Off the Road Again: America's Top 4x4 Destinations

Colorado: San Juan Mountains

In the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado—often called the "Switzerland of America"—you'll find plenty of old mining trails and abandoned railroad beds perfect for backcountry forays. Ouray, Colorado makes a good starting point for 4WD trips into the San Juans. Head west from town up Imogene Pass for a splendid day trip with great overlooks and a number of large waterfalls. Along the way you can sample numerous mining roads that crisscross the area or continue all the way up the Pass and switchback down the west slope to Telluride. Through the end of June expect snow at high elevations and tricky stream crossings. Ouray is one of the few places in the country where you can rent a rugged roll-bar-equipped 4WD Jeep and really explore narrow-track backcountry routes.

There are so many superlative routes in this area you'll find plenty of options from any starting point. Black Bear Pass between Red Mountain Pass and Telluride is one of the most famous drives in this area. This moderately difficult road takes you through high alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, with scenic views down into the valley of Telluride. Another scenic and challenging trail is the high route from Telluride to Silverton via the 12,350-foot Ophir Pass. From Silverton, another great run crosses the 12,500-foot Stony Pass—a route that carried thousands of miners and covered wagons in its heyday. To get to Stony Pass, head north from Silverton to Howardsville, then turn south through Cunningham Gulch. Follow the signs to Cunningham Pass, (another name for the Stony Pass route). You'll start climbing right away, as you begin a 28-mile journey through forests and alpine meadows. Along the way you'll encounter some of the best overlooks in the Rockies.

From the summit, you'll want to continue down Forest Road 520, notable for the network of 4WD trails that radiate from it. You can then pick up Colo. 149, which eventually gets you to Creede. From there you, you can head to Lost Lakes, Regan Lake, or other wilderness destinations. The Rio Grande National Forest Map clearly indicates the Stony Pass Route as well as fire roads and jeep trails to lakes and camping areas. Contact the San Juan National Forest (15 Burnett Ct., Durango, CO 970.247.4874).

Paul McMenamin is the author, editor, and photo director of the original Ultimate Adventure Sourcebook.

Published: 27 Aug 2001 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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