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Engineer Pass is well known as part of the iconic Alpine Loop trail network in the high San Juan Mountains. Many roads criss-crossing over the peaks were established during the late 1800s to support mining operations seeking gold, silver, lead, and other ore deposits. These trails provided lifelines to transport ore, people, and supplies between the mines and the nearby towns of Silverton, Ouray, and Lake City.
Those looking to have a quintessential Colorado weekend adventure can complete the Alpine Loop, leaving Lake City via Cinnamon Pass and connecting to Engineer Pass Road in the area of the Animas Forks ghost town. Easily extend the adventure by connecting to iconic trails like California Pass, Picayne, Placer Gulch, and more. Regardless of where you start Engineer Pass, opportunities are plentiful to test your skills, explore the backcountry of Colorado, and even touch the skies at mountain summits along the way.
The San Juan Mountain Range is full of mining history and ruins. Some are marked clearly, while others are not. The BLM has worked with local historical societies to restore structures and make them safe to enter. These are typically well-marked with informational signage and placards. Many mining sites have been left to the elements and should be appreciated from afar as they are no longer structurally sound.
If you are looking for epic scenery, you'll find spots all along the trail worth stopping for. Odem Point and the official summit have breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding peaks, including the Uncompahgre, Coxcomb, Wetterhorn, and Wildhorse mountain peaks. The view is so expansive at Oh (Odem) Point that on a very clear day, you might see all the way to Utah if you turn your eyes to the west. Whitmore Falls Scenic Overlook at Waypoint 14 offers a beautiful waterfall after a short hike down a well-marked footpath.
This trail is easily traversable by a stock 4WD and can be enjoyed by all drivers, from the beginner to the experienced, with something for the whole family. While this trail isn't rough, it is a proper offroad trail and will test your fortitude with high-altitude shelf roads subject to quick weather changes.
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This nearly 30-mile trail begins in the heart of the San Juan Mountains mining country and follows Henson Creek to Lake City, CO. While the trail has no major obstacles, it is long with rough spots worth airing down for. The high elevation can result in sudden weather shifts.
Engineer Pass travels well above the timberline into areas of fragile alpine tundra. It is essential that travelers stay on 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. As an iconic San Juan trail, this road is heavily traveled and popular for experienced drivers and people out for the weekend with rented Jeeps and OHVs.
To complete the traditional Alpine Loop route, continue south of Lake City and follow Cinnamon Pass west towards Silverton.
Engineer Pass Road begins at the Mineral Creek and San Juan County Road 2 cross-section with clear signage to direct you. Although there is no staging area, the crossroads is spacious, with room for 2-3 vehicles to pull over and park if you need to air down.
At this sharp turn, there are two options. Take the turn wide like the white Jeep for the milder line. Cut the turn tight like the blue Jeep to further push your vehicle's articulation.
This rocky switchback is considered the hardest part of Engineer Pass Road. At this point, you are on the climb up to Odom Point and the official summit of the trail.
This short spur takes you out to Odom Point. You can see the end parking area from the main trail. This intersection can get busy with traffic headed in both directions, so please be aware of other vehicles. Notice that you can see the switchbacks headed up Darley Mountain in the distance, but don't worry. That track is not drivable or part of Engineer Pass Road.
Odom Point (aka Oh Point) sits 12,930 feet above sea level, delivering thin air with extra epic views. There is a very large parking area at Odom Point, which is helpful as this area can get congested on busy weekends. Pack accordingly. Weather can shift quickly at this elevation, and temperatures can easily be 20 degrees cooler than down in Ouray or Lake City.
You can't miss the official summit of Engineer Pass Road with its informational signage and photo-worthy backdrop. Looking directly at Darley Mountain and the border of the Uncompahgre Wilderness, you can easily see the old mining road that climbs up the western slope. Although motorized vehicles are not allowed beyond this point, hikers may choose to summit Darley Mountain when weather conditions allow. Remember that weather changes quickly at this elevation, gale-force winds are not uncommon, and snow can make an appearance even in summer.
At this informational overlook, take the chance to learn about the geologic history of the Silverton and Lake City calderas. Read up on the processes that took place over the course of millions of years to form the mineral deposits that brought prospectors from around the country to the San Juan Mountain Range.
This point marks the end of the switchbacks that quickly descend from the summit of Engineer Pass Road. If you take the time to look back at the way you came, you'll be treated to views of a beautiful waterfall.
If you're moving quickly, you might miss the signage for the Golconda Mining Complex tucked against the trunk of the large pine tree. This roughly 3-mile out-and-back trail climbs another 1,000 feet to the Golconda Boarding House remnants that serviced the Golconda, Goodwin, and Dewey Mines.
This is an additional access point to connect to the Golconda Mining Complex trail. Official agency signage makes it clear where you are headed.
CR22 leads to the remnants of Rose's Cabin and its surrounding living structures and backtracks to the Golconda Mining Complex trails. In the late 1800s, Rose's Cabin was a lively inn providing food, lodging, and entertainment to prospectors and travelers. You'll find a managed vault toilet just a tenth of a mile from this intersection. There is no trash service at this toilet. You must pack your trash and dispose of it when you reach Lake City.
