I get a lot of questions about which trails to take when exploring the San Juan Mountains around Ouray and Silverton. So, I’ve put together a few day’s trips worth of offroading. Later this week I will publish day trips you can take without a 4×4 vehicle. Hope you find this info useful!
You can’t miss the Alpine Loop. From Silverton, head toward the ghost town of Animas Forks (plan on poking around here for a while too, lots of photo opps). Follow Engineer Pass signs to the summit. Before you reach the summit, youll see a road that curves off to your left, called Oh Point! This is a must see! Follow it a very short distance for an amazing, nearly 360-degree view of the surrounding Fourteeners. After that, continue to the summit, just a few hundred feet further. Continue down the other side into Lake City (be sure to stop in Capitol City before you reach the paved road; its a great little ghost town with more photo opps) and enjoy Lake City for lunch before following the signs to Cinnamon Pass. You start out going around Lake San Cristobal, and the road ends up right there at Animas Forks again. Right before you reach the summit and begin to drop down into Animas Forks, please DO NOT MISS the short cutoff on your left to American Basin. You will be SO happy you took the time to drive into American Basin, as it is one of the most beautiful spots in the Sanb Juans. So scenic, with flowers and a stream. Amazing! Dont miss it! It will take you half an hour to follow it and tool around, so no matter what you do, don’t miss this little gem! Complete your journey by heading back into Silverton.
Please Note: This route actually cuts out the most technically challenging and ‘scary’ parts of Engineer Pass Road, as the road actually begins off Hwy. 550, just a few miles outside Ouray. It is very steep and treacherous, but beautiful, and eventually hooks up to the route you will take from out of Animas Forks. (I tell you this in case you think to yourself, “Wow, Engineer was not scary at all, I don’t know what people are talking about.” That’s because the worst and most technical part of the road begins back off the highway and you avoid it by taking the route I describe).
Head to Telluride via Ophir Pass and Imogene Pass. I’ve driven them from both directions, and both ways are great. I’ll describe from Ouray to Telluride here. Take Hwy. 550 to Ouray and right before you wind all the way down and into Ouray, the cut off for Camp Bird Road (Yankee Boy Basin) is on your left. Follow Yankee Boy Basin to the Imogene Pass cutoff (and if you have time, please take Camp Bird Road all the way to the Twin Waterfalls and beyond. The road finally ends WAY up the basin at the Blue Lakes Trailhead, which will take you to the summit of Mount Sneffels). The Imogene cutoff will be on your left. This is a great road! At the summit there is an old shack and you can drive along the ridgeline if you desire. After you drop down into Savage Basin on the Telluride side, you will encounter the Tomboy Mine remains (to read an amazing book about living at the Tomboy Mine, get the Tomboy Bride by Harriet Fish Backus. Another great mine hanging off the side of the road into the canyon is the Smuggler Mine. Lots of photo opps on this road! Follow this road into Telluride and as you drop into town, look back over to the left at the amazing switchbacks of the infamous Black Bear Road across the basin. They are very visible on the mountainside. Once inTelluride, eat at the Smuggler or have coffee and amazing scones at the Steaming Bean!
The gondola in Telluride is FREE and you can take it to the top and see amazing vistas on both sides of the ridgeline and you can even trace the road you just came into town on from the top. You can clearly see Imogene Pass Road as it crosses the San Sophia Ridgeline and drops down into town. The gondola is awesome! If you have dogs, take them to the Telluride Town Park where the San Miguel River cuts through; it’s a popular spot for doggies and humans alike!
From Telluride, take the highway back out of town and follow the signs to Ophir. Ophir is a small community of modern houses but the old homesteads of OLD Ophir are hidden in the trees and across the mountainside. Take Ophir Pass Road back over to Silverton. It dumps you out on Hwy. 550 about 5 miles outside of Silverton.
