Alpine Loop, Colorado

Alpine Loop, Colorado Hot

the staffthe staff  
5.0 (4)
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Great ViewThe wind: cold! The expanse: overwhelming! The views: breathtaking! The experience: life changing! The adventure: extreme! The place: The Rocky Mountains! The Rockies offer limitless adventures to ATV riders and other outdoor enthusiasts alike. From the wildlife to the amazing views, any time spent in the Rockies puts in perspective how small we really are.

Having grown up vacationing in Colorado and enjoying the outdoors, I knew there was no better place than Colorado for my first big ATV adventure. That is what ran through my mind when the daydreaming began about where to spend some ATV time in the outdoors. There are miles and miles of jeep trails through the remote areas of the wilderness once traveled primarily by miners. Colorado has many abandoned mining towns from the days of the gold rush, which can be accessed only by ATVs and other off-road vehicles. Even for a person who lives in this part of the country, it would still take years to cover all of the places to ride.

Choosing a place to start is quite a challenge, so why should we not start with the Alpine Loop, which is a very popular area for off-road enthusiasts? The Alpine Loop (which can be found in our riding destination listings in Colorado) winds through the area between Silverton, Lake City, and Ouray, Colorado. Within this off-road area there are hundreds of miles of trails one can travel. There are old mining town-sites, wildlife, lakes, flowers, and mountain peaks or passes all along the way. The elevation changes are also substantial. A rider will spend some time in the bottom lands and end up going over a pass way above the treeline with elevations in the 14,000 feet range. The views on these roads will literally change one's life. The pictures do not do justice to the magnificence of these views.

I chose Lake City, Colorado, as the base camp for this adventure. Lake City is a small town which is located in the middle of the Alpine Loop. By way of paved highways, Lake City is located on Highway 149 between Gunnison and South Fork in the San Juan Mountains. It has plenty of places to stay, along with ATV rentals, restaurants, campgrounds, gas stations, andOld Carson Road Sign motels. Specific listings can be found on the Lake City's website.  Unlicensed vehicles are not permitted on paved roads or in town; however, gas, supplies, restaurants, and groceries are within walking distance in town. I have stayed in motels and camped in the Lake City area, and both will work well for an ATV adventure during the summer months. Staying in a campground or cabins located on the Alpine Loop (and not in town) will eliminate the need for trailering one's ATV to the planned adventure site. 

One fact that must be accepted from the start is that there is no way to cover all of the trails in just one trip (or even several trips). There are just too many trails. There is nothing on these roads requiring four wheel drive for an ATV, after the snow melts in mid June. Even a beginner ATV rider should have no problem on any of the roads on the MAIN TRAIL of the Alpine Loop. On our adventure we decided to set out from the South end of Lake City on Highway 149 to County Road 3, heading towards Cinnamon Pass. The distance from Lake City to Cinnamon Pass is about 24 miles and takes around 3 hours to travel. The Alpine Loop is well marked, so a GPS unit or a map is not REQUIRED (even though I would take a map). Along this route is the cutoff for Old Carson, which is an abandoned mining town. There are still many buildings left standing there, and seeing them is well worth the trip. The road to Old Carson begins the climb almost immediately from County Road 3. The elevation change was rapid as we climbed this old mining road. We arrived at the town-site, and then had the option to continue to the top of the mountain. I recommend doing this as the view is spectacular. The road from Old Carson to the top is a little steeper, and the ride back down can be challenging. I definitely wanted to keep the ATV from gaining momentum. It is important to come back down the mountain the same way in which one ascends.  Once we were back on County Road 3, we continued South for several miles. A sign on the right points up into the mountains from the bottom lands. It says that 4-wheel drive is recommended farther up the road. I love this sign! Without so many words, it says that the adventure ahead is going to be outstanding! We passed a public camp site along with an outhouse or two as we began the climb up to Cinnamon Pass. Along the way we saw remnants of a different time when miners lived and worked in this area. Before long, we were above the tree line and climbing the tight switchbacks to the pass itself. We had to make it a point to take in the beauty of the amazing views. The sign came into view, declaring that Cinnamon Pass has an elevation of 12,640 feet.  And, believe me, experiencing the vast expanse of the tops of the Rocky Mountains from there is breathtaking.   From there we were on to the next stop: Animas Forks {mospagebreak}

