Alpine Loop: Scenic Drive and Historic Sites


The Alpine Loop Scenic Byway is a 65-mile route that winds through southwestern Colorado’s stunning San Juan Mountains. This historic byway offers unparalleled access to ghost towns, historic mines, and breathtaking natural scenery, making it a must-visit destination for outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs alike.


  • The Alpine Loop is a 65-mile scenic byway traversing Colorado's San Juan Mountains.
  • It provides access to ghost towns, historic mines, and off-roading, hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing opportunities.
  • The byway passes through the charming mountain towns of Silverton, Ouray, and Lake City, offering unique cultural experiences.

Destination Overview

The Alpine Loop Scenic Byway in southwest Colorado is one of the best scenic drives, taking visitors through the heart of the San Juan Mountain range. The Bureau of Land Management manages this 65-mile loop and offers a unique blend of natural wonders, historical sites, and outdoor adventures, making it a popular tourist destination. Before starting out, you should know that only four miles of the Alpine Loop road are paved, so high-clearance 4×4 vehicles are a must!

The byway’s highlights include the ghost towns of Animas Forks and Eureka, where visitors can explore abandoned buildings and learn about the region’s mining history. The historic mining towns of Silverton, Ouray, and Lake City provide a glimpse into the area’s rich cultural heritage, with opportunities to visit museums, galleries, and local eateries.

To access the Colorado Alpine Loop Scenic Byway from Ouray, use County Road 18. From Lake City, use County Roads 30 or 20. From Silverton, use County Road 2.

Local Experiences and Culture

Immersing oneself in the local culture is integral to the Alpine Loop Scenic Drive experience. The gateway communities of Silverton, Ouray, and Lake City in San Juan County offer a warm welcome, with opportunities to interact with locals and participate in cultural events.

Visitors can indulge in local cuisine, featuring fresh ingredients and flavors inspired by the region’s mining and ranching traditions and Native American culture. Attending festivals and events like the Ouray Ice Park Festival or the Silverton Skijoring Weekend provides a unique insight into the area’s vibrant cultural tapestry.

Outdoor Adventures

The Alpine Loop is a Rocky Mountain paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, offering various activities for all skill levels. Off-roading and 4×4 trails are popular, with challenging routes like the California Gulch and the Stony Pass providing thrilling adventures for experienced drivers. At Nellie Creek, you can access the trailhead for Uncompahgre Peak, and Burrows Park is where you’ll see restored historic buildings near the trailheads for Handies, Redcloud, and Sunshine Peak.

Hiking trails, such as the Ice Lake Basin and the Yankee Boy Basin, offer stunning vistas and opportunities for wildlife viewing. Mountain biking enthusiasts can explore the trails around Ouray and Lake City, while anglers can cast their lines in the pristine streams and lakes of the San Juan National Forest, such as Lake City’s Lake San Cristobal.

If you’re ending your drive in Ouray, you won’t want to miss the natural hot springs in the area.

Historical Exploration

The Alpine Loop is a living museum with a rich history etched into its landscapes and towns. Visitors can explore the remnants of the region’s mining past, including the Old Hundred Gold Mine and the Mayflower Mill.

Animas Forks and Eureka offer haunting, ghost town glimpses into the boom-and-bust cycles of the mining era. You’ll find abandoned buildings and artifacts frozen in time. Guided tours and interpretive centers provide valuable insights into the area’s cultural heritage and the lives of those who once called these towns home.

Nature and Wildlife

The Alpine Loop is a nature lover’s paradise, offering ample opportunities for wildlife viewing and enjoying the stunning natural landscapes. The San Juan Mountains are home to diverse wildlife, including bighorn sheep, elk, and black bears, making the byway a prime location for spotting these majestic creatures in their natural habitats.

Fall is a particularly beautiful time to visit, with the aspen groves and mountainsides ablaze with vibrant colors. Photography enthusiasts will find no shortage of breathtaking vistas and scenic spots to capture the region’s natural beauty. The Engineer Pass road is challenging but well worth the effort!

Accommodation and Dining

The gateway communities of Silverton, Ouray, and Lake City offer a range of lodging options, from rustic campgrounds to charming bed-and-breakfasts and hotels. Camping enthusiasts can enjoy the serenity of the San Juan National Forest, while those seeking more luxurious accommodations can find cozy inns and resorts in the towns.

Local restaurants and eateries offer a taste of the region’s culinary heritage, with dishes featuring locally sourced ingredients and flavors inspired by the area’s mining and ranching traditions. From casual cafes to upscale dining experiences, visitors can savor the authentic flavors of the Alpine Loop.

Planning Your Visit

The best times to visit the Colorado Alpine Loop Scenic Byway are during the summer and fall months when the weather is mild and the byway is fully accessible. However, visitors should be prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions and plan accordingly.

For those seeking a guided experience, jeep tours with knowledgeable guides are available. These tours offer the opportunity to explore remote areas inaccessible by regular vehicles. Backpacking enthusiasts can embark on multi-day treks through the San Juan Mountains and National Forest, immersing themselves in the region’s natural beauty.


What is the best way to experience the Alpine Loop?

The Alpine Loop is best experienced by driving the scenic byway and stopping at various points of interest. A high-clearance 4×4 vehicle is recommended for accessing some of the more remote areas and off-road trails.

When is the best time to visit for fall colors?

The peak fall colors in the San Juan Mountains typically occur in late September and early October, making this an ideal time to visit for stunning foliage displays and photography opportunities.

Are there any safety considerations for outdoor activities?

Yes, visitors should exercise caution when engaging in outdoor activities and be prepared for changing weather conditions. They should also carry appropriate gear, stay on designated trails, and respect wildlife and natural resources.

What are some must-see historical sites along the Alpine Loop?

Some of the most notable historical sites include the ghost towns of Animas Forks and Eureka, the Old Hundred Gold Mine, and the Mayflower Mill. Guided tours and interpretive centers provide valuable insights into the area’s mining history.

Are there any unique cultural experiences to explore?

Yes, visitors can immerse themselves in the local culture by attending festivals and events, such as the Ouray Ice Park Festival or the Silverton Skijoring Weekend. Exploring local galleries and museums and dining at authentic eateries also offers a taste of the region’s cultural heritage.


About the author

Ransom Patterson

My expertise in Colorado life extends beyond just residing here; it’s also about living actively within the community. I spend my time cycling through Denver’s trails, experimenting with local cuisines, and immersing myself in the local music scene. These activities give me a unique perspective on the cultural and outdoor offerings of Colorado. This hands-on approach allows me to provide insider tips and personal recommendations that resonate with both locals and visitors alike.