What remains of the Bonanza-Empire Chief Mill is still worth a stop even after the 2008 avalanche that brought it down. Informational signage is in good shape and tells the story of the Bonanza-Empire Chief Mine and Mill that was started in 1901 to pursue galena, zinc, silver, and gold ore. The mine had a varied history of operation over 30 years before shutting down and liquidating. In the year 2000, the Bureau of Land Management stabilized the structural remains of the Mill with the help of the Hinsdale Historical Society. Photos show the Mill before and after the 2008 avalanche that destroyed it, and a warning is given not to explore the debris pile.
If you're moving quickly, this camping spur is easy to miss, but you'll find a large camping area at the bottom. This area has metal fire pits and many hitching posts for campers on horseback. Remember to tread lightly, leave no trace, and pack out all trash.
Whitmore Falls is worth the stop. There is ample parking on the side of the trail for 3-4 vehicles. You'll need to exit to see the falls. The stairs down to the overlook are steep but short, leading to two different overlook spots. For sure-footed hikers, you can continue to the steep and loose trail that travels down to the base of the falls and its turquoise-colored pool.
What remains of Capitol City makes a great spot to stop and stretch your legs. Capitol City was once named Galena City and was founded by George S. Lee with intentions to establish the tiny silver camp as the capitol city of the state of Colorado. There are private homes and property in the Capitol City area; do not trespass and only explore the official Capitol City historic site structures.
After crossing North Fork Henson Creek, you'll reach the intersection for North Fork Henson Creek Road, which provides access to the Czarina, Yellow Medicine, and Gallic-Vulcan Mine areas and the Matterhorn Trailhead (hiking). Signage makes it clear that vehicles taking North Henson Road should be equipped with 4WD.
The Nellie Creek Group Site spur provides multiple large campsites. The first is Pike Snowden's Park meadow, featuring the 1870's Pike Snowden Cabin with informational signage. Additional sites can be found down the trail through the aspen trees.
Nellie Creek Road provides travelers with dispersed campsites immediately off Engineer Pass Road, a well-maintained vault toilet, and a fun 4WD trail that leads up to the Nellie Creek Hiking Trailhead for the 14er Uncompahgre Peak.
This campsite is one of 2-3 designated campsites directly along Henson Creek. Although these campsites are not the most picturesque, they are easily accessible and prone to being claimed quickly during the busy season.
Pull over and read up on the history of the Ute-Ulay Mine and Mill Complex and Henson townsite. There is plenty of room to park a group of vehicles so you can wander the structures and take in the views of Henson Creek at the bottom of the gorge. This mining area was purchased in 1876 for $125k and produced more than $12M worth of gold, silver, lead, copper, and zinc (roughly $280M+ modern value) over 30 years. The Ute-Ulay Mine and Mill Complex played a significant hand in powering Lake City's economy and growth for decades.
This little museum at the Hard Tack Mine is typically open from June through September and operates Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. The Hard Tack Mine was created as an underground transport tunnel moving ore for the Hidden Treasure Mining Company.
If you or your group need a place to air up/down, this staging area provides the perfect opportunity. This is also the hiking trailhead for Alpine Gulch, an 8-mile out-and-back trail that follows the Alpine Gulch Creek through the Redcloud Peak Wilderness Study Area.
Tucked in the trees is signage for Alpine Loop Information and ATV Staging Area. A huge dirt parking area is hidden behind the treelined road with a plethora of permanent signage. On the other side of Engineer Pass Road is a group camping area directly along Henson Creek.
Engineer Pass Road ends just outside of beautiful Lake City, Colorado. You will see agency signage for the Alpine Loop and the official Engineer Pass sign. Head into Lake City for fuel and grocery options, grab a coffee at Blue Bird Boutique, a beer at Lake City Brewing Company, or a slice at Silver Slice Pizza Company!
Dispersed camping is allowed and can be found at Waypoints 13, 17, 18, 19, and 23. The camping areas at 13, 17, and 18 are all appropriate for vehicle groups. Waypoint 19 can only accommodate a single family. While not very secluded, the camping area at Waypoint 23 can accommodate small to medium trailers.
Be sure to research fire regulations beforehand and observe the 14-day limit on camping in one spot if you decide to stay along trail. Paid campgrounds in the area via Recreation.gov are along Cinnamon Pass:
From the town of Silverton, travel north on San Juan County Road 2 for 11.3 miles. At the fork, stay right and continue north for 2.6 miles. The trailhead is located at the intersection of CR2, Mineral Creek, and Engineer Pass Road.
Ouray County has announced that plowing operations have begun for these trails. From the county:
High Country Roads Opening Priority
May 6, 2019 Update
Crews will begin work May 6, 2019 with the goal to have all High Country Roads open by the July 4th weekend.
***Please be aware: Southwestern Colorado received an exceptional amount of snow during the 2018-2019 winter. Roads may be cleared later than usual, and dangers like avalanches may still exist into the summer months. Please use caution when venturing into these areas.***
(Note – Crew 1 and Crew 2 work concurrently)
Crew 1: Yankee Boy (Depending on snowfall, anticipated time to reach the Outhouses is 4 days.)
Crew 2: Red Mountain Town – Open the Main Loop
Crew 1: Corkscrew
Crew 2: Engineer
Crew 1: Imogene
Crew 2: Crews will move to help open Imogene after the completion of Engineer
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