s slow going so take your time. Be sure to give pull over for the ATVs and dirt bikes, allowing them to pass. Once at the top of Engineer Pass, park the car for a photo opp. It will probably be windy. Shh, listen. Baa-baa. That’s a sheep herd you hear summering in the valley below.

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Are you hungry? Let’s get back on the trail and head to Lake City for lunch. On the way, the mountain scenery doesn’t disappoint. More mining history appears at Empire Chief Mill where an avalanche killed four workers in 1929. Boomer history buffs will want to stop at Capitol City, another mining ghost town before arriving in Lake City.

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Lake City is the only place to stop for lunch if you didn’t bring a picnic. Cannibal Grill is a good choice — bison and elk burgers are on the menu. How did the restaurant get its name? Alfred Packer guided a miner’s group from Ouray to Lake City in the late 1800’s. Legend and history report that the party became lost in the high snow and that Packer killed the men and ate them.

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We’ve completed half the loop. The trail to Cinnamon Pass will take us back to Animas Forks. The drive travels near San Cristobal Lake and through beautiful high country forests with many hiking trailheads.

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Stop at Cinnamon Pass, 12,620 ft elevation, for another look at where you’ve been. Don’t be alarmed at the dust on your car. It’s a downhill drive from here back to Animas Fork and Silverton.

Driving the 4-wheel-drive trails of the Alpine Loop offers high-country access to boomers who might not be up to a multi-day backpacking trip. Just remember to stay on designated roads, honk your horn at blind corners and that uphill traffic has the right of way.

Have you traveled on the Alpine Loop? Post a comment to share your favorite tips. On our next trip, Alan and I plan to take two to three days for this adventure to allow time for day hikes.



A boomer travel and lifestyle authority who is exploring the world one activity at a time. Besides writing and publishing My Itchy Travel Feet, she also writes about boomer travel for My Well-Being Powered by Humana, Make It Missoula and is the author of My Itchy Travel Feet: Breathtaking Adventure Vacation Ideas.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Vera Marie Badertscher July 5, 2011 at 6:10 pm

That looks so beautiful.  Our jeep is so old that we’ve decided we’ll have to rent a 4-wheel drive for our next backroad adventure. If you make the trip 2-3 days, where do you stay over night? Do you have to camp? And are their any developed picnic grounds, or are there good places to pull off the road and use a rock for a table?

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 7, 2011 at 1:54 pm

Vera, if you’re driving Silverton to Lake City and back to Silverton, you could start out with a night in Silverton. Then, spend a night (or two) in Lake City with another night in Silverton (or Ouray – it’s not far) for the third night. No camping involved. There are some camping areas close to Silverton and Lake City. There’s an especially nice on on the Animas River between Silverton and Animas Forks but I don’t know the logistics for renting a campsite. It looks like it’s first come, first serve. And, it’s primitive. There are not developed picnic grounds. We usually enjoy a tailgate lunch at the top of one of the passes, although that can be cold and windy.

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Leigh
Twitter:
July 5, 2011 at 8:49 pm

We did this trip in our Previa Van years ago – and I was scared stiff we were going to leave the underbelly somewhere along the route. What wonderful scenery but I could barely look out. I am not a good 4 wheel driver or passenger for that matter. 
I didn’t have a camera with me so nice to see the landscape again after so many years.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 5, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Leigh, I’m a big scaredy-cat. But Alan is such a great 4-wheel-driver that I feel comfortable when he’s behind the wheel.

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AlexBerger
Twitter:
July 6, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Looks like a fantastic drive!  I love the photo of the small cabin.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 6, 2011 at 3:51 pm

Thanks, Alex. It’s one of my favorites, too.

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Nomadic Samuel July 7, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Now that would have been just a gorgeous drive.  You captured the scenery very well with your photos :)

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Thanks! It’s hard to take a bad photo on the Alpine Loop!

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 7, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Thanks! It’s easy to take good photos with such beautiful surroundings. Makes we want to drive the Alpine Loop again!

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Living Large July 7, 2011 at 10:31 pm

I love Colorado. You make me want to go! 

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 7, 2011 at 11:33 pm

Kerri, Colorado makes a great summer road trip.

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Roxanne Hawn July 7, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Wow. I’ve lived in CO my whole life, and I’ve not done this drive. Great pix. When I feel sad about the lack of vacations in my life, I remind myself that I live in a place other people go on vacation.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 7, 2011 at 11:34 pm

I hear ya, Roxanne. Now that we’re in Montana, Alan and I are finding hard to leave our own back yard.

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Anonymous
Twitter:
July 8, 2011 at 10:44 am

What a fun looking drive – love the photos!  Sounds perfect for a summer Sunday!

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 8, 2011 at 1:28 pm

The Alpine Loop is probably my all time favorite 4-wheel-drive adventure. Not as tough as the Mongol Rally that you’re about to experience, though.

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Jane Boursaw
Twitter:
July 8, 2011 at 8:41 pm

What gorgeous, gorgeous photos. Love seeing the mountains, because we don’t have those around these parts (northwestern lower Michigan).

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 8, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Thanks, Jane. I have a thing about mountains so southwestern Colorado really resonates with me.

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Casey July 10, 2011 at 10:19 pm

This kind of trip is right up my husband’s alley – I’ll let him take the driver’s seat the whole way while I look at the view. And yes, we better stop at Cannibal Grill if we ever go.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 10, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Casey, you won’t regret stopping at Cannibal Grill. Good food and an excellent selection of beer.

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Melanie McMinn July 10, 2011 at 11:43 pm

How often do you think they get Donner Party jokes at the Cannibal Grill?

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 11, 2011 at 1:36 am

I’m sure the staff gets tired of hearing them.

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Sandy2118 July 11, 2011 at 1:30 am

What beautiful photos!  That one with the shack is breathtaking.  I remember driving through this landscape with my ex and kids 30 years ago.  It’s true that it is hard not to think of the miners when you whiz by in a car, and what their lives were like.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 11, 2011 at 1:36 am

What a history lesson for your kids, Sandy!

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MyKidsEatSquid July 11, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Ouray has to be one of my favorite spots in Colorado. Beautiful area. You need to listen to C.W. McCall as you go.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Great idea. Putting that on our list for the next visit to Ouray.

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Jennifer Margulis July 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Gorgeous photos! And who’s that good looking lady in the gray T-shirt?

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Ha, someone who looks far different after sitting in front of a computer for so many hours :-).

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Dtravelsround
Twitter:
July 25, 2011 at 2:12 am

Beauitful photos!!

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
July 25, 2011 at 2:14 am

Glad you enjoyed them. Thanks for commenting.

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Kay May 25, 2012 at 7:47 am

Your pics are great, and you do the trip justice. That is one of my ALL-TIME faves. (We used to live in Gunnison!) EVERYONE should put this trip on your bucket list. Trip Tip: Take LOTS of bottled water … the high altitude can get to the most seasoned traveler.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
May 25, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Hi Kay, thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m glad you enjoyed our Alpine Loop photos. This is one trip that Alan and I could do again and again. I agree about the water. Those high altitudes can get to you.

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