Corkscrew Gulch and Red Mountain Mining District and the Forest Service Road (US Basin). From Silverton, head toward the Silverton Ski Area and youll see the cutoff for Corkscrew Gulch. It exits the road on your left and immediately takes a very steep and sharp switchback and you are quickly on your way up and down the famous Corkscrew! This is a beautiful drive! There’s a porta potty near the summit, by the way. Follow Corkscrew back out to Hwy. 550 and you’ll be about halfway between Silverton and Ouray on the highway. You are in the Red Mountain Mining District. Take your time to explore the ghost town of Ironton, which is right there as you finish Corkscrew. The road into Ironton runs parallel to the highway and there are lots of old houses to explore. The Colorado Boy Trailhead begins there and there’s a GREAT stream to have a picnic by. Keep following that little dirt road that runs parallel to the highway, as there are several clusters of houses back there. Youll know when to turn around because the dirt road becomes too narrow to continue. It can get very swampy back there, too, by the way, if there has been rain.
Next, the Red Mountain Mining District. From Ironton, get back on the highway (the entire area of Ironton is literally just 20 yards from the highway, you are just exploring parallel to the highway). Take the highway back toward Silverton and you’ll see many small roads shooting off the highway to your left. Red Mountain Mining District follows C.R. 31. C.R. 31 goes off to the left, runs you all around the Red Mountain Mining District and dumps you back out on the highway farther down the highway, so if you miss one exit for C. R. 31, you can take the next one and just go the other direction on the road. But, if you can manage not to pass it, take the first exit for C.R. 31 after Ironton. You’ll go over what looks to be a rickety little bridge, but its fine, no worries! This road will wind you all through the Red Mountain Mining District. There are tons of little roads you can drive or hike down. This was a huge bustling mining town in the late 1800s and takes up a huge area back there. Don’t be in a big hurry here, there is LOTS to see! The Yankee Girl Mine is the most famous of the mines; you’ll know it when you round the corner and see it. It’s a huge, tall headframe and looks like a postcard. You can explore any of these old mines, just be careful! Continue on the road and you’ll dump out at the National Belle Mine (crumbled ruins along a mountainside). Be sure to poke around near here off the road, as there are tunnels and the remnants of the old jail. Shortly from the National Belle you will dump back out onto the highway again.
Wait, you’re not finished yet! U.S. Basin Forest Road 825 is next. Continue toward Silverton on Hwy. 550 and exit left at Forest Road 825. You will travel through forest for a while but when it opens up and you get above timberline you will not believe the views! Amazing 180-degree views! This road runs parallel to the highway as well, but way up in the mountains above timberline. You will be able to look down and see the highway and the little ant cars as they travel. This road takes you past the old Brooklyn Mine before dumping you back onto the highway again. Now you are only a few miles outside of Silverton, so just follow the highway back into town.
Hang around Silverton because there’s lots of offroading within just a few miles of downtown. Start with Clear Lake Road, which only takes about 35 minutes one way. Outside Silverton, begin by taking Hwy. 550 toward Ouray and watch for the exit for South Mineral Campground (literally just a few miles out of town on the highway). Exit left and follow the wide dirt road to the South Mineral Campground. You’ll see a road exit up toward the right and that’s Clear Lake Trail. Its an easy but extremely scenic drive and the lake at the end is the stuff posters are made of! A great place for a picnic. You have to come back the way you came.
Other great trails in the Silverton area that do not take long to do are Hurricane/California Pass, Placer and Picayne Gulches, and Stony Pass. There are oodles of mines in the Silverton area and you can just follow roads everywhere to explore what the area has to offer. As you drive toward Animas Forks from Silverton, there are tons of roads off to the left and right, take any of these (you won’t get lost, as they are either up-and-back trails, or loops that dump you right back out where you began).
Of course, an entire day could be spent just on the Million Dollar Highway (Hwy. 550). Lots of little roads come off it (the infamous Black Bear Road begins from the summit of the highway at Red Mountain Pass). Another great trail is King Bullion Lake Trail, which takes you up the mountainside to multiple small waterfalls. You get WAY up there and can look down on the highway. Very nice trail.
So there’s four days of offroading trips in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado!Share