While spending some time in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, we really wanted to drive at least one alpine mountain pass. Within the San Juan Range, there are dozens of point-to-point, out-and-back, and loop high-alpine passes, each boasting sweeping, vast views of the San Juan Mountains and valleys below. On all of these trails, it is recommended to only drive a 4×4, high-clearance vehicle, due to the rough terrain and ruggedness of the roads. Shockingly, these passes were once the only roads connecting the mountain towns of the San Juans and were frequented by buggies and some of the first automobiles during Southern Colorado’s mining era.
Of these trails, some of the most famous include Cinnamon Pass, Engineer Pass, Imogene Pass, Ophir Pass, Owl Creek Pass, Stony Pass, and Yankee Boy Basin. Each of these has a distinct route, some being out-and-back trails, and others starting in one town and ending in another.
After doing a fair bit of research, we decided to drive Engineer Pass, as this one seemed to offer the biggest variety of views and ended at 13,000 feet, an elevation that neither of us had ever reached. We also have friends who had driven this pass previously and were able to share their general experience., as well as offer us tips and advice. Because of their expertise we were able to know, for the most part, what to expect on this drive, which helped to ease our nerves about driving our first alpine pass.
We drove the entire thing hiccup-free and had a marvelous time. We saw views we never would have seen from a regular highway, and we didn’t find the pass to be particularly scary or frightening whatsoever. Here, you’ll find an overview of our trip on Engineer Pass, broken into various legs in the order we drove them.
We began our trip in Olathe, the town where we were staying at a beautiful Harvest Host winery. We then passed through Montrose, headed east on CO-50 towards Gunnison. We had decided to drive the road from east to west, beginning in Lake City and ending in Silverton. The drive from Olathe to Lake City was about two hours in length and was filled with plenty of pretty views.
About halfway through the first leg of the drive, we passed Lake Curecanti National Recreation Area. This is a huge and wide section of the Gunnison River that has been damned into two reservoirs, creating Lake Curecanti and Lake Fork. We stopped briefly to get a better look at the lake.
Just before we would have reached Gunnison, we veered right on CO-149, towards Lake City. We passed into the Rio Grande National Forest and drove the rest of the way alongside the bubbling Campbell Creek. When we finally reached Lake City, we were a bit tired from our drive, so we stopped for coffees at Town Square Mini-Mart before entering Engineer Pass.
The road entering Engineer Pass is fairly smooth. At the beginning there are a few parking lots at local trailheads, but after a few miles, there are way fewer vehicles. Towards the beginning, there were several old mines and mine town sites that are long-since out of service. The ascension begins along a high road that drops off on the left into a steep canyon with a river below. We stopped along this portion for lots of photos.
After about sixteen miles of driving, we came to a sign that read “4×4 recommended from this point on.” The road leading up to this sign had been fairly flat and mild, and a regular car probably would have been fine. This is where the real climb began.
We began to ascend higher and higher, eventually reaching another sign that let us know that we had entered the alpine tundra. This is essentially, in layman’s terms, the area above the trees on a mountain, where you can only see granite and grass. Because of the winds and frigid winter temperatures, alpine areas seemingly only grow highly-resilient, low-growing plants.
Once we passed the trees we stopped to eat our picnic lunch that we had packed. Where we sat to eat, we had a glorious view of several high peaks and a huge basin of green valleys.
After lunch, we climbed for just about fifteen more minutes before reaching the area deemed the top of Engineer Mountain, which is the highest point of the pass. We stopped for some photos before continuing on. Before descending, we climbed higher for another fifteen minutes or so, before reaching another overlook at about 13,000 feet. Then began our descension.
Our descent of Engineer Pass was significantly busier than our ascent. The road descending was also very steep, and we had to keep stopping to let other vehicles pass us. This wasn’t to bad though, as everyone seemed to be looking out for each other and considerate while passing. We passed a huge herd of sheep at the beginning of the descent, as we passed dozens of alpine peaks and miles and miles of rolling green meadows.
After the sketchy descension area, we were back below the alpine tundra. The air became warmer (it was about 60 degrees at the top), and we began to see trees and wildflowers once again. We briefly stopped to check out an old mining structure, some mine shafts and a warm little pond.
Next, we passed Animas Forks, an old, rebuilt mining town, with at least a dozen structures. Here is where we diverted from the typical Engineer Pass road. Due to unforeseen circumstances, we had to leave Silverton earlier than planned, before receiving some mail that we had sent there. At Animas Forks, there is a literal fork in the road, where one can head towards Ouray and complete Engineer Pass, or they can turn and drive the beginning of Cinnamon Pass back to Silverton. We opted for the second option, which was by far the easiest section of the drive.
We arrived in Silverton around 3:30 and picked up our mail. At this point, we had been on the road for over eight hours, and we were tired. We stopped at our favorite local coffee shop, Coffee Bear, before beginning our final two-hour drive back to Olathe.
Just after leaving Silverton, we came upon a “road closed” sign. We found out that due to some mudslides, a portion of the “Million Dollar Highway” had been closed. We were told the road was supposed to open soon, so we moved on and waited in a line of about one hundred other vehicles. After over an hour of waiting, the road finally reopened, and we drove through Ironton, Ouray, Ridgway, and Montrose, on the way back to Olathe. We finally arrived home just after 7pm, after a twelve-hour day on the road.
After driving Engineer Pass, we have faith in Wendy’s ability to drive any typical alpine pass. I have compiled a list of tips and tricks that we learned on our drive, so that you, too, can have a smooth day if you decide to drive Engineer Pass, or any other Colorado mountain pass.
Tips and tricks:
- As mentioned above, do not attempt this pass without a 4×4, high-clearance vehicle. We did not come upon any real obstacles, but some of the road was rocky enough to warrant higher clearance than an average sedan. In addition, 4×4 will give you additional traction on steep grades.
- If your vehicle is equipped with 4-wheel drive low-gear, use it! For intensely steep climbs, 4-wheel low will allow your transmission to run cooler. On the flip side, 4-wheel low with your transmission in 1st gear will very effectively control your speed and take much of the strain off of your breaks. 4-low + 1st gear makes descents much safer, and safer is better!
- If you do not have the right type of vehicle for this pass, rent one. There are many places for Jeep rentals (as well as ATVs and UTVs), in Ouray, Lake City, and Silverton. We saw many folks on the pass with rented vehicles.
- Pack lunch and plenty of water! This is a very long drive. We were out for a total of twelve hours, and we were so glad we had brought enough snacks and drinks along with us. There is nowhere to buy food up on the pass, and without it, we would’ve been pretty hangry while trying to drive.
- Drive the road east to west for the best experience. This means starting from Lake City and ending in either Ouray or Silverton. The road is said to be easiest from this direction, and easier is always better on a mountain pass.
- Plan for this to be a full day trip! Because we planned to be out for the entire day, we were not in a rush at all and were able to take our time and really enjoy the drive. We stopped for plenty photos and lookouts, which we wouldn’t have done had we been rushing.
Driving a mountain pass is almost like a rite of passage in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado. If you plan to be in this area at all, definitely plan to drive at least one of these roads. We had so much fun driving Engineer Pass, and we’re so glad we decided not to chicken out. With the right advice and preparation, you, too, can drive this pass (or any other) hiccup-free.
Have you ever driven a mountain pass before? What was your experience like? Feel free to share below!