The Iconic San Juans

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Originally Published in Issue 36 of 4Low Magazine

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Story by Mike Boyle
Photos by Mike Boyle and Robert Krumm

4x4 Magazine 4WD how to article 2164x4 Magazine 4WD how to article 219With a mining history dating back to 1860, the San Juan mountain range in Southwestern Colorado has been a destination for adventurers for years. While peak mining activity has come and gone, the roads established over time have created a network of backcountry trails through some of the most scenic mountain passes and valleys Colorado has to offer. There is plenty to see and do with over 12,000 square miles of terrain and 100 mountain peaks above 13,000 ft. While the trails’ difficulty level varies from mild dirt roads to moderately technical trails, most of the passes zig-zag and wind their way up cuts made directly into the side of the mountains forcing drivers to maintain laser focus on vehicle placement and trail conditions.

Earlier this summer, a group of us met up and spent a few days exploring the area and enjoying the beauty it has to offer. Over three days, we tackled some of the most iconic and well-known passes, including Black Bear and Imogene passes on day one. Day two found us undertaking Corkscrew and Hurricane passes before dropping down into Poughkeepsie Gulch to play on “the wall” and then heading out Mineral Creek. On the final day we took on Engineer Pass to Lake City and Cinnamon Pass back to Silverton (better known as the Alpine Loop). Each day’s adventure was filled with beautiful vistas, various wildlife, and memories to last a lifetime.

4x4 Magazine 4WD how to article 213If you enjoy the outdoors, history, and back road travel, the San Juan mountains are a bucket list destination. The area doesn’t require a heavily modified vehicle; any stock 4wd with a low range in the transfer case will be capable of traversing most of the trails. However, All-Terrain or better tires and airing down is highly recommended due to the sharp rocks found throughout the trails. If you don’t have a Jeep or 4wd, don’t worry, there are plenty of places to rent Jeeps in the area. One thing to keep in mind if you are planning to visit the area is that the trail riding season varies from year to year due to the altitudes. The local government agencies in charge of maintaining and clearing the roads try to ensure they can have the major roads open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, but this is not a guarantee. If your plans have you arriving earlier or later in the season, it is always best to check ahead of time. One of the best resources I have found online is through Switzerland of America. (

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Flexing it out on one of the optional climbs near the top of Black Bear Pass.
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The town of Telluride can be seen down below as you drop off into Ingram Basin.


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Greg Muller trekked all the way from Missouri to enjoy a few days in the area.
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The roads were originally cut directly into the side of the mountains in order to access mines throughout the area.


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Brian Sumner’s well-traveled 1991 Explorer overlooking one of the many spectacular vistas.
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Jk’s, JL’s, Full Size Bronco’s or Ford Explorers, there’s room for everyone on most of the trails.

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Playing on one of the optional lines on The Wall in Poughkeepsie Gulch.
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Known as the staircase, dropping into the switchbacks on Black Bear pass while not difficult, is extremely intimidating and leaves no room for error.
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