In July 1996 we took a week's vacation and drove from Houston to the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado. Having previously taken our 1992 Classic Range Rover to West Texas we decided that it would be interesting to see how high we could go and to experience driving on the many "Jeep Trails" that used to be the trails connecting silver mines to civilization. We kept moving while we were there and stayed in motels and guest houses in Lake City, Silverton, Ouray and Telluride. We drove over five mountain passes and even had time to take a day on the Durango & Silverton Railroad.
In a Nutshell:
Date: July 1996
Weather: Generally sunny, warm and dry. One cloudburst while in Silverton.
Route: Houston to Lake City, stopping in Lubbock, then over to Silverton and on to Ouray. One night in Telluride followed by a drive over the mountains, stopping in Monte Vista, Colorado, then across Texas to Houston.
Recommended? If you like off road driving this is highly recommended. But make sure you have a good vehicle and a head for heights! Food and accommodation along the way were excellent as well as interesting!.
We set off from Houston and aimed toward Colorado, our first night being booked in a "silk stocking district" bed & breakfast in Lubbock, Texas. Along the way we visited downtown Fort Worth and had a late breakfast before visiting the trompe d'oile mural of the Chisholm Trail. Then a long bash up Highway 287 to Lubbock. This was probably the least interesting part of the journey but at least we could enjoy cooler drier air after the humidity of the Gulf Coast!
Our Bed & Breakfast in Lubbock proved to be everything we had hoped for though the air-conditioning was running a little warm (it may have been as old as the house!)
In the morning we were served a spicy Tex Mex breakfast that set us up for the long drive ahead to Lake City. More monotonous driving across the Texas Panhandle led to better looking scenery as we crossed into northeastern New Mexico. Soon we were in the mountains and stopped in the wild west town of Cinnamon for a break. A couple of years later we learned that much of the town was wiped out by a freak tornado.
Our route took us over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains into Taos. We were not able to stop long but took a break at the Taos Gorge Bridge over the Rio Grande Gorge, about 12 miles west of Taos. By now the expanse of the West was beginning to impress. Fortunately we were eating up the miles along good straight roads.
Even so, by the time we had passed through Antonito and Monte Vista and headed into the San Juan Mountains, we were getting weary and it was with some relief that we finally reached Lake City.
Driving down into Lake City we caught sight of Lake San Cristobel, a natural lake dammed by the Slumgullion Earthflow, a glacier of mud several kilometers long. The rather ugly earthflow has created a magnificent scene when looking south from the lookout. The earthflow is very much alive and pine trees are growing on it at all sorts of angles, few of them vertical! Google Earth provides an excellent rendering of the earthflow and natural dam which is shown below. This is probably one of the finest examples of an active earthflow.
Google Earth rendering of Lake San Cristobel and the Slumgullion Earthflow.
The view is looking due north and Lake City is located in the valley below the natural dam.
Lake City is populated by a lot of Texans who have found Colorado to offer a different way of life. In some ways the contrasts with Telluride, which has been populated by Californians, are quite significant. We found Lake City to be a friendly place where time is not too important and nothing is too much trouble. It is also an excellent center for exploring the eastern side of the San Juans. So we had booked two nights in a motel that had just changed ownership - and was going through some painful transitions!
In the morning we headed into town, bought pastries at a bakery and headed for the mountains. Here we are, at Carson, an abandoned mining settlement on the tree line.
The drive up to Carson is quite challenging but it is possible to go further up the valley to the saddle and then turn left and drive onto the top of the world. A short walk from the Range Rover and we had conquered our first Colorado summit! Then it started to snow! How exciting.
The photo below shows the view back toward Carson from near the head of the valley.
Lake City is surrounded by some magnificent mountains.
Above: Uncompahgre is the highest peak in the San Juans and was photographed in the early morning from the Slumgullion lookout.
Below: Red Mountain provides evidence of the mineralization that brought all the miners to the area to try to make their fortunes.
The Alpine Loop begins and ends in Lake City - that is, if you happen to be staying in Lake City. The route consists of two high passes over the mountains to either Silverton or Ouray, though you don't actually have to go that far. The simplest day excursion from Lake City would be to go over the Cinammon Pass and return via the Engineer Pass. Or vica versa. We chose to go to Cinnamon first.
The photo below is of the eastern approach to the pass. The scenery is wonderful and there are numerous places to stop, as we did, to brew up some tea and eat those special pastries bought in downtown Lake City!
The summit of the Cinnamon Pass is over 12,000 feet but the mountains around are higher still. A lot of remnant snow allowed us to pretend it was colder than it really was! Plenty of abandoned mine workings testify to the industrial heritage. We also saw marmots playing around the ruined structures.
If you take the short cut back to Lake City, without visiting either Ouray or Silverton, you still get to see an example of an abandoned mining community with some fine ruins of wooden houses that may be 100 years or more old. The photo below shows one such building that has survived numerous harsh winters - a true testament to the endeavors of those who came here before four wheel drive vehicles had been invented!
