Jeepin’ the San Juans

  • by Scott Sajowitz

Often referred to as “the Switzerland of America” and sitting at anywhere between 7,000-9,000 feet high, the mountain towns of southwestern Colorado definitely have the upper-hand on the Jeep trails in Colorado. There are four prominent towns in this area: Ouray, Telluride, Silverton, and Durango, all within a 2 hour drive of one another, and all accessible via Jeep trails. Once you reach Ouray, you can avoid pavement nearly all together and off-road through the southwest, where you’ll find tons of mining remains, railroad ruins, and some of the most gorgeous peaks in the Rockies.

Once in Ouray, we had a beer at Ouray Brewery then headed south through town until we reached the turn for Camp Bird Road. We took this dirt road a few miles until reaching a fork in the trail: left gives way to Governor’s Basin. Continue right until you reach a second fork in the road, giving us access to Yankee Boy Basin or Imogene Pass. Let’s go left for Imogene!

Across the river and through the woods, to 13k feet we go, tackling granite, deteriorating rock, and impressively narrow pitches along the way. Imogene Pass was originally created to give the miners in Ouray access to Tom Boy Mine in Telluride. Now, the road serves as one of the most beautiful 4×4 trails in Colorado. The trail is around 12 miles long, is open for two-way traffic, and takes 2-3 hours if you’re bookin’ it (but why would you do that…?)


The trail is fairly straightforward (I’ve done it in the dark multiple times) until you reach about 11,900 ft., where it becomes much more narrow, steep, and rocky. Crawl your way to the summit, where you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree views of Telluride, Ouray, and the San Juans. See Mt. Sneffels peaking over the surrounding 13ers in the distance. Spot the mines that are now tiny little black squares on the trail below you.


Once you’re done taking it all in (or someone in your party forces you to head back down…), head left from the summit sign and down into Telluride. The road begins as very narrow with little room to pass. Hold your breath and finish the next little bit because the road widens up again as you descend into Imogene Basin via switchbacks.


As you descend, Tom Boy Mine will come into view, and my, is it a sight to see! First of all, it’s massive compared to most mine ruins we’ve seen – basically an entire city. There are a few informative signs placed at the forefront, and you are free to explore near the ruins – beware of trespassing and no entry signs, as most of the remains are not stable nor safe.


Pass a few more mines as you climb your way into the forest. Right before you cross tree line, the road narrows again and there are a multitude of waterfalls on your right. After you enter the trees again, be sure to look across the valley, as the infamous switchbacks of Black Bear Pass come into view, along with Bridal Veil Falls and the power house. You’re now on Tom Boy Road, and this will take you right smack into the middle of Telluride, where I suggest you grab another beer at Smugglers or Telluride Brewing Company before you get on your way.

OR,avoid the highway to Ouray and head to Lake City for Engineer Pass. When you reach Lake City, take 2nd Street west, then turn left on Bluff Road and follow the signs for the Alpine Loop (Cinnamon Pass + Engineer Pass combined). This trail is also open to two-way traffic. This pass is nearly 21 miles long and hot damn, is it beautiful.

Rising to 12,800 feet, you’ll travel through the San Juans again, seeing many more mines, including Bonanza Empire Chief Mine, a fairly large mining house in a field of wildflowers and metal remains. Stop at Odom Point and observe how high you are!

Although fairly mild most of the way, Engineer gets pretty rough and rocky during the last pitches, and you’ll really want to watch your undercarriage (one time, I sat 3 miles from the end of the pass for nearly 2 hours because a Bronco got his differential stuck on a rock and nearly tore his axle off).


If you run Engineer from Ouray, you can complete the Alpine Loop, which tours Animas Forks, a ghost town situated at 11,200 feet, where the snow would pile up to the second story windows. Animas Forks was restored in 2013-2014, so you can tour the buildings, sit inside of the jail cell, and explore the homes, learning how the people of the town survived the brutal winters in the high San Juans. In its prime, Animas was a bustling mine town – by 1876, there were 30 cabins, a hotel, a saloon, and a post office, but by 1902, mining began to decline and the town began nearing its end; it was completely abandoned by 1920.

Travel 12 miles from Animas Forks into the town of Silverton, where you will gain highway access to Ouray or Durango. Take Red Mountain Pass towards Ouray and tune in next time to see where we end up!Live a life of adventure!,

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Tagged with: Hiking travel

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