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On Walkabout On: The Alpine Loop Back Country Byway, Colorado

Basic Information

  • Name: Alpine Loop Back Country Byway
  • Where: San Juan Mountain Range, Colorado
  • More Information: AlpineLoop.com

Map of the Alpine Loop

alpine loop

Narrative

After I finished my hike of the 14,034 foot Redcloud Peak I had a few hours left in the day to spend some time checking out the stretch of the Alpine Loop Back Country Byway that I took to reach the trailhead for the mountain.  The Alpine Loop is a rugged four-wheel drive road through the rugged San Juan Mountains that connects the historic mining communities of Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton.  Back in August my friend and I actually traveled over a large portion of the Alpine Loop during our trip over Engineer Pass.  You can read more about this trip at the below links:

Grizzly Gulch Campground is the trailhead for Redcloud Peak and is located adjacent to the southern section of the Alpine Loop that leads to American Basin and over Cinnamon Pass to the ghost town of Animas Forks:

Panorama from the Redcloud Peak, Colorado Trailhead

My friend and I visited American Basin back in August when we climbed the 14,048 foot Handies Peak.  American Basin is just a stunning location that anyone traveling on the Alpine Loop should stop and check out:

Wildflowers In American Basin, Colorado

To drive into the basin requires a serious four-wheel drive vehicle, but makes for a great hike for those without one.  You can read more about my trip to American Basin at the below link:

On the way to American Basin a popular site that many people stop to check out is this old cabin:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

This cabin is located near the Grizzly Gulch Campground and was in great condition considering the fact it was probably over a hundred years old:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

Visitors to the cabin are able to walk inside and imagine what it must have been like to be a family living in such austere conditions in such a remote location:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

The small front room had wood floors while the larger back room had a dirt floor:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

This made me wonder if possibly animals were kept in this back room to protect them for the elements and predators while also providing additional heat to the home?  There was a ladder that led up to a large 2nd floor area of the home and I thought maybe this was the primary living quarters for the home?  Next to the cabin was a smaller structure that was in bad shape and may have been additional living space for whoever lived here:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

It would have been helpful to have a marker of some kind to explain the history of these structures, but regardless it was interesting to imagine the life of the people who had to be extraordinarily tough and self sufficient to survive here long ago.  From the cabin I proceeded to walk down the dirt road back to the Grizzly Gulch Campground and enjoyed the views of the stunning snowcapped mountains that surrounded me:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

After I got back to my truck I then proceeded to drive east on the Alpine Loop towards Lake City, Colorado:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

A short distance down the road I noticed this large avalanche shoot that raced down the side of the adjacent mountain:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

The San Juan Mountains are well known for its avalanches and clearly traveling down this road on a snowmobile in the winter would be extremely dangerous in sections like this.   Fortunately it was not winter yet and I did not have to worry about any avalanches.  The only thing that was stopping me was my frequent stops to keep taking pictures of the incredible fall foliage that could be seen around the road:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

The section of road between Grizzly Gulch Campground and the Mill Creek Campground is known as the Shelf Road since its hugs the side of Sunshine Peak:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

The road is narrow and rugged in portions and any fall off of the road would be fatal:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

Despite being rugged this section of the road is passable in good conditions by a sturdy two-wheel drive vehicle or a Subaru Outback.  However, passed Grizzly Gulch I only recommend someone with a high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle to continue down the road to American Basin.  There are many of large rocks and ditches that would tear up the undercarriage of less rugged vehicles.  However, between Lake City and Grizzly Gulch there is still plenty of beautiful scenery to see for everyone with two-wheel drive vehicles:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

Another popular stop on this section of the Alpine Loop is the overlook that provides a great view of the abandoned mining village of Sherman:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

The valley that Sherman is located in is just incredibly scenic since it is surrounded by a number of nameless 13-thousand foot peaks.  These steep peaks and the dramatic valley were carved out between 100,000 to 15,000 years ago when the San Juans were covered in glaciers during the Ice Age:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

According to the informative marker at the overlook, Sherman was named after Sherman Williams who arrived in this area in 1875.  In the 1880 the village of Sherman was founded to support the growing mining operations in the valley.  The most profitable mine was the Black Wonder Mine that processed up to $200 million in mostly silver and some gold.  The prosperity of the mines in the region grew so much that the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad began to construct a rail line to connect the major hub of the area, Lake City to the rest of the state.  Trees around Sherman were cut to support this construction.  In 1895 approximately 12,500 railroad ties were floated down the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River to Lake City to help construct the railway.  Sherman’s run of prosperity would slowly come to an end as silver prices dropped and the population slowly started to leave.  The village’s final blow was in 1921 when the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River flooded the valley wiping out the town.  Now just stone foundations can be seen of this one prosperous mining community:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

From the Sherman lookout the dirt road improves considerably:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

While on this section of the road I was even able to spot this beautiful waterfall:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

For those looking to see waterfalls the southern section of the Alpine Loop does not have a whole lot to spot, but for those traveling on the northern section up and over Engineer Pass, the amount of waterfalls that can be seen there is just incredible.

Further down the road I spotted another old cabin adjacent to a meadow surrounded by beautiful aspen trees:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

Across the road from the cabin was a marshy area created by various beaver dams constructed along the river:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

I next came to the Mill Creek Campground.  I stopped here for a little while just to scout the trail that leads to Sunshine Peak.  Since I was not able to complete the traverse from Redcloud to Sunshine Peak, that means I need to come back in the future to climb this mountain.  A shorter route up the mountain is from Mill Creek and after a little searching I spotted the seldom used trail along the side of the road:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

After finishing my reconnaissance of the trailhead I then continued down the road to the point that it began to run adjacent to the river:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

At this point the valley began to open up into a big lush meadow that various ranchers were using as grazing land.  Here is the view looking west up this valley back towards the rugged peaks of the San Juans:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

As I continued down the road another beautiful mountain on the west side of the road caught my eye.  This one is the 12,826 foot Red Mountain:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

This mountain is also visible from Lake City and the reddish mountain top that gave the peak its name was easily visible:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

On the east side of the road there was smaller twelve and eleven thousand foot peaks that were covered in snow and draped in beautiful yellow colored aspen trees:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

Eventually the road reached the stunning Lake San Cristobal:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

At this point the Alpine Loop is actually a paved road as it travels around this beautiful lake:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

Something interesting about Lake San Cristobal is that it is the second largest natural lake in Colorado.  The largest lake is Grand Lake located near Rocky Mountain National Park.  Lake San Cristobal was formed when a slow moving landslide dammed the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River 700 years ago.   The lake today much like the extent of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River is a popular fishing location:

Picture from the Alpine Loop, Colorado

On the east side of the lake near Lake City is where there is a built up area of condos and cabins that people either own or rent out to various tourists that frequent this area:

Condoes On Lake San Cristobal, Colorado

Finally the last thing I saw before exiting off of the Alpine Loop was this old mining operation which is just further evidence of the rich mining past of this region:

Old Mine Near Lake San Cristobal, Colorado

Conclusion

If visiting Lake City I highly recommend taking the time to drive up this southern section of the Alpine Loop to at least to the Grizzly Gulch Campground.  The views of the blue waters of Lake San Cristobal and the rugged, glacier carved San Juan Mountains makes this one of the most scenic drives in the state.  Additionally the road is filled with various historic sites that allows visitors to learn more about the states rich mining history.  To drive the whole Alpine Loop would require an entire day so depending on time available it may be best to break it up in two different trips like I did.  Regardless of how you experience the Alpine Loop get out there and seen this incredible part of Colorado!

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