The high country roads of the San Juan Mountains connect history, scenery and thrills for some of the best backcountry jeeping on the planet

My parents like to tell the story that my first sentence was a string of perfectly formed expletives from my car seat while bumping around in a Jeep high above Silverton, Colorado. I’ve been bumped around on backroads in beautiful places since before I could walk. And I love it.

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Exploring the jeeping roads near Eureka above Silverton.Jenny Johnston

Now that I have my own children, I hope to impart onto them my passion for the beauty of the backcountry bumpy roads. I can now empathize with my parents, realizing what they had to endure to get our family out the door and into the Great Outdoors. Now, on any given weekend, my family loads up as if we’re preparing to survive for a month in the wilderness. We pack everything except the pack-and-play and head out. And we don’t always end up at our intended destination, but the adventure is as beautiful as the scenery along the way. We’ve learned that the journey is more important than the destination.

As a home base, Durango, Colorado, offers backcountry jeeping enthusiasts the unique opportunity to take off in any direction, on any given day and find a trail to match your adventure level. From the Alpine Loop to Black Bear Pass and everything in between, there’s something for every dirt-road enthusiast.  “If you were to explore all of the jeep roads in the area near Silverton, it would take you seven full days,” said Alexis Deyoung of San Juan Backcountry Adventures.

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The author’s daughter, Reese Johnston, is all smiles after getting out to explore Cunningham Gulch high above Silverton. Jenny Johnston

Originally built by the gold and silver miners who came to the San Juan Mountains in the 1800s, these backcountry jeeping roads remain and serve as a reminder that abundance and adventure can still be found in the mountains in the form of memories and solitude. Whether you are a local with your own Jeep or a visitor renting one for the day from one of the many area outfitters, adventure awaits.  “We see a lot of people from big cities who are drawn to Jeeping in these mountains because they get to experience ghost towns, waterfalls and wildflowers that aren’t an everyday sight at home,” Deyoung said. 

Driving through the backcountry is a historical journey through a bygone era as the Jeep routes connect the remains of mines and ghost towns. They freckle the landscape and serve as a reminder of the abundance and struggle that made our mountain communities what they are today. The landscape allows drivers to step back in time and explore their surroundings from a time long past. Whether you are afraid to look down the steep mountain slopes or are simply keeping your eyes trained ahead, the scenery is guaranteed to take your breath away.

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The author and family make their way up Stoney Pass and encounter some late season snowbanks.Jenny Johnston

Mother Nature can change the topography in a split second. As we have witnessed this year with the epic snowfall and subsequent avalanches, once familiar places have become an altered and repainted landscape, causing road closures and forcing Jeepers to explore different places. “Even with the road closures we are still seeing good numbers of people wanting to explore the backcountry. People are just readjusting their adventures and are actually exploring more of the gulches close to home that they would typically overlook,” Deyoung said, speaking of early season road closures which many backcountry jeeping enthusiasts encountered.

As the season progresses into fall, most of the jeep roads are open or opening. “With the exception of Eureka still remaining closed, virtually all other roads are now open,” explained Eric Loyer of Silverton Rock Pirates. “People wanting to access the full Alpine Loop can still get to Lake City by taking the alternative route.”

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Reese Johnston enjoying the view after a hike to Sloan Lake. Sloan Lake can be reached by jeeping to American Basin then hiking up the Handies Peak trail.Jenny Johnston

To take the alternative route, Jeepers need to follow Gladstone to Hurricane, then to California and on to Cinnamon Passes to ultimately end up in Lake City.  “Only pockets of snow are remaining along the way and we are expecting a great second half of the season and an absolutely spectacular fall,” Loyer added.

The vast San Juan National Forest that surrounds us is filled with riches, and all of us who enter the wilds are treasure seekers in some form, mining for experiences to enrich our souls. We may be seeking different riches than those of a century past, but even if all you are looking for is solitude, it’s important to remember that even silence is golden.

JENNY JOHNSTON is a third generation Durango local and outdoor writer. Look for her and her family on your next adventure into the San Juan Mountains.