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

(Note: for them who would skip my brilliant writing – unbelievable as that might seem to some – click on any photo to go directly to that photo in SmugMug gallery, or click HERE to go to the beginning of the gallery.  Warning: there are a lot of photographs.)

As mentioned in the previous post, the Alpine Loop was an ordeal.  In part because of the difficult driving, and in part because we were not mentally prepared for what we faced.

But take that aspect of it, bury it deep in the recesses of the mind, and what is left is a visual fiesta.  I did snap a lot of pictures, despite the difficult terrain, and this post is to present the narrative from the point of view of a sightseer as opposed to a stressed-out driver.

Wilkerson Pass Visitor Center

We are big fans of driving trips.  The driving experience offers the illusion one is leaving everything behind, escaping jobs, bills, responsibilities, and heading out to unknown adventures.

Never mind the TripTik has everything mapped out to a tenth of a mile.  Never mind deep down we know come Monday morning we are heading back to a windowless room where stale air circulates, precious life is unevenly exchanged for money, and where dreams go to die.

No, for a brief span of time we live the illusion of freedom, of control, of choice. We turn the steering wheel, the car changes direction.  We control when it goes, stops, and how fast it travels from point A to point B.  In a small way we tap the pioneer spirit that pushed people to roll their wagon along paths that are now our modern roads.

And what better way to celebrate the freedom than to document it with pictures?  Well, at least that is the case for me.

The aspens have turned

The first part of the rather large gallery covers the same areas as the September 11th trip, but now the aspens have for the most part changed. Before going on to the Alpine Loop, we revisited a couple of overlooks just south of Lake City.  What a change from the previous week; the hills were dotted with splotches of gold, and the roads were lined with aspens flaunting their colors, leafs all aflutter as we passed in silent awe.

Lake San Cristobal Vista

The Lake Cristobal overlook had a few other people looking out from between the trees.  The surprise was not more of the drivers who passed by stopped to soak in a magnificent sight.

Stretch of Hwy. 149 South of Lake City

Perhaps they were eager to go a little way down the road, and see the aspens lining the road.  We opted to leave the rest of Highway 149 for another year, and doubled back to enter the Alpine Loop.  The road follows Lake San Cristobal, and the setting was awe-inspiring.

Cabins along Lake San Cristobal

Gunnison River and aspens galore

Continuing on, the road changed from paved to dirt, but at this point it was still a relatively smooth road.  If I remember correctly, we followed the Henson Creek (although it could have been the west leg of the Gunnison River), flowing under the watchful stare of impressive rocky hills.

The pictures in the SmugMug gallery will likely offer more of an impact than these, but they still fall short of experiencing hill after hill covered with aspens in various states of turning.

Literally at every turn of the road we were offered up rolling hills lapping up to rocky cliffs, with numerous rock formations providing punctuating drama to the otherwise serenity of what we saw.  I can easily state we had never seen anything like this before.

Early part of the Alpine Loop, before ascending

Lower part of the Alpine Loop on the Cinnamon Pass side

The road still relatively smooth, the 35 mph speed limit was exceeded without any ride discomfort, but I stopped often to absorb the sights and take some pictures.

Note also there is a fair amount of green still mixed in with the colors.  Those are groves of aspens that have not turned yet.  But while this might not have been the peak of the colors, I think I liked the mix of yellow, green, and the occasional orange.

As it turned out, later that week the weather turned, and the high winds likely ripped many of those leaves from the trees.  That said, I would imagine even a few weeks later there would be enough color to please the late Autumn color hunter.

Lower part of the Alpine Loop on the Cinnamon Pass side

When the road finally did split, and we took the ascending narrow road toward Cinnamon Pass, we were heading up into the very hills we had been admiring from afar.  They did not disappoint.

Notice the road is narrower and a little rougher, but overall we were making good time, and the sights were almost too much.

You can only go “Wow!!” so many times before it just seems superfluous, and silence becomes the benchmark of the awe one feels as trees opened up to deep valleys, and closed again to form aspen chutes through the woods.

