The high elevation Alpine Loop dirt road circuit is located in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The historic town of Silverton is the most popular starting point for day trips to Eureka and Animas Forks, which are a little bit further uphill. The Alpine Loop section from Silverton to the old Eureka Mining Camp is a little less than eight miles long and this dirt road is smooth enough for passenger cars or RV campers. The Eureka Campground is a popular spot and this is where the smooth easy going section of the Alpine Loop ends.
From Eureka to Animas Forks Ghost Town, the road is quite a bit rougher and the turns are a little tighter, so the difficulty level is slightly higher. There are road restrictions beyond Eureka, which state that trailers or RV campers are not recommended. The choice of vehicle for the Eureka to Animas Forks section is limited to 4x4 high ground clearance vehicles, but a heavy duty 2x4 can easily do this trip. The reason why a 4x4 is recommended is because the section of road from Eureka to Animas Forks is subject to snow melt season rockslides, which can result in driving through loose rubble. After a heavy snow melt, the shallow stream crossings will look like whitewater river rapids, which are much more difficult to traverse without four wheel drive.
On the flip-side, after a dry winter, the dirt road from Eureka to Animas Forks can be very easy going. Even so, it is best to check on the road conditions before setting sail. Good internet resources include the San Juan National Forest Service, BLM and Jeep club websites. The local Jeep and ATV rental shops in Silverton know everything about the Alpine Loop dirt road conditions too. I did this trip during early summer after a very dry winter, so the trip was as easy as a walk in the park that day. The conditions will certainly differ from what is depicted in the photos, so do not make the mistake of judging a book by its cover!
After departing Eureka, County Road 2 follows the Animas River for about five miles up to the headwaters in Animas Forks. Many deep river gorge overlooks and roaring mountain waterfalls can be experienced along the way and the majestic views of the snow capped peaks are nothing less than breathtaking! Toward Animas Forks, the headwaters fan out through mountain meadows and plenty of wildlife can be seen.
Animas Forks is where three more of the Alpine Loop Jeep Trails can be found. One goes into Picayne Gulch and this is an interesting side tour. Another route goes west through California Gulch, which has a very high degree of difficulty. The moderately difficult Cinnamon Pass and Engineer Pass Jeep Trails start in Animas Forks too. It is best to check the limitations for these roads, because some have narrow one way direction sections.
There is a downside to the Animas Forks section of County Road 2 that has to do with abandoned mines and mining waste. Mines were dug all over the mountains along this road and they are dangerous hazards. Venturing into the old mines can result in meeting one's own maker earlier than planned, so it is best to not get too close to the adits. The other hazard is the toxic waste, which the mining industry is famous for leaving behind. Lead, mercury, cyanide and heavy metal contamination is rampant in the old mining areas in these mountains, so be careful about which water source you choose when refilling the water bottle with a modern filter.
Another bummer has to do with the local wildlife. The Alpine Loop is one of the world's most popular 4x4 trails and not every visitor obeys the laws that are set in place. When approaching Animas Forks, it seems like every critter in the hills runs onto the road looking for free food handouts. This is because careless people feed snacks to the cute animals when they pass by. The problem is that this change in behavior causes the cute furry little squirrels and marmots to get flattened like a pancake when they get run over by a heavy vehicle. For reasons like this, it is against the law to feed wild animals and the steep fines are costly enough to end the vacation in the early stage of the game.
On the bright side, the scenery is as majestic as can be along the County Road 2 section of the Alpine Loop! All it takes is one look to imagine that this can be a very harsh place during the winter season, yet during summer this beautiful mountainous terrain beckons to be explored. Animas Forks Ghost Town is as surreal as it gets and this destination is a fitting reward for doing the 12 mile dirt road trip up into the snow capped mountains. A world of adventure awaits those who take on the Alpine Loop challenge and this is reason enough to get the trusty old 4x4 in gear!
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