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On Walkabout On: Engineer Pass, Colorado

Narrative

After finishing our hike up the 14,309 foot Uncompahgre Peak in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, my climbing buddy and I planned to spend the night in the village of Ouray.  As the bird flies Ouray was only about 25 miles away, but it would end up being a half day adventure to reach the village.  Country Road 20 from Lake City that we used to reach the trailhead of Uncompahgre Peak continues to travel west over Engineer Pass to access Ouray.  This road is quite well known in the four-wheel drive community and throughout the day we saw many rental Jeeps and other four-wheel drive vehicles making their way down the road.  Our plan was to drive west across Engineer Pass to the ghost town of Animas Forks.  From Animas Forks we would then proceed south to the small town of Silverton:

Engineer Pass Route

From Silverton we planned to reach Ouray by driving across the Million Dollar Highway, but first we had to get across Engineer Pass.  The beginning of County Road 20 is very deceptive to what lies ahead.  It is for the most part a nice dirt road that even two-wheel drive vehicles can make their way down:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

The scenery around the road is some of the best in Colorado due to the dramatic mountains and lush green scenery:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

What is most impressive about the drive down this road is the amount of waterfalls along the road such as this one that disappears under the rocks and then reemerges into the creek below:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

The south side of the road had the majority of the waterfalls, but the north side had a few as well that could be seen trickling down the rocky cliffs:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

Here is the most dramatic waterfall we saw that could be seen from a long ways and was quite impressive once we got up close to it:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

Here is a closer look at this incredible waterfall:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

Something else we saw a lot of during the drive was old mine ruins:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

The whole route was just littered with the remains of old mines.  It is hard to imagine the hardships these miners must have went through to first build the mines and then work and sustain them in these remote and difficult conditions.  It would have been cool to have a guidebook with us that explained the history of all the mines we saw.  I later saw in a bookstore in Ouray such a book.  In the future something I would like to do is drive across Engineer Pass again and take time to visit all the old mine ruins.

As we continued down the road it eventually became rougher and rougher to the point that a four-wheel drive vehicle was mandatory:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

The most rugged section of the road is the climb up and over Engineer Pass:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

The top of Engineer Pass is nearly 13,000 feet high:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

From the top of Engineer Pass the views of the surrounding San Juan Mountains are just tremendous. Here is the view looking east back down the route we had just ascended:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

The views to the east are dominated by the 14,015 foot Wetterhorn Peak and the 14,309 foot Uncompahgre Peak:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

Something else we saw to the east that we passed on the road near the summit was this construction activity:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

At first I thought there was mining going on, but then I noticed that the equipment was leveling out groun for what appeared to be preparations to build something.  Maybe they will build a fast food restaurant to cater to all the four-wheel drive enthusiasts we saw driving up and down Engineer Pass!  😉

The summit of the pass also had some good informational signs that explained how this region was created 30 million years ago by two supervolcanoes:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

This volcanic activity is responsible for the mineral wealth found in the San Juan Mountains.  It is also responsible for all the uniquely colorful mountains that can be found in the San Juans as well:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

There was also an informational sign that explained how the San Juan Mountains used to be part of the range of land that the Ute Native-Americans used to call home:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

The Utes increasingly came into conflict with settlers and miners that come into the area in the 1800’s, but settled their differences usually peacefully due to the leadership of the Ute Chief Ouray.

Ute Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta.

Chief Ouray knew that his people would have to eventually leave the San Juan to avoid conflict which caused him to sign the 1873 Brunot Treaty.  This treaty forced the Ute on to reservations outside of the San Juans.  Today the Utes live on two reservations, one in southwestern Colorado and the other in northeastern Utah.

After we finished reading the signs we continued our drive across Engineer Pass.  From the summit a vast alpine grassland could be seen ahead of us backdropped by the Sneffels Range:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

This panorama photo looking to the west kind of makes it possible to see the remnants of the supervolcano caldera that the summit marker said was called the Silverton Caldera:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

I would say the most difficult portion of the drive was the descent on the western side of Engineer Pass.  The road was very steep and very narrow.  There were a few sections where we had to backup and try to make room for a vehicle to pass coming in the opposite direction.  Since we were on the right side of the road that meant I had the view of the steep fall off the mountainside from the passenger side of my buddy’s truck.  At least if we fell off the road I would die having seen a good view of the green alpine meadows that cover this section of the San Juans:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

We were both very happy to finally get up and over Engineer Pass when we saw the ghost town of Animas Forks ahead of us:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

From Animas Forks according to our map the dirt road to Silverton should be in much better condition than what we just experienced.  This ultimately ended up being the case, but before we headed down that road we decided to stop and check out the isolated ghost town of Animas Forks.

Next Posing: On Walkabout at: Animas Forks, Colorado

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