This nearly 30-mile trail starts off on the rougher side and eases up as you get through it. It connects straight through from Ouray, ending in Lake City. While there are no major obstacles to be worried about on this trail, it is long and some of it is rough and worth airing down to make the day a little less bumpy.
At the start of the trail, you will run into lots of rocky sections, boulders, and some rocks to climb up. The intersection at Poughkeepsie Gulch is completely rock and can be VERY slick if it’s wet for any reason and snow can be downright treacherous. There are multiple areas of shelf road on both sides of the vehicle. Be prepared for these drop-offs and always remember that uphill traffic traditionally has the right of way.
This trail travels well above the timberline and much if it is fragile alpine tundra. It’s extremely important that travelers follow the trail and do not deviate from it. The damage one vehicle can do by going off-trail can take years for the area to recover.
Since this trail falls into the iconic category, it’s traveled by lots of people every year. Because it is one of the easier trails in the San Juans, it is a popular trail for both experienced drivers and people out for the weekend with rented Jeeps and ATV’s.
Large SUV’s are going to have trouble maneuvering on a trail like this in places, but just about any vehicle with clearance can make this trail if they take their time.
To run the Alpine Loop in it’s traditional route, start in the town of Lake City. Go south and begin the loop at Cinnamon Pass. When you get to waypoint 20 on Cinnamon Pass, turn right (north) and head uphill towards Engineer Pass. After 2.1 Miles the Engineer Pass - Alpine Loop Connector ends, turn right (east) to pick up Engineer Pass at waypoint 11 back towards Lake City.
There is lots of 4x4, ATV and bike traffic on this iconic trail.
1. Ouray Area Trailhead
This is the main trailhead if entering the Alpine Loop via the Million Dollar Highway or if you’re just running Engineer pass by itself. There is an additional entrance to Engineer Pass that connects Cinnamon Pass
to Engineer Pass to complete the iconic Alpine Loop.
The trailhead is very large and well marked with signs. You’re likely to see vehicles and trailers parked at the bottom in the large meeting area which is also easy to air down in.
2. Silver Link Mine Road - Stay Straight
Stay straight at this spur.
3. Rock Steps
This is a notable obstacle as it helps give this trail a slightly higher difficulty rating. These rock steps are not avoidable, looks can be deceiving. This area is very passable but shouldn’t be taken lightly.
4. Michael Breen Mine
Stay straight (southeast) here and as soon as you pass the mine, you will come across a rocky incline.
If you stop, you can turn up a small hill to the top of the Michael Breen Mine. The site has a small parking area at the top that a few vehicles can stop at to take in the scenery and learn a little about the mine.
5. Stream Crossing
There is a small stream crossing here that can be faster in the spring melt off. There is another rocky climb in store after this stream.
6. Intersection with Poughkeepsie & Rocky Climb Start
Stay left (north) and climb up the rock face to get onto Engineer Pass. To the right (southeast) is the famous Poughkeepsie Gulch. This starts a little less than a mile long rocky climb that includes four switchbacks and rocks in excess of 8in tall around and sometimes on the trail.
Special note for waterfall lovers. If you turn off your engine, you'll hear the roaring creek near the trail. A short walk to the creek leads to a fast moving and beautiful waterfall. It's well worth the stop, especially in the spring when the melt water is rushing.
Stay right (northeast) at this camping spur. These switchbacks end here and it flattens out a little bit for a while.
8. Unauthorized Spur
Stay right (southeast) at this unauthorized spur.
9. Intersection with County Road 18
Stay left (north) and uphill here at the intersection with the CR 18 loop of roads.
10. Canaries Scenic Overlook & Bathroom
Stay straight (southeast) here to continue on the trail. On the right (south) side of the road you will see a large parking area and a bathroom. Just beyond the bathroom is an informational sign and a great view of the Mountain Range known as The Canaries.
11. Intersection with Alpine Loop Connector
Stay left (north) at this very sharp turn. You will see the signs to indicate where the trail goes, follow them uphill and past the informational signs.
Note that if you are starting Engineer Pass from Cinnamon Pass
here, this is your trailhead for Engineer coming from the south via the Alpine Loop Connector.
12. Switchback to Summit
Stay left (northwest) at this switchback that goes to Oh Point and the official summit. The trail on the right (northeast) is an unnamed road that travels over to 21.
13. Odom Point Intersection
Turn left (west) onto the road for Odom Point. You can see traffic coming and going easily, use common courtesy and wait for traffic coming off the point. This little land bridge wide for the most part, but is tight in spots for two big vehicles and passing could be difficult so take your time.
14. Odom Point Overlook
This large area is the highest on the trail and allows for views of the mountains in nearly a full 360⁰. There is plenty of space to stop here with a group. When exiting the overlook, return to waypoint 13 and turn left (northeast) back onto the main trail.
15. Official Summit and Overlook
Follow the trail down and to the right (southeast) here. There is plenty of space to stop here though if you want to take a picture with the official sign. Some maps show that the trail used to go up and around the peak there, but that area is fenced off now.
This area can be very busy with a lot of traffic so be on the lookout for ATV's and people on foot.
16. Private Trail
Stay straight (northeast) at this intersection with an old road that appears to be private. It leads back to a mine claim called Hough Mine.
17. Private Trail
Stay straight (northeast) at this private trail.
18. Uncompahgre Overlook
Stay to the left (west) and follow the trail signs.
There are two notable places along this part of the trail. At 11.2 miles, hikers will find the entrance to the Horsethief Pack Trail. Private Property begins at 12.7 miles, mind signage.
19. Intersection with CR 21
Stay left (east) at CR 21. It leads to a small network of roads that all end back to the main trail.
20. Old Spur - Stay Straight
Stay straight (east) at this old spur. It appears on maps, but no longer has a designation as being authorized.
21. Intersection with CR 21X
Stay left (east) at the intersection with CR 21X.
22. Bathroom & Rest Area
Stay straight (east) for the trail. On the right (south) is a bathroom and small rest area.
23. Camping Spur
Stay right (east) at this camping spot.
24. Camping Spot
Stay right (east) at this camping spot.
25. Intersection with Bonanza
Stay right (southeast) to stay on Engineer.
26. Private Drive
Stay to the left (northeast) at this private drive.
27. Capitol City
This is the historic Capitol City
. You can stop here to take in the old buildings but please respect the historical site.
28. Intersection with North Henson Creek (CR 24)
Stay to the right (east) at North Henson Creek (CR 24).
29. Intersection with North Henson (CR 24)
Stay right (east) at this intersection to continue to the exit of Engineer Pass.
30. Intersection with Nellie Creek (CR 23)
Stay to the right (southeast) at this road. There is a public restroom just to the east of this waypoint.
31. Hard Tack Mine & Overlook
32. ATV Parking Lot/Staging Area & Trail Entrance
There is a large ATV staging parking lot on this end of the trail. Behind the parking lot are some ATV entrances into the area.
33. End Trail at Lake City
The trail ends at Lake City which is a very off-road friendly town. You will see signs on the side of the road for Engineer Pass and for the Alpine Loop in general.
Turning right (southeast) will send you back into the Rio Grande Forest and southwest towards Alamosa. Turn left (north) to CR 50 and Gunnison.