The mines themselves are often visible with a wealth of abandoned and derelict structures that make for excellent photographic subjects. They can be quite dangerous places to visit, however, so do be careful when exploring. Those mine shafts may still be open.
We returned to Lake City via Engineer Pass. This is the more impressive of the two with challenging hairpins on the western side and a very exposed summit area that is a few hundred feet higher than Cinammon Pass. You know you are high up on Engineer Pass. And as April demonstrates in the photo at right, there was a strong wind blowing at the time we were there.
We left Lake City and retraced our way back over Engineer Pass to Ouray, also known as Colorado's "Little Switzerland". The road down to Ouray follows an old mining trail (it may also have had railroad tracks but we are not sure) carved into the valley side. This view was taken as rain began to fall. Shortly after we met a Jeep coming up the trail. Two people were in the Jeep - a male driver, teeth flashing with a broad grin, and a hysterical female passenger, screaming her lungs out as she looked down into the canyon below! Hours later we were chatting to some other "off-roaders" and they asked us if we had heard the "screamer"? Oh yes, we said and explained where. Well, they said, she was still screaming an hour later!
After staying the night in a wonderful guest house in Ouray which included Salmon on a Cedar Plank in their restaurant, we drove to Silverton down the aptly named Silver Dollar Highway (named because the road was built with silver mine tailings that might easily be worth a million doillars!) We stayed the night in a splendid Victorian mining town hotel (complete with an excellent mineral collection!)
Our next venture was to get up early in the morning and take a bus to Durango in order to return on the world famous Durango & Silverton Railroad. This is featured in a separate travelogue.
Once back in Silverton we headed north along the Million Dollar Highway and took a turn off to the left (west), taking the Ophir Pass that would eventually lead us to our last evening in Colorado, at Telluride.
The Ophir Pass is not particularly difficult but we were disappointed that clouds were coming down over the mountains as we drove up into them. By the time we had crossed the pass and had motored north toward Telluride, we wondered if the weather was changing altogether. But a side trip to Alta Lake, high up in the mountains, afforded us some fine views of cloud topped serrated ridges.
Telluride is in a beautiful setting. But perhaps because it is a ski resort it has lost something along the way. Our evening meal was spoiled by an attitude we had not previously seen in Colorado - greed!
But the next morning we forgot about the previous evening as we looked around us! Magical scenery in every direction!
This is a telephoto shot of one of many waterfalls in the area.
We checked out of our expensive but excellent guest house and headed for the Imogene Pass and, ultimately, Houston.
The climb up from Telluride starts easiy enough and hugs the valley side. Now and then the trail crosses a side stream and sometimes views like this are visible, a sign of things to come. The trail is not too difficult on the western side as it is a gradual climb up to an alp where one of the largest silver mines existed during the boom years. The remains of this mine are everywhere, suggesting that it was indeed an impressive place in its prime.
This is a view of the mine area and on the Flickr photo we have highlighted a note to show the location of the summit of the Imogene Pass. We stopped here for half an hour and explored the ruins. But knowing we had a full day's drive ahead of us, we needed to press on up the pass.
I guess this is what it was all about! Parked at 13,112 feet above sea level, the Range Rover had indeed lived up to its reputation. The mountains in the background form the Sneffel Range, some of which are over 14,000 feet high.
We parked and walked a short way up to the nearest peak and scanned the 360 degree panorama. Only 14'ers, as they are called, stood higher. And we could identify quite a few of them. Then, we looked above us and saw people skydiving out of a plane above Telluride! Quite an ending to our high altitude week!
Imogene Pass is one of the last roads to be opened every summer and had only been open about a week before we went over.
The descent is steeper on the Ouray side and care must be taken in several places. But the scenery is fantastic!
Our journey home followed the road south to Durango, and on good roads to an overnight stop in a quaint hotel in Monte Vista. Early next morning we set off back to Houston - a long drive home. But a great vacation, one we would recommend to anyone who likes mountains, scenery, the off-road experience and something just a bit out of the ordinary. Ten years later we wish we were back there!
Links and FAQs - The following links are recommended for those planning to visit the San Juan Mountains.
USGS Topo Maps
Lake City Area
Durango & Siverton Railroad
No mention of lodging as ten years is a long time. However, do e-mail us if you have any questions and we will try to help!
What equipment should you take on Jeep trails?
Well, a Jeep or substantial 4x4 is a good start! It is also important that you take the usual tools with you to help not only yourself but others get out of trouble. Tow rope and shovel are the most useful items. Winches may be useful but so often above the tree line there is nothing to attach the other end of the cable! Take spare blankets, food and water just in case as it can get cold and lonely up there at night! Maps and a GPS unit help to orientate the way. The USGS topo maps (see above) are very very good!
What about camping?
Camping is certainly an option but we are not sure about the rules when up in the mountains. Check with the locals!
What do you recommend for a first timer to Southwest Colorado off-roading?
If you get to Lake City in an "ordinary" vehicle you can rent a Jeep for the day. In this case take the Alpine Loop. You will probably be hooked, though!