It’s a poorly kept secret that southwest Colorado is one of the best destinations for off-roading adventures. Folks from around the continent salivate over our rugged passes, steep inclines and history-rich abandoned mining trails.
Switch into four-wheel drive and you’ll connect with a warm and welcoming community of rock crawling experts. Leave the trail behind and be rewarded with rocky vistas and secluded, alpine views you’ll find nowhere else.
A proper off-road experience is about more than the path less traveled. Where will you park the rig come nightfall? What are the best road stops along the way? Whether you plan to tow your own ATVs from home, want to practice your crawling skills in a rented Jeep, or book the family on a guided tour of our tallest peaks, consider Durango your #1 4x4 basecamp.
Please be sure to give our backyard the love and care it deserves while enjoying your 4x4 adventure.
Start your Adventure along the Scenic Alpine Loop
Length: 75 miles
Connecting the towns of Silverton, Ophir, Telluride, Ouray, and Lake City, this 75 mile high-elevation loop can be broken up into segments or used as the ultimate multi-day bucket list adventure. It’s along these high-clearance roads where you’ll find most of our recommendations. We’ve broken it up into town-specific trips with every must-stop, must-climb, and must-eat in between. For a full map and list of regulations, check out the Forest Service brochure here.
From Durango to Silverton: Lime Creek Road
A good first choice for novice off-roaders
My own first off-roading trip spent behind the wheel was on Lime Creek Road, and for a number of reasons - it has close proximity to Durango, a short duration, low difficulty, and ample opportunities for camping and secret waterfall chasing.
In the 1800’s, Lime Creek Road served as the only connection between the towns of Durango and Silverton, so if you want the authentic gold miner’s experience, you’ll find it here. Be prepared to share the road with wandering hikers, mountain bikers and campers. There are excellent dispersed camping spots near the southern entrance of Lime Creek, and boondocking is allowed at impacted sites. The view of the West Needle Mountains can’t be beat.
Length: 12 miles
Peak Elevation: 9,900 ft.
Where to Stay: Purgatory Mountain Resort or Cabin Rental
Recommendations: Since the road follows the Lime Creek drainage, this path has great access to water along the way, so bring your fly fishing license and water shoes for stops along the way. Take a point to hike the trail to Spud Lake and enjoy overlooks of Purgatory Mountain Resort across the way.
Day Trip from Durango: La Plata Canyon and Kennebec Pass
Top Guided Destination from Durango
Part of the thrill of off-roading is that everyone in the vehicle is a little on edge for the duration of the experience. If that’s understandably not your thing, but you’re still interested in the private views of the best the San Juans have to offer, it’s safe to go with a guide service. Put the keys in the hands of a Mild to Wild or Durango Rivertrippers tour guide. The half-day excursion is family friendly and will take you and your crew high in the sky above Durango. Expect sweeping views, raging waterfalls and all the best kept secrets your guide is willing to share.
Length: 15 miles
Peak Elevation: 11,683
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Where to Stay: Your favorite Durango hotel
Recommendations: If you prefer, you can of course take on Kennebec Pass on your own terms. But if you’re looking for a stress-free excursion or a way to include the whole family, a guided excursion could be just the thing.
From Silverton to Telluride: Ophir Pass
The most scenic way to visit Telluride
A major perk of starting your off-roading journey from Durango is the progressive increase in technicality and difficulty. The higher up into the San Juan National Forest you venture, the more tricky it can become. For well-versed 4x4 drivers, you’ll appreciate Ophir Pass.
Long, winding and with just enough drop offs to make your stomach curl, Ophir Pass is the most scenic way to travel to Telluride, Colorado. Towering mountains will make even the heaviest duty of vehicles seem miniscule, while rust red rocks provide incredible contrast between the vibrant vegetation and endless wildflowers.
Length: 9.8 miles
Peak Elevation: 11,789 feet
Where to Stay: There are a number of great hotels and lodges to be found in Telluride.
Recommendations: For an extra long loop and full-day excursion, wait until all the snow melts in the highlands (August to September) and connect three bucket list passes - Black Bear, Imogene, and Ophir - in one epic loop.
Day Trip from Silverton: Mineral Creek Road
Easy/Moderate high clearance road ideal for alpine lake chasing.
The South Mineral Campground is what makes this a worthy break from the Scenic Alpine Loop. The campground is located four miles off of the highway when traveling west from Silverton. At 9,900 feet, you can expect unbeatable proximity to a number of high alpine lakes and trails, including the Ice Lake Basin trail.
Mineral Creek offers sweeping views of remote waterfalls, fly-fishing access, old mining cabins, and wildlife viewing. There’s nothing like watching moose amble through the mist of the meadows below the road.
What differentiates South Mineral from the rest of the roads is the high reward for little work to reach the azule waters of Clear Lake. The 9.4 mile road from nearby South Mineral campground is a steep graded line of switchbacks. With a total climb of 2,654 feet, it just gets better and better.
Length: 9.4 from dirt road to Clear Lake
Peak Elevation: 12,464 feet
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Where to Stay: South Mineral Campground
Recommendations: If you’re traveling from Durango, make a point to stop at PJ’s Gourmet Market to stock up on snacks, grillable veggies, steaks and s’mores. If cooking out isn’t your style, the Golden Block Brewery in Silverton is my favorite recommendation.
From Silverton and Beyond: Animas Forks Trail
The jet-off point to a 4x4 paradise
One could argue that the real journey doesn’t begin until you leave Silverton. Beyond our favorite sleepy mining town is a spiderweb of high-clearance 4x4 roads and ghost towns with such historical significance, they alone make the journey worth it.
Like with most roads, the higher you crawl, the gnarlier it can get. Stock up on all your food stuffs in Silverton and be prepared to camp if you want to stay in the thick of it. It’s a “choose your challenge” kind of route, with access points to a number of lesser difficulty gulches and peaks. If you have time, the dead end gulch roads of Minnie and Cunningham are both scenic, while Maggie Gulch will reveal a waterfall along the way. Arrastra Gulch provides access to the Mayflower Mine, a region known of one of the earliest successes in the mining boom.
Make a point to explore for a few hours in the slightly eerie but hugely fascinating Animas Forks ghost town before continuing your journey.
Length: 12.3 miles
Peak Elevation: 13,722
Difficulty: Moderate to Difficult
Where to Stay: Eureka Campground
Recommendations: There are a number of places to boondock and camp in the National Forest beyond Silverton. FreeCampsites.Net is an extremely helpful resource for those towing a trailer or planning to camp along the way.
If you continue on to Cinnamon Pass, you’ll enjoy primo access to some of Colorado’s most incredible peaks over 14,000 feet. Handies Peak, often considered one of the best novice hikes for interested peak-baggers, is a great place to start. If you make it all the way to Lake City, Colorado, you’d be very mistaken not to camp at Cascade Creek and eat southern soul food at Southern Vittles restaurant.
With the 416 Fire there have been some closures so be sure to check here before you plan your trip.