When it comes to classic Colorado experiences, the Alpine Loop outside of Silverton is at the top of the list. This 73-mile 4×4 road traverses the San Juan Mountains, crossing 2 major passes and plenty of stunning scenery.
I’ve always loved the San Juans (West Slope Best Slope as the locals say). We opted to embark on a day-long adventure across the Alpine Loop Scenic Drive in Colorado for John’s birthday one year. We rented side-by-sides and hit the dirt on an epic adventure.
As a long-time Colorado local of nearly 15 years – I’ve spent plenty of time in the San Juans. The Alpine Loop offers an excellent way for experts and noobs alike to get into some of the most beautiful country Colorado has to offer. In fact, it’s one of the prettiest drives in Colorado.
About This Guide to the Alpine Loop in Colorado
If you’re looking to explore the Alpine Loop in CO like a local, not a tourist, then you’re in the right place. I’ve got decades of 4×4 driving experience. Couple that with being a long-time Colorado local, and you won’t find better info on the web.
Inside this guide to the Alpine Loop in Colorado you’ll find:
- Juicy info about the Alpine Loop including difficulty, mileage, and estimated time
- A map of the Alpine Loop
- Info on the best time of year to drive it
- Points of interest
- Nearby attractions you don’t want to miss
Practical Info about the Alpine Loop
The Alpine Loop is a scenic byway that goes from Silverton to Lake City and back again. The loop was made by combining old mining roads through the mountains. You’ll cross over two major passes, Cinnamon and Engineer Pass.
This road is a 4×4 road, meaning you’ll need low gears and high clearance to do the loop.
The loop is 73 miles long and takes most of the day. You can split up the journey and camp in designated areas along the way if you want more time in the area.
Local Tip: Stock 4×4 vehicles such as a Wrangler or a 4Runner will be alright on the road, but it’ll be quite bumpy. For most people, I recommend renting a side-by-side. The suspension is far more comfortable, the vehicle is more nimble, and you can get to some really amazing side adventures along the way.
How Difficult is the Alpine Loop in Colorado?
In terms of 4×4 driving, the road is not difficult. You don’t need a Jeep loaded with features to make the drive. However, it is steep, rugged, and a little exposed for the uninitiated.
Long stretches of road – especially coming in and out of Lake City – are on grated dirt roads. But the majority of the route is in the mountains. Novice 4×4 drivers who are well-prepared can certainly make the drive in normal conditions. While more experienced off-road enthusiasts will enjoy the stunning scenery and a few fun side-tracks.
Local Tip: Just because this road is easier, doesn’t mean it’s passable for a crossover SUV. You’ll need at least a stock 4Runner to make the drive.
How Long Does it Take to Do the Alpine Loop in Colorado?
Most people opt to do the Alpine Loop in a day. The loop takes around 7-8 hours with a few stops. Plan on longer if you’re getting out to hike or wander around a bunch.
This is a really easy objective if you rent a side-by-side in Silverton (more on that in a minute).
If you’re traveling by 4×4 vehicle it might be best to break the drive up into a day or two. Since the road is bumpy, it may feel pretty tedious to do the entire thing in a day.
Map of the Alpine Loop
Here’s a look at the Alpine Loop in full. You can start in one of three places; Ouray, Silverton, or Lake City. Ouray is the furthest away, and you’ll take a spur road to get to the Alpine Loop proper. Most people opt to start their journey in Silverton.
Check out the interactive version here.
Local Tip: As of 2022, Silverton no longer allows recreational off-road vehicles on surface streets. Most rental companies will tow your rental to a spot where you can legally drive them.
What is the Best Time of the Year for the Alpine Loop?
The Alpine Loop is an unmaintained dirt track, meaning it doesn’t get plowed. From mid-fall through early summer the road is completely impassible. Although every snow season is different, the best time to drive the Alpine Loop is from July through September.
Local Tip: During the snow-free season, violent afternoon thunderstorms are an issue. They are dangerous above treeline. Come prepared with rain gear, check the weather, and don’t get out of your vehicle above treeline during a thunderstorm.
Renting a 4×4 for the Alpine Loop
There are several choices when it comes to renting a 4×4 or side-by-side for the Alpine Loop in Colorado. My choice is Rock Pirates in Silverton. We loved our experience with Rock Pirates. You simply show up.
They will give you a loaded map with coded routes you can (or can’t) drive a safety device, a helmet, and a packed lunch. You can even load your own music onto the rig. It made the experience so easy and seamless. We went with a few of our overlanding friends. And although we were experienced, this was a super-simple experience if it’s your first time driving.
Driving My Own Vehicle
If you’re opting to drive your own vehicle on the Alpine Loop, here are a few things you should know.
You will NEED high clearance and low gears! This isn’t an outing for your Subie.
Come prepared. You’ll want a capable spare tire, a hi-lift jack, and a basic toolbox. Tows are sometimes impossible and can run you a $2,000 minimum.
Come even MORE prepared. If something goes wrong, you’ll want to be prepared to spend the night. Carry extra food, water, clothing, and an emergency beacon. These roads are difficult to access and help is a long way away.
