Colorado may be best-known for its high alpine wilderness areas. These remote areas can be accessed on foot, on a mountain bike, and for an adrenaline-filled adventure, by off-road vehicle.
Most of these roads were built long ago by miners or loggers, without a thought to the clearance of modern vehicles or their turn radius. The routes are rough, rocky, often with steep drop-offs, so be cautious. But push it and the rewards can be great: amazing campsites and the kind of scenery from your car window that is so amazing, it truly takes your breath away.
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1. Alpine Loop
This route is the gold standard of off-roading—it attracts people from across the country, and for good reason. It passes through 63 miles of the San Juan Mountains, Colorado’s largest mountain range, between Lake City, Silverton, and Ouray, past seven ghost towns and over two alpine passes, Cinnamon and Engineer passes. Several 14,000-foot peaks can be hiked from along this rough road, or just drive into Silverton for lunch or Ouray for a hot springs soak.
2. Mosquito Pass
As one of the highest named passes in Colorado, this road tops out at 13,185 feet between Leadville and Fairplay. Creek crossings, rock obstructions, and dizzying drop-offs will be found throughout the route, which is only passable for a couple months of the year. The weather here can change so quickly that the pass was once known as “the highway of frozen death”. But brave it and you’ll be rewarded with amazing mountain views and an unforgettable driving experience.
3. Baldwin Gulch Jeep Road
This road twists and turns for eight miles up 14,269-foot Mount Antero in the Arkansas River Valley, and hardy drivers with good vehicles can make it high on the upper mountain. Most people park at the trailhead at 12,000 feet, but ATVs can go even higher to 13,100 feet and either park and stroll to the summit or keep exploring the large trail network up here. Gem hunters primarily use the roads; in fact, you may have seen modern-day miners using this road on the reality show, “Gold Rush”.
4. Rainbow Falls
This area is on Colorado’s Front Range, north of Woodland Park, and offers an extensive network of dirt bike and ATV trails and wider roads for Jeep drivers. The area is heavily used, especially on summer weekends, but there are enough roads, trails, and remote campsites to provide some solitude. Be sure to stay on marked trails, as vehicles have heavily impacted the area.
5. Imogene Pass
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The mountains around Telluride and Ouray in southwest Colorado are often called “the American Alps”. The mountains are made of crumbling volcanic rock, and thanks to the area’s storied mining history, old roads ribbon through their jagged peaks. This is perhaps the prettiest drive in the area, beginning in either Telluride to the west and Ouray to the east. Along the way the road passes the Tomboy ghost town situated 3,000 feet above Telluride. A quick side drive up Yankee Boy Basin takes you to the trailhead for 14er Mount Sneffels. Turnouts are few and steep drop-offs are many, so this one is not for the faint of heart.