For as good as the weather was, as great as the colors were, we were amazed there were so few people on the road.  We only crossed two cars going the other way, a few ATVs, and a few motorcycles.    This held throughout our trip.  One complaint I cannot make is of feeling crowded.

Marking Point - the game changes

We reached a spot where the road got a little wider, and a few buildings from days of yore stood a bit back from the road.  A number of cars and ATVs were stopped, people milled about, and seemed to be doing stuff as if in preparation for something.  We stopped as well, and I took some picture.  We had some coffee, and a couple of snacks.  Life was beautiful . . .

Until we got going again.  The road turned a lot rougher, and our pace slowed considerably.  Still, scenery all over the place, with deep, deep valleys inches from the tires of my Tahoe on one side, and a wall of rock on the other side seemingly trying to push us into the deep, deep valleys.

Halfway up to Cinnamon Pass

Once a dream of riches, now a picture opportunity for travelers

I should mention along the way there are numerous reminders of days past, when people lived here, mined here, and sometime died here.   There are many building sites, evidence of man’s attempt to shape the land to their will.  As always, the land is still here, the men are gone, and signs of their passage are much less than the  grandiose plans, and ambitious dreams, that had brought them out here.

Marking events of days gone by are structures ceding to disrepair, and plaques giving modern men abbreviated histories of places and people who shaped Colorado’s history.

As we read and move on, I wonder how many of us can fathom the hardship, and the drive that fueled men to endure it for an often overly-optimistic dream of riches, and the possibility of reaching beyond their lot in life.  Some succeeded, many did not, and in that we realize we are not that much different.

Burrow Park signage

We continued on, slowly making our way up above the timberline and Cinnamon Pass.  There is little landscape in the Western part of Colorado that I don’t like, so yes, I find beauty even where trees don’t grow, where moss and low grasses rule, and where the scenery sometime hint at what alien worlds might look like.

Above the treeline, and Nearing Cinnamon Pass

Cinnamon Pass

And here we are, the fabled Cinnamon Pass.  A hard road was traveled, sometimes white-knuckling our way up the steep and narrow switchbacks, but we stand atop the pass looking down now at that road, and the sight we see does not match the recent memories of traveling on it.

Even the pass itself, as we stop and chat with fellow travelers, is anticlimactic.  One feels there should be more.  A band, perhaps, or a medal, or maybe even the means to mark the occasion, to register our accomplishment . . .

. . . a picture, perhaps.

Coincidentally, the couple we met had lived in Michigan, and we chatted a bit about our experiences there.  For all the beauty of the Michigan Upper Peninsula, for all the majesty of the Great Lakes, somehow to me this seems grander.  Maybe I would not feel that way had I sailed the Great Lakes, experienced the Great Lakes storms, or negotiated the dangerous passages.  But since I did not, this for me has much more of an impact, and will be a more lasting memory . . . at least until I start losing my mind.

Looking back from whence we came

The good news is the couple we spoke to told us the rest of the trip would be easier.  “Not as bad” were their words.  Old people . . . you can’t trust them.  Or maybe we misunderstood; it was in fact not as bad.  It was a different bad.  Still rough, still limited in speed, still requiring inordinate concentration.

Heading toward Animas

Our next stop was Animas.  It is approximately half way between Cinnamon Pass and Engineer Pass, and it’s the confluence of the Alpine loop with roads coming from Ouray and from Silverton.  Both of those roads were supposedly beyond the capability of the Tahoe . . . and I was in no mind to test the statement.  Besides, time was running short, and we were barely half way.


As we neared we could see buildings, and a number of fellow travelers.  From where we were when I took that picture, it took us 20 minutes to get down there.  Steep, narrow, rocky roads are so much fun!!

Read all about it; Animas

Supposed house of ill-repute; miners allowed

We rested, had some food, coffee, and we walked around reading the history of the place.  It was quite the active hub, and significant effort went into making this a sizable center of commerce, mining, and a place for people to get a semblance of civilization.

