No Agenda Vacation Day 12 — The Alpine Loop (August 17)

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Today was supposed to be a hiking day, but turned into a massive 4×4 day instead. We left Ouray, still my favorite town in Colorado, and drove south to the Corkscrew Gulch trailhead. The plan was to take a number of 4×4 roads, marked as “easy” in my guidebook, and cut off a corner to Animas Forks. At the trailhead, we lowered our tries to 18 psi for a smoother ride. This worked out well all day. The start was fairly easy as we wound back and forth through the trees. We came across a Volvo whose driver had realized he was in way over his head. He was retreating, thankfully, although even that was difficult for him. Eventually, we cleared tree line and the great views started.

The mountain rock in this section of the San Juan mountains is colored with streaks of different orange and brown hues. The road turned into narrow gravel switchbacks with fantastic vistas at each corner- although focusing on the road became a greater concern the farther we went.

After a short drop back down, the switchbacks ascended to California Gulch, at 12,930 feet the highest elevation of the day.

From there we dropped down to Animas Forks for lunch. At this point we were a little disheartened to see how long it had taken for the drive so far. We had thought we were saving time compared to the drive through Silverton, but it had taken much longer. Although lots of fun, the easy rating was a bit of a misnomer; the roads were certainly more difficult than the drive through Cinnamon Pass a few days before, which was rated “moderate” in our guide.

In addition to being a 4WD crossroads, Animas Forks is a well-preserved ghost town. Another mining town, it grew to 450 people in 1883 and had its own hotel, general store, post office, saloon, jail, and newspaper. Its fortunes rose and fell with the mining industry, and it became a ghost town by the 1920s. Now it remains as a tourist attraction with nine buildings and interpretive signs.

After investigating the town, we took the jeep up and over Engineer Pass, the other half of the Alpine Loop. This was the hardest road of the trip, with lots of switchbacks along a narrow rocky shelf road. If you had the road to yourself it would be quite easy. The problem is that you don’t; there are dirt bikes, ATVs, jeeps, and an occasional truck. At one point we even met one dumb-ass guy driving a 2WD truck with a massive trailer behind him (Lots of “Can you believe that guy?” comments from other drivers, mixed with scorn and concern). It’s not that it’s a slow-moving traffic jam or anything, it’s that the road isn’t quite big enough for two full-sized vehicles. The inside vehicle has to pull in very close to the side, and the outside vehicle… well, it’s a soft shoulder and very long way down. (“Hello, Fear of Heights, nice to see you again.”)

When we reached the top I commented to the family “My hands are wet but my pants are dry- we’re doing alright.”

Very close to the other side was our planned hiking trailhead of American Flats. Not only was it late, but it was also drizzling, with storm clouds all around us. Completely above tree line, the trail had no cover at all, and we really couldn’t hike it. Thankfully, the Lake City side of the road was much easier (and safer). At that point we were tired of dirt road driving. We checked out a waterfall and then Nate and Dorinna checked out a ghost town while I inflated the tires. We started the day undecided about where we would spend the night. The rain in Lake City convinced us to make a hotel reservation in Gunnison, so we set off for our next destination.

Guidebook Links

Corkscrew Pass (Trails Offroad)

Corkscrew Pass (FunTreks)

California Pass (Trails Offroad)

California Pass (FunTreks)

Engineer Pass (Trails Offroad)

Engineer Pass (FunTreks)

This is a series of posts about what I have dubbed the “No Agenda Vacation” from August 2018. I’ll chronicle our 13-day road trip through the southern Colorado mountains with stories and photos. With luck you’ll see a new post on roughly a weekly basis.

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