Lake City, Colorado, and the Alpine Loop – Part I

A week after our trek down the Silver Thread ByWay (Disperser Tracks Blog Post), we once again headed to Gunnison.  I had exchanged e-mails with Greg, from the Lake City Chamber of Commerce, and his estimate was the aspens would be near, but not quite at their peak, on the weekend of the 18th of September.

I could not believe the aspens would have changed much in the six days since my last visit, but perfect weather, the company of my best friend, a good travel machine, snacks, and the prospect for more Fish ‘n Chips at the Gunny Sack all pointed to a glorious weekend of Colorado sightseeing.

I learned two things on this trip; Aspens go balls out when they turn, and my Tahoe is a lot more the off-road machine than I ever gave it credit for.

This time we opted for a different route to Gunnison, taking U.S. Highway 24 through Woodland Park, on past Wilkerson Pass, onto CO-Highway 285,  South to Sedalia, and U.S. 50 onto Gunnison.

Wilkinson Pass gave us the first taste of Aspens in their golden splendor.

Wilkerson Pass Aspens

And the sights continued as we traveled South on 285,

Along CO-Highway 285

West on U.S. 50

U.S. 50, heading up to Monarch Pass

and onto Gunnison.

The plan was to spend a nice evening of relaxation, and in the morning once again make our way down Colorado Highway 149 to Lake City.  After a nice meal at the Gunny Sack, including an extra order of Fish ‘n Chips for our travels the next day, we retired in anticipation of the wonders of the next day.

The next morning, heading South on 149, we saw a changed landscape, with near and far mountains sides sporting the gold and rusty colors of Autumn in Colorado.  The weather was perfect, with nary a cloud in the sky, and the early morning temperature a comfortable mid-50s.  As on the previous week, traffic was sparse, and we drove at a leisurely pace to Lake City, sipping our coffee and enjoying the sights.

Sight from Colorado Highway 149

We even witnessed a cattle drive, complete with cowboys on horses, and cattle dogs keeping the herd in formation as they pushed them along.

Cattle drive along CO-Highway 149

Lake City was girded by mountains awash with golden aspens.  Some had not turned yet, but many were in full color.  We did not stop other than to take pictures, and continued on wanting to get to a couple of overlooks outside of town.

Below are two pictures showing what a difference six days make.  They are animated GIF files, and they work on the PC and browsers I tried them on.  But if not, the next post will have links to the SmugMug gallery, where you can see the comparisons as stills.

One week apart - aspens turning - hillside

Sorry about the changing perspective.  I had not planned on doing this  animation, and two different lenses were used to capture these images, probably not from exactly the same spot.

One week apart - aspens turning - lake
One week apart – aspens turning – lake

I should mention many of the photographs have been “darkened”a bit.  The aspens in full sun reflect a lot of it, making it difficult in a photo to discern details and get a sense of what it looks like.  Call it artistic license used to convey the experience of being there.

The road that can be seen following the lake shore in the above picture is part of the southern leg of the Alpine Loop.  The Alpine Loop is approximately 52 miles long (depending where you read about it), starts and ends in Lake City, goes through Cinnamon Pass and Engineer Pass, and it is the most difficult road I have ever driven.

some of these links no longer work but you can search for Lake City Alpine Loop and get new links.

These links give brief overviews of the loop:

There is even a fly-over of the route:

I am a sucker for unpaved side roads, but they are not the most enjoyable of experiences for Melisa.  Reading about it, I was conflicted as to whether to attempt it.  On the one hand it sounded like an opportunity to see spectacular scenery, but on the other hand I did not want to subject Melisa to many hours of rough riding.

Lower leg of the Alpine Loop, heading up to Cinnamon Pass

I read a lot about it, but found the road information conflicting and ranging from “No Big Deal” to “Oh.  My.  FSM.  Don’t even try it without a PhD in Adventure Off-Roading!!”  Online pictures did not show a road that looked any worse than Gold Camp road, and certainly better than Rampart Road.

So, I contacted the Lake City Chamber of Commerce to get the skinny on the Alpine Loop.  This was my query:

I drive a Chevy Tahoe with a 10 inch clearance, and I am reasonably sure I can go (and have done in the past) on some pretty rough roads.

That said, being tossed about for a number of hours, and negotiating my way around large rocks and boulders is not my idea (and more important, my wife’s idea) of a nice drive.  I expect some roughness from a dirt road, but don’t expect or want to be in need of a high performance off-road machine.

Do you have any feedback regarding how slow a travel, and how rough a travel it would be?  I realize that is subjective, but I would appreciate any feedback you might have.

A very helpful person named Greg replied:

I will now do my best to demystify the infamous Alpine Loop.
First a matter of time.
To complete the entire loop, and enjoy the scenery, you will need  6-8 hours. You will be covering around 55 miles which gives you an idea of the pace that you will be traveling.

