Alpine Loop Back Country Byway - Colorado Scenic Drives

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It is no secret that the mountains of southwest Colorado offer some of the most spectacular scenery in the United States. This fact has been attested to by the numerous visitors who travel through the region, and it has been officially recognized by the national government through the designation of several scenic byways in this area. Most Scenic Byways are on paved roads, but the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), feeling that there were many backcountry dirt and gravel roads just as scenic as the main highways, established its own Backcountry Byway program as its contribution to the National Scenic Byway System.

Scenic Driving

The Alpine Triangle (an area defined between Lake City, Silverton, and Ouray) is laced with over 150 miles of roads. Road conditions range from paved highways with year-round maintenance to rough and challenging four-wheel-drive routes. One thing the roads have in common is the spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery.

The Alpine Loop was a natural for this recognition and was one of the BLM's first Backcountry Byways. This 65-mile route between Lake City, Silverton and Ouray was first built by miners in the late 1800's for mule wagons hauling equipment and ore across the Mountains. Today you can follow their tracks. The Alpine Loop gives visitors an intimate glimpse of outstanding San Juan Mountain scenery, ghost towns, wildflower displays, fall colors and much more. Most of the route is accessible by two-wheel drive vehicles, but four-wheel-drive is necessary for some side trips, and to cross the high passes.
Of course, the centerpiece of the area is the Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway. Look for the blue columbine signs that indicate the route. Your trip can be started from Lake City, Silverton or Ouray. Signs indicate where four-wheel drive is recommended. Along the way you can see displays for beautiful wildflowers (peaking in late July and early August), historic remnants of mining activities from the late 1800's and blazing shows of fall colors (around mid-September). Side roads along the way will let you explore Cottonwood Creek, American Basin, Nellie Creek, North Henson Creek, California Gulch, Picayune Gulch, Eureka Gulch, Minnie Gulch, Maggie Gulch and Stony Pass as well as the ghost towns of Animas Forks, Carson, Sherman, Mineral Point, Capitol City and others.

For those who prefer to stay on the pavement, the San Juan Skyway is another National Scenic Byway that runs along the western boundary of this area. This beautiful loop covers 236 miles between the towns of Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway, Telluride, Dolores, Cortez and Mancos.

Another outstanding route which has gained National Scenic Byway status is the Silver Thread which follows Highway 149 between Lake City and South Fork. Along the way you cross the Continental Divide, visit the Creede historic district, learn about the Slumgullion Slide Earthflow and see the massacre site of the infamous cannibal Alferd Packer.

Backcountry Hiking

Backcountry recreational opportunities abound within the Alpine Triangle and range from isolation in the most pristine settings to hiking along popular, developed trails.

The area boasts over 100 miles of trails maintained by the BLM or the Forest Service. More undeveloped trails provide access to remote parts of the backcountry where other visitors are seldom encountered.

The Big Blue and Weminuche Wilderness Areas, along with Redcloud Peak and Handies Peak Wilderness Study Areas, provide recreation opportunities in remote settings.

Trails provide hiking access to five of Colorado's fifty-four"fourteener" peaks (14,000 feet or more). These peaks are Redcloud, Sunshine, Handies, Uncompahgre, and Wetterhorn; and all can be reached from the Alpine Loop Byway. Trails to all five peaks are fairly moderate, but tend to become more difficult near the top. Wetterhorn Peak is the most challenging. Numerous other peaks and meadows offer spectacular scenery, remote settings, and greater risk for those who are more adventuresome.

Popular backpacking areas include Highland Mary Lakes, Whitehead Gulch, Alpine Gulch and Bear Creek. The enclosed map and list of trails indicate many opportunities for day hikes or more hardy multi-day loop trips.

Fishing

Lakes and streams within the Alpine Triangle provide excellent fishing. Three major drainages, the Lake Fork of the Gunnison, Henson Creek, and the headwaters of the Rio Grande have brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout. The Animas River, from its headwaters to Needleton, does not support a viable fishery although some tributaries, such as Cunningham Gulch, do.

Those looking for readily accessible fishing spots have many to choose from. The upper Lake Fork and Henson Creek above Lake City are located near good gravel roads with frequent turnouts. Fishing spots range from cascading fast water to slow-moving riffle and pool areas to quiet beaver ponds.

Small to medium brook or rainbow trout are the usual catch, but the upper Lake Fork, Sloan Lake, and Cooper Lake have been stocked with native cutthroat trout. Lake San Cristobal offers fine fishing and boating.

The lower Lake Fork, north of Lake City, follows Highway 149 and also has good trout fishing. Much of the streamside is private property, but there are several stretches of public fishing marked with signs and turnouts. For those wanting to fish in more remote settings but still accessible by vehicle, look along the north fork of Henson Creek, the upper Rio Grande River, or reservoirs beyond Spring Creek Pass, the Deer Lakes area north of Slumgullion Pass and Cottonwood Creek.

Hardy souls that don't mind hiking a bit can find several streams and numerous mountain lakes along the hiking trails. Some popular lakes include Crystal, Waterdog, Cooper, Sloan and the nearby Powderhorn Lakes.

Camping

The communities of Ouray, Lake City and Silverton all have privately-owned campgrounds. Most of them provide full services, including wastewater dump stations. Several developed sites are also available on public lands and National Forests.

The public campgrounds are located in a variety of settings. Lost Trail is the most remote, while Amphitheater, South Mineral Creek and Wupperman are closer to towns and get heavier use. All the sites provide excellent starting points for hiking, fishing, four-wheeling, motorcycling or photographing. A great number of visitors enjoy camping in undeveloped places. Car camping adjacent to roads is acceptable; but care should be taken to park immediately adjacent to the roads. A camping limit of 14 days applies to all public lands in this area. Because of problems with contamination to Lake City's municipal water supply, the public land along the stretch of road and river between Capitol City and Lake City is closed to camping, except for the meadow at Nellie Creek.

