Overlanding in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado: An Adventure Awaits


Nestled in the southwestern corner of Colorado, the San Juan Mountains are a paradise for overlanding enthusiasts and our favorite summer destination. This rugged and remote region offers breathtaking landscapes, rich history, and a network of trails that cater to adventurers of all skill levels. From towering peaks to lush valleys, the San Juan Mountains promise an unforgettable experience for those seeking to explore the wild beauty of Colorado. Join me as we dive into the highlights of an overlanding journey through this stunning mountain range.

The Allure of the San Juans

The San Juan Mountains are part of the larger Rocky Mountain range and are renowned for their dramatic scenery. Characterized by steep, jagged peaks, deep river gorges, and abundant wildlife, the area is a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. The region’s mining history adds another layer of intrigue, with ghost towns and relics of a bygone era dotting the landscape. Overlanding here is not just a drive; it’s a journey through time and nature.

Preparing for the Journey

Before setting out, preparation is key.  We have spent decades exploring the area and can help you plan a route based on your experience level and interests.  Our vehicles are well-equipped for most of the Alpine Loop, but some nearby areas such as Black Bear Road should be avoided.  As always make sure you have ample supplies, including food, water, bear spray, and emergency gear.  Although the area is generally well-traveled it’s not a bad idea to carry an emergency satellite communicator. Given the high elevation and unpredictable weather, it’s wise to bring layered clothing, rain gear, and a reliable navigation system.

The Route

Our recommended route begins in the charming town of Ouray (pronounced you-ray) known as the “Switzerland of America” and “The Jeep Capital of The World.” From here, we embark on the famous Alpine Loop, a 65-mile route that weaves through some of the most scenic parts of the San Juans.

  1. Ouray to Engineer Pass Starting in Ouray, we head south on Highway 550 before turning onto County Road 18 towards Engineer Pass. This trail is challenging, with steep, rocky sections and tight switchbacks. However, the effort is rewarded with stunning vistas and a sense of accomplishment as we reach the summit at over 12,800 feet.
  2. Engineer Pass to Lake City Descending from Engineer Pass, we continue to the quaint town of Lake City. This stretch of the trail offers a mix of forested areas and open meadows, with plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife. Lake City, with its historic buildings and welcoming atmosphere, is a great place to rest and refuel.
  3. Lake City to Cinnamon Pass The next leg of our journey takes us to Cinnamon Pass. The ascent is less technical than Engineer Pass but equally scenic. The trail climbs through alpine tundra and past remnants of old mining operations. The summit provides panoramic views of the surrounding peaks, a perfect spot for a photo break.
  4. Cinnamon Pass to Silverton From Cinnamon Pass, we descend into the historic town of Silverton. This former mining town is a treasure trove of history, with well-preserved Victorian buildings and museums that offer a glimpse into the past. Silverton is also a great base for exploring nearby trails and attractions.

Camping and Exploration

Throughout the San Juan Mountains, dispersed camping is allowed, offering the chance to immerse yourself in the wilderness. Popular spots include the areas around Animas Forks, a well-preserved ghost town, and the base of Engineer Pass. Remember to follow Leave No Trace principles, respecting the pristine environment and minimizing your impact.  Fire bans are not uncommon during dryer spells so please make sure you check current conditions and always put your campfire out completely even if you’re only leaving for a short period of time.

For those seeking additional adventures, the San Juans offer hiking, fishing, and even hot springs. Trails like Ice Lakes and Highland Mary Lakes provide excellent hiking opportunities, while the Animas River is perfect for fishing and relaxing by the water.


Overlanding in the San Juan Mountains is an experience like no other. The combination of challenging trails, stunning scenery, and rich history makes for an unforgettable adventure. Whether you’re a seasoned overlander or a novice looking for a new challenge, the San Juans offer something for everyone. So, pack your gear, prepare your vehicle, and set out on an adventure that you’ll remember for a lifetime. The San Juan Mountains are waiting to be explored.