Now as far as vehicle qualifications go, this can be subjective. We recommend that your vehicle have four wheel drive, good tires and high clearance. The loop is a well traveled, somewhat maintained, dirt road. It is not technical nor does it require a modified vehicle by any means. You may find that four wheel drive is not even necessary. I personally have taken my Dodge Caravan to the top of Cinnamon Pass. Two wheel drive, bad tires and low clearance.

Armed with this first hand knowledge, I headed into the loop.  After a number of miles you come to a fork on the road, with a small offshoot labeled as the way to Cinnamon Pass.  Big signs warn you it’s a bad idea to even think of proceeding unless you have the proper vehicle, with 4WD, high clearance, and a prehensile tail.

This gave me pause.  I really did not want to submit Melisa to an ordeal.  I am, after all, generally considered a good and caring husband.  Then I remembered . . . Dodge Caravan.  Of course the sign would warn of perils and hardship!  It was meant to discourage other people.

Still, the agreement was to head up and turn back if it got too rough.  Good plan.

On the way to Cinnamon Pass

A couple of times I was ready to turn back, but each time we would cross another vehicle, a lesser vehicle, heading the other way.  Well, shoot!  If they can make it, surely I can manage it.  In fact, one of the vehicles we crossed was a Camry.  I remember feeling sorry for the guy because we had already driven over spots where that car was going to scrape the bottom.  We pressed on.

Over and over I relive the fateful moment I lost all of the husband points I had accumulated over the course of 34 years of marriage.  We had gotten into narrow switchbacks ascending the now steep road.  Road conditions deteriorated rapidly, but there was no place to turn around.  Then we turned what is now known as No Turning Back Corner, and took notice the road surface had taken a break, and boulders now picked up the job.  Not rocks.  Boulders.

It took me a number of minutes to weave up the “road”, mindful to keep all four wheels from dropping in between the boulders.  Left, inch forward, hit the brakes, turn the wheel, inch forward, hit-the-gas-than-hit-the-brakes, swear, turn slowly, hit the gas, repeat.  Half way through the band of boulders I had to “pull over” to let a Jeep heading the other way pass.  We stopped to chat.  They had come from Silver City, and they did not advise heading that way in the vehicle I had.

At Engineer Pass - our valient ride, the Tahoe

Relieved I told them we were heading to Lake City along the loop.  He looked at me, looked at the vehicle, and said “You must know what you are doing.”  With those ominous words, we parted company.  In a short while we were past the boulders and back on to what now passed for a road.  I considered turning around . . . but I had zero confidence I would be able to negotiate the path through the boulders facing down a steep slope.  For one, I was not sure I would be able to see where I was going over the top of my hood.

I already knew I was husband toast, and based on what the guy said, I was not going to encounter anything more difficult.  And, as we pressed on, we did not.  Rougher, yes.  Mind-numbingly intense, yes.  Scarier, yes.

Still heading to Cinnamon Pass

It took us from 9:30am to 6:30 to complete the loop.  I only felt our lives were in danger a couple of times.  The bigger fear was for the car.  I could not bear to contemplate breaking down on that road for surely Melisa would be convicted of my murder.  Mind you, it would have been justified, but without experiencing the road most juries would convict out of ignorance.

It was both a mental drain and a physical drain.  After having lost all my husband points, every passing mile put me in the hole . . . I don’t have enough years left to get even, let alone cross into positive territory.  That worry, the concentration required to keep the car moving forward, the shaking, the slipping on loose rock while hitting the gas and all four wheels trying to find purchase, the hairpin turns scarred with deep ruts, narrow ledges strewn with exposed rocks, all combined for an exhausting ordeal.

Animas - between Cinnamon Pass and Engineer Pass

The worse part, we would occasionally talk to other people, and would be assured it would get better farther on, or at least would not be any worse.  FSM-dammed liars, all of them!!

The following are a few picture of the road.  I changed the colors to make the road surface more visible, otherwise it blends into a benign-looking surface.  Click on the pictures below to be taken to a Picasa album for just the road. Those pictures are of the “better” places on that road, when I remembered I had a camera.  During the worse parts there was no consideration to stopping and taking pictures.

A good part of the road (colors changed to show road detail)

Another good part of the road (colors changed to show road detail)

The above video shows a relatively good part of the road, where one could actually hold the video recorder while in motion.

The video below shows another car along the road heading from Animas to Cinnamon Pass.  Shown here is what is considered a good pace on this road.

OK, that’s enough.

We both admit seeing incredible scenery, and the pictures will surely not do it justice.  On one level we are glad to have done it.  But that night, back in the hotel room, neither of us could close our eyes without being back on that road.  Strangely, in our minds we were experiencing worse than we actually did.  For the next week we both had dreams about that road, and we did not fare as well on it.

So, here is my advice.  If you have the proper vehicle, or you rent an ATV at Lake City, this is an incredible ride, and one that can be very enjoyable.  That road is made for ATVs and dirt bikes.  If you are thinking of taking your own vehicle on that road, it better be one with lots of clearance.  I would not advise anyone to go up there with a Dodge Caravan.

The next post will detail some of the sights along the loop.  Those would be the reasons for venturing on the road.  Not good reasons, but it might be for some.