It’ll be BUMPY. Overall, the road can be bumpy – the annoying kind of bumpy. Just plan for extra time since Jeeps and Toyotas can’t move as quickly over the terrain as a side-by-side or motorcycle.
Points of Interest Along the Alpine Loop
Aside from incredible mountain scenery, there are a few points of interest along the Alpine Loop in Colorado. Here’s a look at a few stops you won’t want to miss.
Local Tip: This area is the ancestral home of the Ute and Navajo people. There are centuries of history here lost to Western expansion. Visit with respect and remember that you’re traveling along sacred places when you visit.
Silverton is a small, old mining town nestled in the heart of the San Juans. Located right along the uber-scenic Million Dollar Highway, this picture-perfect Colorado mountain town is a great spot to start and end your day.
If you’re looking for a post-drive meal, The Pitts Again makes a mean BBQ.
If you’re starting your journey out of the Silverton area, your first stop is Animas Forks. This old Colorado ghost town was abandoned in the late 1800s. You can opt to get out and wander around the town. It’s eerie but interesting.
Your first big pass is Cinnamon Pass. At 12,720 feet above sea level, you’ll be treated to expansive mountain views. You can park and walk around at the pass, taking in the surrounding scenery.
Located just 10 miles west of Lake City, Whitmore Falls offers a cool overlook from the road. You’ll see a small sign pointing towards the falls. Park here and make the short hike down to check it out.
Lake San Cristobal
This jewel-colored lake offers some dreamy scenes as you pass by. The road around here is quite mellow and you can stop at various points along the lake, or take a few of the side roads to check it out. At the second largest natural lake in Colorado, it’s a great lunch spot.
An old prospector’s town turned vacay destination, Lake City is worth a stop. It’s a small town of just 375 people, but there are a few shops and restaurants to explore. The laid-back vibes here make this place a great stop along the Alpine Loop to stretch your legs.
One of my favorite stops along the Alpine Loop in Colorado has to be Engineer Pass. The scenery is the stuff of legends. It’s a beautiful atmosphere and tons of awesome places to pull over and enjoy the sprawling mountain views.
Local Tip: On the south side of the pass, you’ll want to take a detour to check out Odom Point (a trailed spur heading west).
Engineer Mountain is a side-quest along the Alpine Route. You can either take the designated side-by-side trail or hike up to the top of this amazing 13,000-foot peak. The views are awesome and you’ll spot Engineer Pass and Odom Point in the distance.
To reach it, just look for a side trail (marked on your map if you’re in a side-by-side) on the north side of the road on the south side of Engineer Pass.
Exploring Side Roads
Honest, exploring random side roads in the Uncompagre wilderness and the area surrounding Engineer Pass offers up some of the best adventures.
If I had to do the Alpine Loop all over again, I’d spend most of my time around the American Basin and Engineer Pass just exploring the side roads.
We found gem-colored lakes, stunning mountain views, and plenty of fun driving along these routes.
Tips and Tricks
Be in the know before you go. Here are a few handy 4×4 driving tips to help you along.
Stay on marked trails only. It’s illegal to drive around on the tundra – and it damages the fragile environment in an extreme way.
Uphill has the right of way – always. Pull over for uphill vehicles.
If you’re passing, use your hand to signal how many are in your party. Throw up the number of fingers to indicate how many people are behind you. A closed, raised fist indicates you are the last one.
If you’re traveling by OHV that you own, you must have a Colorado OHV tag.
Wear your seatbelt and don’t keep your hands outside the vehicle. Accidents can and do happen.
Check the weather. Weather can be highly unpredictable in the mountains. Dangerous afternoon thunderstorms are common.
You must wear a helmet, goggles or sunglasses, or have a windshield. Helmets are always required in OHVs.
Don’t litter. Seriously. Bring a trash baggy and keep your trash with you. Pack it in and pack it out.
What to Pack
Pack accordingly. Here’s what you’ll want to bring:
- Sun protection. Sunglasses, sunscreen, sunhat, even a sunshirt
- Rain gear. It can and will rain in the mountains!
- Warm jacket, warm socks, fleece layer, and warm pants
- Clothes for hot weather – yea, you will likely want to change
- A headscarf or Buff to protect yourself from the dust
- Plenty of water. Plan on bringing 2.5 liters per person
- Snacks and food. Rentals provide this, but you may want more
- First aid kit just in case
- Safety gear. Helmet, goggles, emergency beacon, and GPS device. Rental companies will provide this for you.
- A camera
- Full-size spare tire, hi-lift jack, and basic fix-it tools if you’re self-driving
Things to Do Nearby
There is a TON of amazing recreation opportunities nearby. A few of my personal favorites include:
- Yankee Boy Basin for hiking, driving, and more
- Ophir Pass scenic drive to Telluride from Ouray
- Ice Lake Basin hike
- Ouray via Ferrata
- The scenic trail from Silverton to Durango
Additional Local Colorado Travel Resources
Looking to travel Colorado like a local, not a tourist? Then you’re in the right place. Check out these amazing resources just for you.