The Alpine Loop is renowned for being a 4x4 trail paradise that draws enthusiasts from around the globe. Silverton is the most popular starting point for an Alpine Loop tour. The 8 mile dirt road that goes from Silverton to the old historic Eureka Mine is very easy for beginners and this is the only section of the Alpine Loop that is open for passenger car and RV traffic. To go any further, you will need a high ground clearance 4x4 vehicle.
There are 4×4 shops of every kind in Durango, Silverton, Ouray and Ridgway, so getting some repairs done or tacking on some nifty mods is easy to get done. ATV and Jeep rentals are available in these gateway communities too, so even the regular passenger car drivers can join in on the fun. Organized Jeep safaris and 4x6 troop haulers can also be booked, which are perfect for group events.
There are a few RV parks and lodge resorts along the highway and in downtown Silverton that appeal to those who plan an extended stay. Silverton offers dining options for getting a belly full of grub before tackling the Jeep trails, but as many already know, dining out can be a roll of the dice when driving long distances over bumpy dirt roads. By far, the most popular accommodation option in the San Juan Mountains is camping and there are plenty of campsites to choose from in the National Forest. A hearty meal cooked over a campfire is also the most popular dining option in these parts and there is nothing like enjoying a hot food when over 12,000 feet up, where the cold air can feel like winter in July. There are several Colorado “14’ers” in this area, which is an indicator of just how tough the Jeep trails can be.
The San Juan National Forest Jeep trails are fairly well marked in this region, but a good paper map or GPS system will be needed for navigating the many dirt roads that have minimal signage. Each dirt road in this region has a skill level rating that can be found at 4x4 or Jeep club websites, the San Juan National Forest page or the BLM website. The skill level rating is also an indicator of what kind of vehicle is best suited for the conditions, which is good to know when planning a tour of the Alpine Loop. Some of the difficult trails are so dangerous that it does take some real nerve just to negotiate the tough spots and the trails on the steep mountainsides definitely are not for those who have a fear of heights. The danger is very real when driving the Jeep trails in this mountain wilderness, so plan on taking some first aid supplies, tow ropes, an extra spare tire, a tire repair kit and survival rations in case an emergency situation arises.
The starting point for the the first leg of the Alpine Loop can be found on County Road 2 in the north end of Silverton by the museum. After getting on the trail, the panoramic views of the mountain peaks and narrow valleys are breathtaking, so be sure to bring a good camera along for the ride! The trail from Silverton to Eureka follows the Animas River and where there is water, there is wildlife. Deer and marmots practically pose for the camera along the road and large birds of prey are a common sight. There are several old abandoned mines and small ghost towns to explore along the way, so be sure to devote a few extra hours for this short, yet interesting scenic Jeep trail!
Almost immediately after exiting Silverton, the old Mayflower Mine comes into view. The Mayflower is still in pretty good condition and tours of this old mine can be booked in advance. This mine is now a reclamation project, so it is interesting to see how the land is being cleaned up. A lot of the old artifacts are still intact, like the ore bucket tram line that spans the Animas River and continues way up the gulch on the other side. Bucket tram lines like this not only transported ore, they also transported workers and supplies. There are several mine tram lines that span the river along the road to Eureka and some of them definitely look precarious enough to have scared even the boldest miner back in the old days.
As the drive continues uphill, the high altitude air is crystal clear and views of landscape become more vivid. In some places the Animas River has carved deep canyon ravines and in other places the river drifts over the valley floor to create meadow marshlands. A few beaver huts can be seen in the ponds and the calm surface of the water reflects the mountains in the background. Small streams from freshwater springs can be seen along the dirt road and waterfalls cascade down from the tall barren mountainsides. In some places the alpine forests are thick and other areas are too high of an elevation for trees to grow. The stark contrast of the changing environment as one drives uphill to Eureka does have a dramatic effect.
There are several old abandoned mines, lodges and little ghost town camps on the way to Eureka. Some of the gulch side roads lead to famous old mines that offer tours deep underground. Some of the other trails just lead to an old pile of rubble, which can be interesting to see too, because plenty of old west history took place in this region. A lot of mining took place in this area during the gold and silver rush days and the old abandoned mines do present good photo opportunities. As far as climbing around on the ruins is concerned, that is taboo, because the old mining claims are valid and some of the sites are on private land. Old mines are dangerous places and the risk of injury while out in the middle nowhere is just not worth it, so restricting the exploration to taking photos from a distance is the best way to go.
There is no mistaking Eureka for anyplace else when a visitor finally arrives. The mountainside looks like it is painted with orange, brown and gold paint from a distance, which is an intriguing sight to see. There actually is a lodge, general store and RV campground that officially keeps Eureka on the map, so there are some modern amenities to be found in this old mining camp ghost town. In modern times with the remnants of the mining operation rotting in the background, the Eureka setting looks as peaceful as can be and camping here certainly is a nice option.
The Eureka Mine Ruins are well worth checking out and there are many hiking trails that go to nearby points of interest. The view of the remnants of the structures that follow the contour of the colorful mountainside is interesting enough to gaze at for quite a spell and the mysterious looking narrow gorge next to the mine beckons to be checked out. Eureka is a very weird looking ominous place that looks like nowhere else on earth and this is what makes touring the easy first section of the Alpine Loop worthwhile!
From Eureka, the Alpine Loop continues on uphill to Animas Forks and this section can be tackled with a high ground clearance two wheel drive vehicle. To go any further on the Alpine Loop from Animas Forks, a dedicated 4x4 will be needed. Certain road rules and restrictions apply to these mountain Jeep trails, like the rule which states that vehicles going uphill have the right of way, while vehicles going downhill must yield to climbing vehicles. Trailers and RV campers are not allowed to go any farther than Eureka, which is another rule to keep in mind. Some of the narrow Alpine Loop Jeep Trails actually are one way roads, so finding the correct starting point is essential for planning the trip.
As mentioned earlier, ATV and Jeep rentals are available in Silverton and the other nearby mountain towns, so those who own regular passenger cars can tour the world famous Alpine Loop in its entirety. For passenger car drivers who just want to experience a sample of what the Alpine Loop is like, the first section from Silverton to Eureka is like driving on a smooth gravel road, so it can easily be done. This small Alpine Loop section is well worth experiencing and the views of the old historic Eureka Mine simply cannot be beat!
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