If you’re looking to get off the beaten path and experience Colorado’s stunning backcountry, add Colorado’s Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway. The 65-mile scenic drive is usually snow free June through September or early October. It’s filled with streams, treeless tundra, mountain passes and an incredibly preserved ghost town. You can access the loop from Lake City, Ouray or Silverton. The entire 65-mile route is four-wheel-drive terrain and a high-clearance vehicle or OHV (off highway vehicle) is a must.
While in Silverton for a few days, I spent my first morning four wheeling in a Polaris Rzr I rented Rock Pirates. I’ve gone four wheeling before, but never by myself. Tom at Rock Pirates suggested a half-day route for me and off I went cruising through downtown, taking the curve to the right and continuing onto a dirt road that was fairly easy to navigate. Once I Eureka Cabin Zion Store, it got a little more rocky but easy in the Polaris Rzr. I passed some mining relics and enjoyed driving along next to a mountain stream complete with a wonderful little waterfall. I saw the sign for Animas Forks and turned left to head to the once bustling high altitude mining town.
The first prospectors wintered Three Forks of Animus in 1873 as they looked for gold and silver. The name was changed and Animas Forks was established in 1875. Sitting at 11,160 feet above sea level, it has a year-round population of 114. In the summer of 1885 the population ballooned to 450 people. In 1886, there were more than 20 buildings and a large tent encampment. It had its own newspaper. The Animas Forks Pioneer was the only newspaper ever published and printed at so high of an elevation (11,200’) in the United States. Here’s an interesting weather tidbit – in 1884 Animas Forks received 25 feet of snow in 23 days! The town weathered the mining industry’s boom and bust cycles until the early 1920s when metal prices fell worldwide and it began its transformation into a ghost town.
I stopped first in the 1882 Animas Forks jail. It was built of solid 6-inch thick walls and roof with barred windows and doors, meant to keep prisoners in and mobs out. It has two small cells. Men arrested in Anim as Forks were typically held for a short time then transported to the county seat of Silverton to plead their case to a judge, pay a fine and sometimes stand trial. Not far from the jail there was a foundation for a fairly large stone building in between the jail and town.
In the town my first stop was the Gustavson Home, built by Charles L. And Alma Ingrid Gustavson circa 1906-1907. Charles was from Sweden and Alma from Finland. They had four children. Charles bought the land for one dollar and “valuable considerations.” The house always known for its indoor toilet, which was actually an outhouse with a hallway built to it. The house had an underground root cellar accessible through the kitchen floor. They lived in the home year-round. Alma told her grandchildren stories of snowfalls which cumulated to the rooftop and how she would open the window and scoop snow into a pan to melt for the family. They sold the house in May 1910 to E.J. Holman for $110 plus 2% interest.
After thoroughly exploring the Gustavson Home, I went up the hill to two more buildings. One was a small one room building, likely a business or storage cabin. It’s next to a slightly larger building with two rooms. I wandered around a few other cabins and building. I went into another large home that also looks like someone built a hallway to connect the outhouse to the home after it was built.
I was intrigued by the William Duncan House because its architectural elements of picturesque bay and tall windows were common to the era, but highly unusual for such a remote location. William W. Duncan and his family came from Pennsylvania. He and his wife Mary built the house in 1879. The Duncan family left Animas Forks in 1884. It’s a two-story home with four rooms upstairs, which were likely the bedrooms, especially since the Dunkins had four children.
Having wandering around close to an hour and with more people arriving in Animas Forks, I headed back to my Polaris Rzr to head out. There’s a split at the mining mill across the river. If I went right that would take me over Engineer and Cinnamon Passes. I went left heading into California Gulch. As I drove away and rounded a curve I saw a huge mill on the right. As I got closer, I saw a sign saying it’s the Historic Frisco Mill from around 1905. It was used by Frisco Mines and Tunnel Company, Inc.
From here until I cross a stream, the drive was filled with jaw dropping scenery of the alpine tundra and rugged terrain to drive on. I thought I had one mountain pass, but found out I had two passes to drive over. As I started the climb up California Pass I encountered snow banks on both sides. At the top of California Pass I stop at an elevation of 12,960 feet. I walked to the high point and marveled at the view of beautiful alpine lake, seeing the windy road I had driven up and seeing the gnarly road I had to drive next.
I drove down California and quickly went up another. It was Hurricane Pass and went up to 12,407 feet. It was like a rollercoaster ride in between the two and both passes were very windy. I did a quick view check on the top of Hurricane Pass and headed on the road to Silverton.
This descent was not nearly as rough as coming down from California Pass. I passed a small pond and then a mining relic before the road narrowed to barely be wide enough for two OHVs to pass each other and had a steep drop off. I took in the views of the mountains and continued on coming up to a “Y” in the road. I took the lower route and crossed a creek. From there I passed the tiny town of Gladstone and returned to Silverton at 9,318 feet in elevation.
It took me about four hours to cover the 27 miles, including frequent stops and spending about an hour at Animas Forks. The Alpine Loop is one of 26 Scenic and Historic Byways in Colorado. Thirteen of those are also federally designated America’s Byways.