Other Activities

Winter recreation is increasingly popular in the Alpine Triangle. Visitors usually stay in the local communities and seek recreational opportunities on the public lands. With its 80 miles of groomed trails, Lake City has become a hub for snowmobile enthusiasts. The Silverton area offers mountaineering and winter survival training, along with cross-country skiing. Ouray is famous for its hot springs pool and ice climbing opportunities.

Big game hunting occurs throughout the area, although much of the high country is subject to season-ending snowstorms.

Mountain biking, horseback riding, technical mountain climbing, nature study, photography and rock-hounding provide many hours of enjoyment for visitors to the Alpine Triangle.

Vehicle Use

Nearly everyone who visits the Alpine Triangle comes in a vehicle. Visitor surveys show that most people are concerned about the impacts of vehicle use, such as soil erosion, damage to vegetation, removal of road barriers, or becoming stranded in dangerous situations.

In response to these concerns, all vehicles, including jeeps, motorcycle and all-terrain vehicles, are required to stay on roads identified on the map. A system of signs with white arrows is also used to indicate those roads that are open to the public. Mountain bikes are allowed on all roads and trails except those in wilderness or wilderness study areas.

Roads in the high country are often steep and rough. Summer storms are common and help is a long way off. It is important to understand your limits, as well as those of your vehicle. Four-wheel drive vehicles, with dower gears and higher clearance, are a necessity on the steeper, higher passes, even though some roads are passable up to certain points with two-wheel drive. Above all, use common sense to determine what routes are feasible for travel in your particular vehicle. When in doubt, don't take chances. Please drive slowly: the narrow roads, blind curves, steep grades and loose surfaces invite disaster when you go too fast. Most of the roads have a rocky base that holds up well in the rain, but they do become slippery. Watch for changing weather and adjust your speed accordingly.

For maps or further information about vehicle use contact BLM or Forest Service offices in Montrose Gunnison or Durango.

Geology And Minerals

The San Juan Mountains are one of the richest and most intensely mineralized regions in the southern Rocky Mountains. They have produced more than $750 million worth of base and precious metals over the last 110 years.

Volcanic activity dominated the San Juan Mountain region during the Tertiary period (20-35 million years ago). Mountains rose and great accumulations of volcanic rocks were deposited. Doming and subsequent collapse of the volcanic vents created the Lake City and Silverton Calderas split by many faults and fractures. The faulting, fracturing, and rock alterations created an ideal environment for the deposition of ore as mineral bearing solutions squeezed into the spaces. Subsequent erosion of these volcanic mountains, primarily due to glacial activity within the last two million years, created the rugged mountainous topography you see today.

Erosion of these faulted and fractured zones initially created V-shaped valleys. Subsequent glacial erosion scoured out many of these drainages to form U-shaped valleys such as American Basin and Cunningham Gulch. The last major glacial activity may have occurred about 10,000 years ago.

Against the backdrop of alpine scenery are well preserved examples of 19th century mining structures and culture. Old mines, from which gold, silver, lead, and zinc were extracted, are scattered throughout the area. Many of the roads that recreationists enjoy today were access routes developed by miners a hundred years ago.

Eleven townsites served as centers for the miners. Founded between 1875 and 1885, these towns thrived while mining was successful. Rugged mountain terrain and climate required major engineering accomplishments such as roads and tramways for mining, transporting ores and supplies, and providing domestic goods. Many of these structures remain, providing recreationists with accessible and visible evidence of frontier resourcefulness and determination, as well as unfulfilled dreams and failures.

The Hidden Treasure, Ute-Ulay, Golden Fleece, Little Giant, and Pride of the West mines had a prolonged historic influence on the region, along with over 70 other mines with lodes that were often rich but smaller. Many still-visible exploration pits and tunnels are evidence of extensive prospecting.

Other geologic features you see in this area include talus slopes, alluvial fans, landslides, and rock glaciers. Talus slopes are accumulations of loose rock found at the base of most cliffs. Alluvial fans are formed at the mouth of intermittent drainages where reduction of slopes and loss of energy cause rock debris to be deposited. A widely known landslide in the area is the Slumgullion Earthflow south of Lake City. In this monumental event supersaturated soils slipped off of Mesa Seco and"flowed" four miles downslope to block the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River and form Lake San Cristobal, the second largest natural lake in Colorado.

Rock glaciers are composed of the same materials as ordinary talus; however, they display entirely different features. Viewed from a high vantage point they resemble small ice glaciers, stretching outward and downward from the foot of a cliff. Rock glaciers are most often found in either glacial cirques or on slopes that have been oversteepened by glaciers. Protection from direct sun is required to maintain the ice core which binds the rock fragments together. American Basin, Horseshoe Basin, and Kendall Gulch contain good examples of rock glaciers.

Vegetation and Wildlife

The alpine tundra is a very fragile environment found above timberline. It is a special plant community of grasses, sedges and wildflowers. Here, the soil is thin, temperatures are cold, and growing seasons are very short. Snow covers the tundra for much of the year; yet during July and August, when conditions are right, it explodes in a display of colorful flowers.

Wildlife often seen in the high country include marmots, squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits. Beaver are common residents along Henson Creek, the Lake Fork of the Gunnison and their tributaries. Elk and deer migrate into the area as snow melts each year, seeking summer ranges high above areas of human use. Bighorn sheep range between Cottonwood Creek and Handies Peak, using remote slopes in the summer and south facing slopes above timberline in the winter. Every now and then, a mountain goat has been spotted east of Silverton. Black bears have also been seen on occasion, although a lack of forest cover limits bear use of the area.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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