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San Juan Loop - Purple Mountain Majesties

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on May 1, 2006
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Purple mountain majesties" is one of the most enduring images from the classic song "America the Beautiful." In no other place in America is this image realized more than in the Rocky Mountains. Some people are content to view the purple mountain majesties from the "fruited plains." For us, there is nothing more exhilarating than riding into their midst as soon as the high mountain roads first open after a long winter's hibernation. Normally, that quest takes us to the San Juan Region in the first week of June.

The San Juan Loop consists of several roads that connect Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton across some of the highest passes in Colorado. During the month of May, county equipment is busy working to repair the damage wrought by Mother Nature. These roads are closed more months in the year than they are open. Week after week, additional snowpack builds on the steep mountain slopes. Then, without warning, some act of nature sets off an avalanche that charges downward to the valley floor taking everything in its path. Nothing is spared.

County road crews have a treacherous task opening up the roads for the thousands of tourists who will come to visit the area between the months of May and September. Normally, their heavy equipment succeeds in busting through the snow at the peaks of the passes in late May or early June. Their graders and front-end loaders are working within a few feet of cliffs that drop vertically from the edge of the road, and more often than not the cliff is hidden under many tons of snow.

Rarely a day goes by without a pause in our busy schedules to glance at the mountain peaks in anticipation of the coming spring. The call of the mountain is relentless to those of us who have been there before and experienced the purple mountain majesties.

As the spring thaw progresses, snow transforms into raging rivers that roar through the mountain valleys in a race toward the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Waterfalls are everywhere and in every size.

The clean mountain air surrounds us and draws us in. Our sense of sight takes in the awesome beauty that surrounds us from a mountain pass, and we listen to the gentle breeze and the roar of waterfalls below. It is addicting.

There is much more to the Rocky Mountains than the beauty or the danger. They provide the daily water supply for millions of people who have never even seen them. The Green River and the San Juan River, along with thousands of smaller rivers and streams, feed the Colorado River which supplies consumers as far away as California and Mexico.

The Rocky Mountains sustain a wide variety of wild animals. Along the San Juan Loop, the most common to see are deer, elk, coyote, porcupine, squirrel, and marmot, but there are hundreds more. Some people contend that grizzly bears still prowl the area; however, most people don't believe it. Locals tell it like this:

"When you go hiking in the woods, wear bells and carry pepper spray to use in defense. Learn to recognize grizzly bear droppings."

They pause until someone takes the bait and asks, "How do you recognize grizzly bear droppings?"

"That's easy. They're the ones with bells in them and they smell like pepper spray."

We arrived in Lake City in early June and made a stop at the grocery store to stock up on ice and other supplies. During the silver mining years, Lake City was the most active of the three cities on the Alpine Loop. Named for nearby Lake San Cristobal, it is the only city in the entire county of Hinsdale. Lake City has cabins for rent, an RV campground, a tourist center, 4X4s for rent, a city park, a museum, and dozens of really neat stores and shops. Although it is the smallest of the three cities on the Alpine Loop, it is a great place to begin.

The Lake City area was already buzzing with activity long before the treaty with the Ute Indians was signed. Using Del Norte as the main supply point, miners and trappers accessed the Lake City area by way of Slumgullion Pass.

The Engineer Pass Road and the Cinnamon Pass Road can both be accessed from Lake City.

After a short break in Lake City, we began the journey toward Cinnamon Pass. It is an easy drive to American Basin, and we cruised at a casual pace taking in the scenery. Most of the property on either side of the road is privately owned. Two National Forest campgrounds are available along the way.

American Basin is best known for its beautiful flower fields. The side trip into the basin is a short one and well worth the time. It ends at an abandoned mine site.

The road beyond American Basin is best suited for vehicles with a Low-range transfer case. It is a narrow ledge road with numerous switchbacks on both sides of the pass. Even so, Cinnamon Pass, at 12,640 feet high, is usually the first road to open along the San Juan Loop. It can sometimes be plowed as early as mid-May, depending on how much snow accumulated during the winter. There was still a lot of snow on both sides of the road when we passed through.

We descended the western slope of Cinnamon Pass and arrived at the ghost town of Animas Forks - the crossroads for the San Juan Loop.

We turned toward Silverton and followed the valley in a southwesterly direction until we reached Howardsville. We turned up Cunningham Gulch and followed it to the end. We set up our tents at the campsite and soon had an eye-level fire to ward off the cold night air.

