The Road Less Traveled: The Alpine Loop Scenic Byway

Story by Christophe Noel

Every spring in the craggy peaks above Silverton, Colorado there can be heard an unmistakable clatter as heavy plows labor to free high altitude mountain passes from the last of winter’s snow. Sunlight dances on racing creek waters as they flow from the melting snowfields to the lush valleys below, and alpine flowers push forth to make the most of their brief growing season. High above, ravens rise on warm air currents, their inky shadows racing across the mountainsides. It is a magical scene, a virtual postcard in motion.

To experience the splendor of the Rocky Mountains of Southern Colorado, one need only drive the short 65 miles around the famous Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. This iconic route begins in Silverton, climbs over Cinnamon Pass to the mountain hamlet of Lake City before circling back and over Engineer Pass. Along the way it passes through historic ghost towns and verdant mountain meadows, while winding amidst towering mountains and crossing countless streams and creeks.

At the entrance to the Alpine Loop sits the mining ruins of Animas City. A once thriving operation employing thousands of ambitious miners, all that remains today are humble cabins, vacant slabs of concrete, and errant piles of rusty industrial era metal. After a short visit to Animas City the road narrows, showing only a brief section of rocky scrabble before rising well above the trees to eventually top out over Cinnamon Pass. Here the air is thin, the views never ending, and the adventure still yet to unfold.

Shortly after descending off Cinnamon Pass, a short diversion to American Basin awaits along with a veritable sea of wild flowers. Said to contain the most dense growth of alpine flowers in all of Colorado, American Basin is a stunning backdrop for an alpine picnic. Handies Peak looms overhead reaching over 14,000 feet into the sky.

As the road reaches eastward, occasionally presenting a mildly technical switchback, the terrain opens up, exposing creeks and alpine lakes—the namesakes of the only small town in the area, Lake City. This charming little town offers a couple of eating options, a chance to refuel, or a nice night’s stay at a cabin or campground.

On the return trip, the gravel road climbs progressively, passing narrow roads leading to destinations like the Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre Peak trailheads. Eventually, the road ascends quickly to acquire the summit of Engineer Pass. Well above the treeline at over 12,000 feet, the adventure begins in earnest atop Engineer with a narrow descent back to Animas City.

Without trying to detract from the unique beauty of the Alpine Loop, Colorado is full of similar driving experiences. It is a land of unimaginable beauty. For the traveler, it is also rich with opportunity. Hot springs, and mountain hikes abound as well as dozens of other mountain adventures. In the small towns of Durango and Ouray, charming restaurants and breweries always welcome weary travelers.

As routes go, the Alpine Loop isn’t as remote as the Canning Stock or as long as the Road of Bones. It doesn’t offer the challenge of the Darien, or the culture of the Wakhan Corridor. It is however, nearly smack dab in the middle of North America and one of the most travel worthy routes any overlander could hope for. It is accessible, flanked on all sides by immeasurable opportunities to explore, and a must-do for any overlander via any means possible. It is a beautiful stretch of a road less traveled.

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