Uncompahgre National Forest

Scenic Driving

One of the most popular forms of recreation in the Uncompahgre National Forest is scenic driving. Byways through the Forest provide access to fishing streams and trailheads, not to mention the many ghost towns scattered throughout the region. For anyone with a car, federally designated scenic byways offer well-maintained, easy-to-follow access to great scenery and dramatic vistas; the more adventuresome four-wheel-drive aficionados have the option of following a vast network of old mining roads into the far reaches of the Uncompahgre backcountry.

Backcountry 4x4
Four-wheel driving allows you to travel the remote regions of the Forest without having to hike for miles. Roads used in the 1800s by gold miners, settlers, and loggers now provide a rugged route to backcountry adventure. Four-wheel-drive vehicles, ATVs, and motorcycles can follow rocky paths and cross sharp, steep switchbacks en route to spectacular scenery, unusual geological formations, and alpine flowers.

Once traveled only by horses and mules, some Forest roads meander past abandoned mines and old dwellings perched precariously on the sides of towering mountains. These structures are usually located on patented claims or private property. Most have "No Trespassing" signs. Everyone is encouraged to heed these signs.

Another word of caution: High mountain vegetation and soils are particularly susceptible to damage and erosion. Ruts caused by off-road use can take centuries to recover. To protect the land, please limit vehicle travel to established pathways.

There are many excellent backcountry roads in the Ouray and Telluride areas. Yankee Boy Basin, Imogene Pass Road, and Engineer Mountain Road in the Ouray area pass by old mines and offer splendid scenery. The Ophir Pass Road was once a toll road that now connects the Telluride-Ophir area with the town of Silverton.

San Juan Skyway
The San Juan Skyway passes through millions of acres of the San Juan National Forest and the Uncompahgre National Forest. Along the way, stop and see waterfalls in spring, wildflowers in summer, shimmering golden aspen in fall, and a snowy wonderland in winter.

This loop through the San Juan Mountains follows 236 miles of maintained state highways on a journey from towering mountains and alpine forest to rolling vistas and ancient reins of Indian country. The route can be traveled most of the year. Winter travel may be slow and dangerous in the high country. If you are prepared to make this trip during winter, the snowcapped crags are spectacular.

The towns of Ouray, Montrose, Telluride, and Silverton all provide access in or near the Uncompahgre to the San Juan Skyway.

Alpine Loop
The Alpine Loop is a nationally famous four-wheel drive route. It was recently designated a Backcounty Scenic Byway by the Bureau of Land Management.

The loop is a series of old mining roads built in the late 1800s during the silver, gold, lead, and zinc mining boom. It covers 65 miles between the towns of Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton. The loop can be reached from any of the three towns. The road usually opens in June, depending on winter snow. It usually closes in late October. About two-thirds of the route is dirt road, suitable for two-wheel-drive vehicles. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is needed if you want to drive the entire route. It climbs both Engineer and Cinnamon passes.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles can be rented in surrounding communities. Tours are offered for those who would rather sit back and enjoy the scenery. Ghost towns, abandoned mines, and wildflowers can be seen along the way. There are three developed campgrounds, a picnic area, and 10 restrooms on the loop. Alpine Loop is also becoming increasingly popular with mountain bikers.

Rivers, streams and lakes along the way attract fishermen in search of trout. Many hiking trailheads are near the loop and there are several designated roads that off-road vehicle users love to explore.

Unaweep/Tabeguache Scenic and Historic Byway
The Unaweep/Tabegauche Scenic and Historic Byway includes ancient structures built by Native American hunters and gatherers, petroglyphs, geological formations, and waterfalls. A wooden water flume clinging to stone cliffs, and century-old coke ovens, left over from mining operations, can be viewed from the byway.

The route is a Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Scenic Byway, with a short segment on the Uncompahgre National Forest.

This byway is made up of Highways 141 and 145 and is located near the Colorado/Utah border. Its 133 miles long from White Water to Placerville. The northern end of the byway is 15 miles south of Grand Junction off Highway 50, at Whitewater. The southern end of the byway joins the San Juan Skyway at Placerville off Highway 62.

The entire way is paved and can be traveled by automobiles and high-clearance recreational vehicles. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended for side roads onto the Uncompahgre Plateau.

Owl Creek Pass
Owl Creek Pass is a scenic drive that loops around 85 miles from Montrose on Highway 50 east 24 miles to Cimarron Road, then south for 21 miles on the Cimarron Road and FDR 858 to Silver Jack Reservoir. From there it travels 20 miles south and west on FDR858 and Ouray County Road B, and north on Highway 550 to Montrose. Silver Jack Campground is in a stand of aspens near Silver Jack Reservoir and has handicapped facilities. The drive offers spectacular views of Courthouse Mountain and Chimney Rock. Owl Creek Pass road gives access to trailheads into the Uncompaghre Wilderness and dispersed camping. Most of the drive is on an unpaved road.

Along with the major routes described above, there are many smaller scenic drives in the Telluride area that offer yet more gateways into the Forest.

Trout Lake and Lizard Head Pass: Follow Hwy. 145 south approximately 15 miles to Trout Lake. This is a private lake but fishing/day-use picnicking is permitted. It has beautiful views of Yellow Mountain, Vermilion Peak and Sheep Mountain. Continue on Hwy. 145 to Lizard Head Pass to the roadside pull-out with restrooms and historical markers.

Last Dollar Road: Turn right at the signpost three miles west of Telluride. This road is gravel and dirt and comes out on Dallas Divide. It may not be suitable for conventional vehicles, so check locally before heading out. This was once a toll road that connected early Telluride with the "outside" world and was used extensively before the railroad arrived.

Illium Valley & Ames: Drive south from the junction outside of Telluride on Hwy. 145 six miles to Ophir Loop, and make a right turn at the signpost. The gravel road that is suitable for two-wheel drive vehicles. The Ames area contains the alternating current electric power plant built by L.L. Nunn, the first of its kind in the world. The road meets Hwy. 145 at the base of Keystone Hill.

Bridal Veil Falls: 365 feet tall. East through town until pavement ends, about 1 1/2 miles, then look up. The building at the top was a hydroelectric plant until the mid 1950s.

Black Bear Pass: Located between Telluride and Red Mountain Pass (US Hwy. 550), this dirt and gravel road requires four-wheel drive and extreme caution. Only experienced drivers should attempt it as this is one of the most difficult roads in the American Rockies. It is one way, east to west. The highest point is 12,840 feet. The road connects Black Bear Mine with the Million Dollar Highway, going up high peaks and passing through high alpine basins. In addition to serving the Black Bear Mine, the route also leads to the early hydroelectric generating station by Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride.

Imogene Pass: Located between Telluride and Ouray, this dirt and gravel road requires four-wheel drive and special caution is recommended. The highest point is 13,114 feet. This challenging road winds through magnificent terrain and passes two mines: the Tomboy and Camp Bird.

Ophir Pass: This dirt and gravel road between Telluride and Silverton requires a high-centered vehicle with good traction to reach the summit. Caution is advised on the west side. The highest point is 11,740. It is a popular shortcut between Telluride and Silverton in the summer months. On a clear summer day the views to the west are well worth the drive.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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