Picayne GulchAs we began the descent from Cinnamon Pass on the opposite side, we could see a town-site below. This is the mining town of Animas Forks. Several roads and trails end up at this town-site, a fact which makes for a great place to take a break. There are several mines on the mountain peaks surrounding Animas Forks. The town was hounded in 1873 when people began to build cabins on their claims.  At its peak there was a hotel. saloon, boarding house, and a store or two. About 10 buildings of this town-site still stand and there are restrooms for the much needed pit-stop. From here we had a plethora (yes I used "plethora") of different roads from which to choose. We could head west and take the California Gulch road which connects to Engineer Mountain Road. We could head South toward Silverton (Unlicensed vehicles are not allowed in Silverton.) and take Picayne Gulch, Minnie Gulch, or Maggie Gulch. No matter what we might choose to do, we had to keep in mind our time, as many of these roads  take some time to travel. All of these trails are worth exploring. Animas Forks is a great spot to work from. We took Picayne Gulch and took time to look at this old mining site. We explored many of the off-shoot roads, and found ourselves on different peaks along the way. The views are amazing to say the least. A person should plan to spend at least 3 hours just exploring up here, eventually working his way back to Animas Forks.

Now to head back, we could head back 24 miles the way we came or we could take the 24 mile 3 hour trip back to Lake City by way of Engineer Pass. TAKE NOTE: If a rider should go back by way of Engineer Pass, he will need to have a way to get back to his trailer on the South side of Lake City. There is no connecting trail to CR 3, and an unlicensed vehicle is not allowed on the paved roads in Lake City. A vehicle could be left in Lake City and then driven to the trailer to tow it back to the ATVs. There also used to be a shuttle service from one spot to the other. The Lake City website should be consulted for information on this. Another approach would be to go back Cinnamon Pass and come back to Animas Forks via Engineer Pass on another day.  It is easy to spend 2 days exploring up in this area, and still not be able to cover all the roads available. We chose to go back Enginner Pass, as we had made arrangements to get back to where we started.

Engineer Pass Road provides a rocky and steep climb from Animas Forks to Engineer Pass, which has an elevation of 13,218 feet. colorado_wildflowers.pngThe road completely drops-off on one side, so it looks a little menacing. The climb, however, is no problem for an ATV. This pass, along with all the other passes, is breathtaking at the top. As we descended  from Engineer Pass towards Lake City, we again witnessed the past, as mining equipment scatters the landscape. The descent included some switchbacks and snow still covering the mountain side. We re-entered the tree line , and were provided with an opportunity to make a pit-stop in a couple of places. After several miles, we passed Capitol City, and then Henson Creek appeared alongside the road, which took us all the way into town. The descent was gradual as we rode, passing a mine or two along the way. Before we knew it, we were enjoying down-home cooking at Southern Vittles on Silver Street in Lake City. 

The Alpine Loop area has more miles of exploration than could be accomplished in several days of riding. The whole experience is simply amazing, and is on a very short list of the best riding in the U.S. Between the views, wildlife, mines, and ghost towns, this ride is life-changing. This area makes one feel small and insignificant against the majesty and size of the Rockies. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience this at least once in a lifetime. Riding the Rockies never seems to do anything but make me pause and think what an amazing world we live in. Until the next adventure....

Riding Requirements


Rocky and semi-steep in places. All levels of riders will enjoy this riding because of the beauty of the riding. The level of expertise required on these roads is minimal.

What to Bring

ATV Modifications

Re-jet Carburetor- If you have a carburetor on your ATV you will need to re-jet it for the altitude.  Altitude in Lake City is about 9000 feet above sea level, and the peaks will range from 12,000 to 14,000 feet.  Ask your dealer before you leave what jet you will need.  If you have an EFI system you will not need to worry about this. 

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