Trips & Trails: Colorado Alpine Loop

Colorado’s scenic Alpine Loop, in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, is a great starter overland trip. Just five hours southwest of Denver, or six hours northwest of Albuquerque, it’s not terribly hard to access. The Loop itself is moderate in difficulty (at most) and is supported by a trio of mountain towns. So, even if you didn’t pack quite enough food or water, you won’t be far from a general store.

Zach Elseman ⎮ @okienomads

Zach Elseman ⎮ @okienomads

The San Juans is native home of the Ute Indian Tribe who famously soaked in the nearby natural hot springs. The region was descended upon by miners in the 19th century when gold and silver was discovered in the mountain range. It was these miners who, with their mule-drawn carts, blazed the roads that now compose the Alpine Loop.

The 63-mile Alpine Loop connect the three towns of Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton, Colorado. The Loop crosses two alpine passes: Engineer Pass on the north and Cinnamon Pass on the south. At its peak, the Loop ascends to 12,800 feet. Along the way, travelers will pass seven ghost towns — remnants of the region’s not-so-distant mining past.

Zach Elseman ⎮ @okienomads

Zach Elseman ⎮ @okienomads

The traditional Loop can be traversed in four to seven hours, if you want to tackle it in one fell swoop. However, with San Juans are zig-zagged with miles of additional designated roads with ample hiking and mountain biking trails along the way supported by great campsite options. So, if you wanted to extend your trip by a few additional days, there are plenty of opportunities to do so.

Like most overland routes, there is no cellular signal in along the Alpine Loop. So, over pack and over prepare.


Time: 4-7 hours

Distance: 63 miles

Fuel: There is fuel at the three towns connected by the loop: Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton. Although gasoline should not be hard to come by, fill up your tank before heading out onto the Loop — especially if you plan to use ancillary roads to extend the trip to more than a single day.

Water: Plan to bring more water than you anticipate requiring. Anticipate more than one gallon of water per person per day.

Permits: No permits are required.

Other considerations: Snowpack prohibits traversing the Alpine Loop outside the June through September window. Check with the BLM Gunnison Field Office for weather and conditions updates.

Header image credit: Zach Elseman ⎮ @okienomads

Photo by Brett Willhelm


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