When morning came, we drove into Silverton for breakfast. For those of you who are old enough to remember Bat Masterson, Silverton will bring back memories of those Wild West movies you enjoyed as a kid. Bat Masterson was once the law in Silverton. He had quite a job balancing the task of enforcing the law without hurting business in the saloons and brothels.

Silverton is not that exciting any longer, but there are gunfight reenactments during the summer months, and of course the huffing, puffing, coal-powered locomotive still runs on schedule between Silverton and Durango once the snow is cleared from the tracks.

We left Silverton and headed back to Animas Forks. From there, we took the road to Engineer Pass. A fellow at the top of the pass was talking to a young couple. He was saying, "Engineer Pass scares the whatsit outta some folks - I've heard of some who cry like babies when they finally get off it. I don't reckon I'll ever understand it. It's wide enough to drive two vehicles up it side by side... in some places. If they're scared in a 4X4, they would have about died in a stagecoach.

Engineer Pass is 12,800 feet high. Bulldozers dig a passage through the snow, often leaving walls 20 feet high on both sides of the road. June is a beautiful time of year to visit the Alpine Loop. Everything is green, streams are bulging, waterfalls are roaring, and mountain peaks are snow-white.

Whitmore Falls is a very popular stopping place along that route and can be heard a long time before you get to it.

We arrived in Lake City just in time for a late lunch. After spending an hour in the shops, we backtracked over Engineer Pass to get back to our camp in Cunningham Gulch. Once again, we threw bundles of firewood on the campfire.

The next morning we drove back to Animas Forks and took the road to Engineer Pass, but instead of going up to the pass, we went down to Ouray. After breakfast, we headed for the only other pass that had been plowed open. According to legend, Ophir Pass got its name when a young lady was taken to the top and exclaimed, "Oh fer God's sake!

Ophir Pass is only 11,740 feet, but it is my favorite in the area because of the way the canals are cut with vertical walls on both sides. The first town along the way is Old Ophir and the second is New Ophir. Both towns thrived at about the same time, primarily in silver mining.

When we reached the pavement, we crossed it and made our way to the Ames Power Plant. In 1890, the first alternating current power plant in the world was built at Ames. Before that time, all power was DC. Due to voltage loss, DC cannot travel long distances. After more than 100 years, in the same place where it all began, AC power is still being generated at Ames.

We finished our visit to the San Juans with a late lunch in Telluride, just a few miles north of Ames.

Since county road crews maintain the roads in the San Juans, they are not difficult four-wheeling by any means. Modified vehicles with low gears rarely even use four-wheel drive, but other vehicles will need the extra torque provided by Low range. In comparison to most 4X4 roads in Colorado, the roads in the San Juans are wide. In some places, it is possible to pass without one or the other pulling to the side. When pulling to the side, however, be very careful. Don't get too close to the edge. Springtime freezing and thawing can cause the edge to become weak and give way. Some of the cliffs drop hundreds of feet.

The San Juan Loop is best known for its ghost town remnants. Animas Forks is the most popular and can be reached from Silverton in a passenger car. To get there from Lake City requires going over Cinnamon Pass or Engineer Pass. The San Juan Chief Mill is a popular stopping place on the Loop near Ouray. The mill was being built just as the gold standard replaced silver.

Another popular photo stop on the way to Ouray is the Mickey Breene Mine. Only one building remains; however, when it was operational, there was a boarding house and numerous other buildings clinging to the cliffs of the narrow canyon.

At the point where the Engineer Pass Road connects to Highway 550, a short hike downhill will take you to an enormous waterfall. It is a strenuous hike and the air is thin at those altitudes, so be sure you are ready before you tackle it.

Larry E. Heck is the author of numerous guidebooks and videos. Larry is also planning guided trips along the Outlaw Trail in 2006. The trips will begin at locations where Butch Cassidy and other outlaws robbed banks and trains. These trips follow mostly graded dirt roads and can vary in length from a few days to more than two weeks.

For more information, contact OutbackUSA at (303) 910-7647 or check out the website at

When You Go
If you plan on exploring this area, we recommend getting some additional maps. A great map for this trip is the Sportsman's Map available at the Timberline Craftsman store in Lake City. The Uncompahgre National Forest Map is also a very good map to use for Black Bear Road, Imogene Pass, and Ophir Pass.

