Overlanding in Colorado’s Alpine Loop
If you are looking for places to explore in your truck or SUV, then Alpine Loop in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado needs to be on your list. Whether you are experienced in Overlanding or are just getting into it, this region of backcountry trails will fuel your fire for it. My wife (Heather), our Australian Shepherd (Honey), and I loaded up my Toyota Tacoma in Tennessee and headed west in October to go check it out for ourselves for an epic family adventure. We put a lot of miles on the truck, gas in the tank, and moments for the memory bank.
Colorado's 65-mile Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway travels through remote mountain backcountry and treeless tundra near Ouray, Lake City, and Silverton. All trails are managed under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Over the past years, as social media platforms and the ability to get information on places have grown, this area and the views have become a top destination for the Overlanding community. Even with this increase of location awareness, it is still remote wilderness, and for the most part, the trails aren't crowded enough to make you not want to go back. It's a wonderland of breathtaking views, especially with the vibrant colors of fall. It navigates between the summits of the Rocky Mountains by way of two main mountain passes, Engineer Pass (12,780 ft elevation) to the north and Cinnamon Pass (12,620 ft elevation) to the south. These passes provide views of some of the nation's highest mountains - Hands, Sunshine, and Redcloud Peaks. Unfortunately, the Alpine Loop is only fully accessible during the summer months due to the harsh winter weather of the Rocky Mountains. The time you want to spend on the trail will depend on whether you want to make it a day trip, overnight, or multi-day experience.
Overlanding backcountry trails are no place for low-quality gear. You will want equipment built for the rough country. It is, in general, a gear-intensive activity, and it is important to have a rig and setup you trust and can depend on no matter the circumstances. In many of these environments off-road, it is no place for a car or 2WD vehicle. Before we rolled out, I spent a lot of time getting our gear dialed in, as well as upgrading my Toyota Tacoma with a few Rough Country mods. My truck has had many changes since this trip, but at the time, it was set up with a Rough Country 3" Coilover Suspension Kit and BFGoodrich All-Terrain KO2 Tires on stock Toyota TRD Off-Road wheels. In addition, we added the Rough Country Hard Low-Profile Bed Cover and the Rough Country Heavy Duty Floor Mats. The goal is always to simplify what we need, rather than haul around a lot of useless weight and take up wasted space. What you need will always be impacted by where you are going and how long you will be there. With us just making it an overnight trip, there were many things we chose not to take. However, there are several things you need for this type of trip that are non-negotiable. Preparation and performance go hand in hand. Controlling what you can control makes a difference in how you respond to the things you can't. Things like tire patch kit, air compressor, spare tire, recovery gear, lights, fire starter, GPS mapping system, first aid kit, sleeping gear, cooler, food, water, and clothes are all non-negotiable. Even though I love being a gear junkie, I know there are many things you don't always have to have, but always make sure you have what you need. For me, camera gear is a non-negotiable item as I want to create content of the experience.
We started from Lake City, a cool Colorado mountain town that gives a warm greeting to the start of Alpine Loop. You can fuel up at the local gas station before rolling out. We planned to drive until dark, camp out under the stars, then head down to Silverton the following morning. We didn't have a specific campsite picked out going into it, but there are plenty of great spots throughout the entirety of the trail system. Unfortunately, a fire restriction was still in place while we were there, but that is not always the case. Make sure to check fire restriction status with managing authority systems before rolling out. We headed out from Lake City at about 1 pm without a reasonable idea of how far we would be able to get before the sunset. With any adventure, I am always learning on the go. We downloaded offline maps on our OnX Offroad app that gave us an understanding of the area, our location, and tracking our trip. The main goal was to get up and over Engineer Pass before setting up camp to get some solid sunset content. The majority of the trail through the ascent was dry and rocky terrain. Tough tires and accommodating air pressure in them are both important. There are a few stretches of straight direction, but other than that, it is a fun series of cutbacks and curves that demand your attention and focus. It is easy to get distracted, though, with all of the incredible scenery and colors everywhere you look. There is signage along the trails that gives you an idea of where you are and where you need to head.
We made it to the top of Engineer Pass at about 4:30 pm, giving us plenty of time to shoot photos and videos. As you come up to the top of Engineer Pass, the views and perspectives are epic. You are eye-level to all of the highest surrounding mountains, and you get a good idea of just how far you have come. We don't live on the mountain top, but our time there always gives perspective and value to the work it takes to get there and the journey that unfolds from it, kind of like life. As you continue around Engineer Mountain, an incredible trail kicks off a few hundred yards onto a massive secluded part of the mountain. It seems a little sketchy driving out to it, but it is worth doing, and the content you can get from it is incredible. As we descended the mountain, the lighting we had for about another two hours was amazing.
We set up camp in a pull-off not too far away, right off the trail from the bottom of Engineer Pass. We went a little extra for the supper menu, with it being Heather's birthday, so we cooked steaks, veggies, and rice on our Blackstone Adventure grill. We didn't yet have our Rough Country Rooftop Tent on the sleeping setup, so we used our ground tent. Use your judgment to set up your ideal sleeping experience, whether on the ground or using your vehicle. The following morning, we also went all out for breakfast; pancakes, bacon, and eggs on the grill with fresh coffee we made using our hot water kettle and aero press brewing method. We were excited to continue on the trail to Silverton, and the remaining time on it did not disappoint. On this section of the trail, and as you get closer to Silverton, you will see more abandoned mining camps that tell of the rich mountain history. We maintained a steady pace throughout the ride that kept us moving but allowed us to take it all in and capture plenty of content. We rolled into Silverton just a little before noon and from there headed over to Moab, Utah, ending our Alpine Loop adventure. If you learned anything from this post, I hope it encourages you to check out Engineer Pass yourself. It is a journey you will not forget.