Alpine Loop and Animas Forks: An Off-Road (Sort Of) Adventure

I was getting my hair cut one day a few weeks back at the ol’ University Barber Shop (I’d include a link, but I don’t think they have a webpage) and mentioned I’d just bought a Jeep Wrangler and it turned out one of the other barbers in the shop was a real off-road enthusiast who was planning, this summer, to do some extensive off-road touring in Colorado. Anyway, I thought that sounded like something I to try at least once. Not the extensive part, just the part where you follow 4-by trails through Colorado.

So I got this book about Colorado 4×4 trails and it talked about this one trail that was rated Moderate and known as the Alpine Loop.

I’m not building tension very well. At any rate, it’s a loop trail that, the way I did it, started at Lake City, Colo., then followed the road over Engineer Pass to the Animas Forks ghost town, then followed the road back over Cinnamon Pass to return to Lake City. Moderate difficulty! Anyway.

It starts out somewhat less than moderate.

It starts out somewhat easier than moderate.

In fact, you could take your Toyota Yaris and cover *most* of this same route. You’d probably have to stop, though, where the signs say “4×4 only beyond this point” — it gets a little steep, the rocks stick up pretty far, and you probably want high clearance and low gear 4wd. Which means you can’t easily drive your Yaris to Animas Forks via this route. Sorry. Do you even own a Yaris? Okay.

One of the cool features of the 4×4 roads in Colorado is they tend to take you through (abandoned) mining operations and ghost towns. This route had some of both.

Abandoned mining operation.

Abandoned mining operation.

As well as some pretty decent alpine scenery that you can get a look at without leaving the comfort of your car and its stereo pumping out Mötley Crüe songs sourced from your iPhone. Which is huge.

Some fork (Lake Fork?) of the Gunnison River.

Some fork (Lake Fork?) of the Gunnison River.

Upstream waterfall.

Upstream waterfall.

As you go further along the route, the road gradually gets steeper, narrower, and rockier, and the drop-offs more severe.

Plus you get above the timberline.

Plus you get above the timberline.

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The actual top of the pass is a pretty, barren, alpine hellscape. In a good way. Not pictured are the tighter turns and larger rocks. Sorry. Was navigating over them at the time, so didn’t take a lot of photos. Regardless, these were at or near the top of Engineer Pass (elev. 12,800′):

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From there, it’s a short, steep-ish descent down into Animas Forks, which was a functioning mining town with a post office clear into the 1920s (although the population was never more than a few hundred people). Seems like it would’ve been cold in the winter. DSC02598

One of many hairpins.

One of many hairpins.

Welcome to the 'Forks.

Welcome to the ‘Forks, elev. 11,160.

The roads in the area (e.g., the Alpine Loop Route) were originally built to support mining operations (and towns) like this. This is probably as good a time as any to note that, on this drive, you’re not exactly alone on the road. There are areas where you, yes, wait for traffic. Many times you have to stop where there’s a turn-out so someone coming up the hill in the other direction can get by. There are a (literal!) ton of Jeep Wranglers on the road, but probably even more ATVs. I’d go with: 40% ATVs, 30% Wranglers, 20% Dirt Bikes, 10% Other SUVs/Trucks. When I was at Animas Forks, there were probably 10-15 other vehicles there at the same time (you can see eight of them in that last photo if you click through to the full-size view). I also drove past some sort of off-road cop car near Animas Forks. Apparently that’s a thing.

So the ghost town itself is wide open and you’re welcome to walk through its houses and play on its swingsets to your heart’s content. There’s some graffiti and any vandalism is too much, but, still, the place doesn’t look or feel like it’s been trashed. OTOH, it would be cool if Fallout 5 were set here*.

View of one house from a different house!

View of one house from a different house!

Probably cold in the winter, but scenic.

From there, I completed the loop by taking the route back over Cinnamon Pass, a name which seems like it would fit together on a map with Fairy Village and Gumdrop Lane. At any rate, while the first half-mile or so out of Animas Forks is probably the steepest, rockiest, narrowest, and deadly drop-offest of the entire loop, things settle down pretty quickly almost immediately thereafter. Engineer is a little more steadily steep and rocky on both sides of the pass. If I hadn’t mentioned it, you would’ve wondered.

So steep, so rocky.

So steep, so rocky.

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Toward Cinnamon Pass (elev. 12,640′).

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A tight one.

A tight one.

Cinnamon Pass

So, all that having been presented,:

  1. Total distance driven was around 50 miles. Took just a little over six hours. The going’s a bit slow.
  2. The drive was pretty throughout.
  3. Even as a complete neophyte, the four-wheeling here was unchallenging. OTOH, it was engaging enough and a fun way to see a lot of new terrain.
  4. I understand what 4-Lo does now.

bkd

* And if Bethesda formally apologized for Fallout 4.

2 comments

  • Craig

    Always amazing how high you can drive in Colorado — elevation, of course, since there are cops staked out near Animas. Probably more interesting in an ATV than an SUV.

    • bkdunn

      Yeah, probably (the ATVs), but also kind of screams more “I’m a tourist” (especially given all the ATV rental shops in town). Anyway, I chose to look down on them and their stupid maneuverability.

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