Your trip meter may not record these exact mileages; however, by using the landmarks and intersections listed, you should be able to follow the directions through the entire trip. Without stopping, the trip from end to end takes about three hours driving time. It is about 40 miles. We recommend taking an entire day to allow for exploring and enjoying the surroundings.

Lake City to Silverton over Cinnamon Pass
Trip Latitude Longitude  
Meter Position N Position W Landmarks, Intersections, & Other Locations
0.0 38 01.279 107 19.048 Bridge on south side of town at Mile Post 72.
2.1/0.0 38 00.001 107 17.917 Right at sign for Lake San Cristobal past Mile Post 70.
0.6 37 59.503 107 17.842 Slumgullion Slide is on the left.
1.0     {{{Highlander}}} Campground. Showers available.
1.2 37 59.045 107 17.562 Lake Spillway.
6.7 37 55.294 107 19.959 Williams Creek NFS Campground.
8.8 37 54.363 107 21.616 Right. Left goes up Wager Gulch and Hinsdale County 36 to Carson.
10.0 37 54.407 107 22.865 Public outhouse.
10.6 37 54.444 107 23.548 Mill Creek NFS Campground.
11.8 37 54.266 107 24.700 Right. Ghost town of Sherman is 0.8 mile to the left on Hinsdale County 35.
13.1 37 54.380 107 26.061 Remains of the Sherman water flume can be seen down the side of the mountain. Notice the natural dam partially across the canyon.
15.8 37 56.222 107 27.658 Burrows Park Historic Site. Public outhouse.
19.3 37 55.888 107 30.867 Right. American Basin is left.
19.9 37 56.167 107 30.949 Tobasco Mill site.
21.6 37 56.000 107 32.269 Cinnamon Pass. 12,640 feet in elevation. GPS elevation is 12,461 feet.
26.1 37 56.027 107 34.082 Left at T intersection above Animas Forks. Right goes to Engineer Pass.
38.7 37 48.95 107 39.{{{62}}} Arrive at Highway 110 on north side of Silverton.
Silverton to Lake City over Engineer Pass
Trip Latitude Longitude
Meter Position N Position W Landmarks, Intersections, & Other Locations
0.0 37 48.95 107 39.62 Follow Highway 110 on north side of Silverton and turn right toward Howardsville.
2.6/0.0 37 56.027 107 34.082 Intersection above Animas Forks. Right goes to Cinnamon Pass and straight goes to Engineer Pass. Reset your meter and go straight.
1.3 37 56.930 107 34.536 Stay right. Left goes to Mineral Point site.
2.0/0.0 37 {{{57}}}.444 107 34.515 This is the Engineer Pass Road. Turn Right. Reset your meter.
0.8 37 57.818 107 34.469 Turn left. Yvonne Pass is right.
1.9 37 58.203 107 35.425 Right. Left is scenic overlook.
2.3 37 58.470 107 35.090 Engineer Pass, 12,800 feet. GPS elevation is 12,788 feet.
3.4 37 58.725 107 34.480 Powder House and mine.
4.3 37 58.835 107 33.695 Historic cabin at Palmeto Gulch.
4.7 37 58.894 107 33.466 The Palmeto Mill once stood beside this bridge.
6.0/0.0 37 58.570 107 32.243 Rose's Cabin is right. Lake City is left. Reset trip meter to zero.
0.1 37 58.557 107 32.083 Public outhouse.
0.8 37 58.385 107 31.349 Old mill was wiped out by avalanche.
3.3 37 59.226 107 29.087 Whitmore Falls.
5.0 38 00.367 107 28.019 Capitol City. Turn right at the major intersection.
8.9 38 01.221 107 24.048 Nellie Creek trailhead is left up Owl Gulch.
10.2 38 01.264 107 22.712 Henson townsite and dam.
13.9 38 01.694 107 19.110 Stop sign in Lake City at 2nd Street. Turn right to get on the highway.
Silverton to Telluride by Ophir Pass Road
Take Highway 550 north from Silverton. Turnoff is between Mile Posts 75 and 76.
Trip Latitude Longitude
Meter Position N Position W Landmarks, Intersections, & Other Locations
0 37 50.849 107 43.472 San Juan County 8. Left turn for Ophir Pass. Reset meter.
3.2 37 50.842 107 45.885 Right at switchback staying on main road.
3.4     Left at switchback staying on main road.
4.2 37 51.042 107 46.775 Ophir Pass. GPS elevatrion is 11,614 feet.
10.1 37 51.732 107 52.183 Highway. Right goes to Telluride.

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