Coming towards Ouray from Million Dollar Highway, one passes a sign “Welcome to Ouray, the Switzerland of America.” My first time upon seeing the sign I thought, “Huh. Switzerland? Really?” Ouray and area is gorgeous, but comparing it to Switzerland was a little bit rich, I thought. Not until Jack and I started exploring the backcountry did I start seeing the similarities.
Over 500 miles of off-highway trails bring you to some of the most stunning landscapes in the San Juan Mountains. (Dare I say, in the country?) Pristine mountain views, remote camping opportunities, and abandoned mining towns dot the landscape. Add some cows and you could convince yourself you’re in Switzerland. Come during Fall and the aspen colors will take your breath away. It’s truly beautiful out there and still one of my favorite parts of Colorado, our adopted state.
The best way to explore this network of rugged ex-mining roads in the backcountry is with 4×4 vehicles with high clearance. In fact, as you enter the towns of Ouray or Silverton you’ll soon notice the abundance of Jeeps with big knobby tires and nimble but equally rugged looking UTV’s.
You are now entering the Jeep Capital of the World.
Where to Rent A Jeep in Ouray
We’ve rented from Colorado West each time, but there are other outfitters with similar price. Renting a 4×4 Jeep anywhere in Ouray or Silverton or anywhere in San Juan Mountains will set you back around $240/day. It’s not cheap, but unless you have your own offroad-ready vehicles, it’s the only way to explore the back roads. They require that you bring your own comprehensive insurance (they don’t sell them). They’re also more than happy to provide recommendations and latest conditions of the passes.
Where to Go Off Roading in Ouray
This is the map that the jeep rental company sends you with. There are many more four-wheel drive trails in the San Juan region than what is listed in the map. However, if you’re simply off-roading curious like us, the map given out by the jeep rental company should be a good starting point.
Our favorite routes include the American Basin, Corkscrew Gulch, and California Gulch. These are all popular 4×4 routes and rated moderate so you’ll definitely see other people here – it’s good if you’re new to offroading. There will always be other people to help you in case you need help.
A point of interest in the area is Animas Fork. It’s an abandoned mining town with buildings that you can explore. At its heyday the town had 30 cabins, a hotel, a saloon, a post office, and a general store. It can get busy because it’s a junction where various roads meet, including the dirt road from Silverton which is passable in summer by two-wheel drive vehicles.
Yankee Boy Basin is another fun one with beautiful views. The first part can get extremely busy since it’s the road to the to hike Mt. Sneffels, a 14er. The latter part of Yankee Boy Basin road is a pretty challenging 4×4 road, and and oh boy… it was thrilling! When we hiked Mt. Sneffels, we took a rental jeep all the way to the very end of the road leaving us with only a little bit over a mile to the summit. Yeah, we’re kind of lazy hikers that way. We’ll walk if we have to, but if you can drive…*shrug*
Your First Time
If it’s your first time and you only have one day, I’d recommend this route: start up Corkscrew Gulch, continue on to California Gulch before stopping for lunch (pack a picnic) at Animas Fork. Then we climb up Cinnamon Pass on our way to American Basin. After gawking at the views, we retraced our steps to Animas Fork before ending with an early dinner at Silverton.
An alternative is to head north from Animas Fork to Engineer Pass to Lake City, and then take the highway back to Ouray.
Either way, plan for a whole day adventure.
That One Time We Scared Ourselves Silly
On one trip to Ouray, we found ourselves renting a jeep again. This time we decided to take on Engineer Pass, starting from Ouray. Let me tell you guys: it was scary AF.
The thing about these roads is that there is rarely a place to turn around. So when we finally realized we might be over our heads, there was not much to do besides trusting our vehicle as we inched our way along the narrow and twisty road full of rocky outcrops. Drop off on one side, steep rock wall on the other, wheels mere inches aways from the cliffside. Trying not to think about what would happen if we roll down the cliff (bad, very bad things).
It definitely tested Jack’s driving skills and the car got extremely tippy several times. Made it out with no damage. A miracle really. It took us hours just to get to the junction to Animas Forks. We laugh about it now, but neither of us is likely to attempt this pass anytime soon.
Thankfully there was no one behind us along the way. We were stressed out enough! On the other hand, there were times I wish there were other, preferably more experienced, people to help guide us.
For hard core off-roaders, this might not be a big deal of a pass but if you’re a casual off-roaders like us, I’d be very wary of committing yourself to doing this pass.
Note: the west part of the pass (Ouray side) is the toughest part. If you start from Lake City, you can bypass the most difficult part of the pass by taking the south fork towards Animas town.
If you don’t want to drive, you can join one of the many guided jeep tours offered in Ouray or Silverton. We went with Switzerland of America (Ouray) for a guided jeep tour to Corkscrew Gulch and had a blast – all the views without the stress. The red and ochre landscape is simply spectacular.
I totally believe that electric vehicles is the future, but driving one of these gas-guzzling jeeps in San Juan backcountry is just too much fun not to do at least once. I always end up with a huge grin on my face when it’s my turn to get behind the wheel. Yes, a part of me will always feel guilty. It’s not the most environmental friendly way to enjoy nature: it’s loud and smelly. Maybe one day I’ll get to take a Rivian out there?
But the engineer in me will always marvel at this very capable machinery and the fun-loving part of me has to admit, yeah this off-roading thing is pretty rad indeed.