Here we also noted the majority of people were traveling on ATVs, and did not seem stressed in the least.  Heck, some had young kids with them, and all were laughing and having a ball.


We lingered here primarily because we were not anxious to tackle the remainder of the trip.  Honest, if they would have had an Inn, we would have spent the night.

Glacial stream

Most of the people who were there traveled in groups, so when they started to leave, the place emptied pretty fast.  It made it nicer for walking around, and going in and out of the buildings.

A particular interesting thing was the two rivers/streams that flowed through the ghost town.  It must have been glacial water, and it was some of the most limpid water I have ever seen, rivaling glacial outflows we observed in Alaska.

You can’t tell from this photo, but where the water was not white, you would be hard press to see the boundary of water to rocks, save for the fact the rocks were wet.


Alas, as in life, we had to resume our journey.  We climbed again, heading to Engineer Pass.  The prior post already explains the steep road, the loose rocks, the hard switchbacks with deep ruts, and little room to avoid them.

But here’s what we saw.

On the way up to Engineer Pass from Animas

One of the bad places

Nearing the top, looking back

Very close to the top of Enginner Pass.  A nice valley

Engineer Pass Panorama
A panorama of the area around Engineer Pass (click to look at the full size version)

And then we were there . . .

Engineer Pass

For the second time, a feeling of accomplishment, of having conquered, of having survived.  Perhaps greater now, and maybe a little nostalgic.  We knew we would not be back this way.  The pictures would stir our memories, but it is not likely we will have future memories from this place.

I stopped to wonder . . . what percentage of the current U.S. population had made it up here?  I would bet not many.  But those that had . . . we shared a bond with those people.  If we ever crossed paths with any of them we would near instantly feel that bond, that camaraderie that comes from having shared an ordeal.  Why, I might even have to talk to them, breaking my rule about avoiding human contact unless absolutely necessary.

From then on, the road did in fact improve.  Still rough, still a slow going, but no longer wondering if we were going to make it back.

The way down from Engineer Pass - looks nicer than it was

My wanna-have home

And we saw some interesting sights.  This is the kind of place that would appeal to me.  Add a couple of self-targeting machine-gun turrets, and you have the makings for a cozy mountain home.

For those who may be interested in it, the place is for sale or rent.  Here are the links:

Of course, the place would be a bother to get to and from.

Aspen chute

As we dropped lower the aspens became prevalent again, with hills awash with yellows, greens, and the occasional orange.  The road in places, although still rough, was spectacularly adorned by aspens in full color.

If the road looks narrow, it’s because it was.  A bit down from here we met a military style Hummer heading up.  Luckily I was already stopped for pictures at one of the few pull-outs.

I don’t know what we would have done had we encountered anywhere else along that stretch; the Hummer pretty much took up the width of the road.

As we got to lower elevations the road got better, and wider . . .

Just before Capitol City

. . . and we rolled into Capitol City.

All that remains of one man's dream

A guy whose name escapes me right now (it’s in the SmugMug album) dreamed of making this place the capitol of Colorado.  All that remains are a couple of buildings, and a sign.

As we continued to make out way back down to Lake City we passed long abandoned  towns where Italians were not welcome . . .

They did not like Italians here

Apparently the terrible working conditions prompted a worker’s strike, and as it happens the particular group of workers were mostly Italians.  It was pretty nasty, with eventually the National Guard having to come in and break it up.  But, the good thing is that it gave me my favorite sign from the whole trip:

Italians need not apply

Soon we neared Lake City, and our adventure came to an end.  The trip from Lake City back to Gunnison was done in silence.  Rather, we did not talk as we unwound from the ordeal by listening to music, and watching the hills pass by at what now seemed a dizzying speed . . . 65mph, and smooth!!

There were many sights that were not captured on the digital canvas, but rather reside in the organic memory bank atop our shoulders.  Some will certainly be forgotten, but the overall feeling, the experience itself, that will stay with us for a long time.

River and aspens