Adventure Found: Off-Roading Through the Colorado Rockies

The Colorado Rockies have long lured the most intrepid explorers. From the early pioneers and miners hoping to strike gold to modern-day adrenaline junkies looking for their next thrill, the region’s enduring promise of adventure is hard to ignore.
It also doesn’t hurt that the Colorado Rockies traverse some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes the country has to offer. Geyser basins, snow-covered peaks, sunbaked canyons, boundless evergreen forests, and glacier-carved valleys—the backbone of North America has it all. And one of the best ways to soak it all in is by taking a classic off-road expedition.

To spark some inspiration for your next escape, follow our guide below. We’ve highlighted a handful of our favorite sites along with helpful tips and tricks, a few must-see pitstops, and other hidden gems scattered along the way.

Driving all-wheel-drive vehicle through muddy water (left) and mountain range (right)
Keith Seaman

Getting There

Book a flight into Montrose Regional Airport, situated at the base of Colorado’s majestic San Juan Mountains and just 65 scenic miles from Telluride. The airport’s flight schedule changes throughout the year, but non-stop seasonal routes depart from hubs like Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. There are also direct routes available year-round from cities like Denver and Dallas.

After your flight touches down, you’ll want to secure your ride—after all, your off-road escapade will only be as good as your vehicle. We recommend reserving through Diff Auto Rental, which offers pick-up directly from the airport. Its full-service, 24-hour Jeep rentals are tricked out for whatever job you throw their way.

Equipped and approved for off-roading in the warmer months and outfitted with studded snow tires and ski racks in the winter, Diff Auto Rental’s knowledgeable team will hook you up. Plus, a portion of proceeds are donated to Tread Lightly!, an organization that protects and enhances recreation access and fosters environmental stewardship.

Driving all-wheel-drive vehicle on rocky dirt path
Keith Seaman

Kickstart Your Adventure in Telluride

Once you’ve loaded up your Jeep, you’ll want to make your way into Telluride. It’ll serve as the perfect launchpad for your off-road adventure through the Colorado Rockies. The unique destination has seen a meteoric rise in fame recently, and for good reason.
This former Victorian mining town maintains its rustic charm while simultaneously feeling like you’ve just escaped to some far-flung Swiss mountain village. The streets are peppered with eclectic boutiques, plus a handful of lively saloons and polished restaurants. But the forested peaks that encircle the picture-perfect town hint at the epic adventures that await just beyond its borders.

Be sure to fuel up for the day before hitting the road. For a quick stop, swing by The Coffee Cowboy. Keep your eyes peeled for the little green cart tucked away in the Oak Street Plaza, smack-dab in the middle of town. The menu includes all the classics plus some specialty concoctions and light bites supplied by local partners like The Golden Crumb and Floradora Saloon.

The Rusty Rhino is another popular takeaway spot located in Market Plaza, next to the Village Market at Mountain Village. You can order coffee, a quick breakfast, or take some carnitas tacos to go. For a sit-down fuel-up, grab brunch at The Butcher & The Baker. This buzzy local hive’s got all the goods, including handmade breads, buttery pastries, organic egg dishes, fresh salads, house-roasted meats, and more.

Two men and woman walking away from Jeep and exploring hike vista
Keith Seaman

Explore Imogene Pass

By now, the caffeine should be coursing through your veins, and adrenaline isn’t far behind. Start making your way to Imogene Pass to get your heartbeat thumping. Follow Tomboy Road, just north of the center of town, and drive about six miles along the dirt route to reach the top of the pass.

The popular 13,114-foot mountain pass is nestled in the Uncompahgre National Forest between the towns of Telluride and Ouray. It’s actually the second-highest drivable pass in the state, just 72 feet lower than top-ranked Mosquito Pass. One of Colorado’s most coveted off-road trails, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart—but the payoff comes in the form of truly spectacular scenery.

The exhilarating 17-mile drive is pretty narrow in parts and is flanked by craggy outcroppings and jagged shelf roads with dramatic drop-offs. Along the way, you’ll cruise through the famed rock passageway known as the Social Tunnel. Relish the sweeping views of the canyon below, rolling wildflower meadows, and the 607-foot-tall Bridal Veil Falls in Utah.

For an added thrill, navigate over to the ghost town of Tomboy, which sits about two miles west of the summit. A mining magnet in the 1800s, Tomboy was originally known as Savage Basin Camp. It housed nearly 1,000 residents in its heyday before going defunct in 1927. Today, you can still explore the well-preserved mining and building relics.

Left image depicts man grilling in woods. Right photo depicts Jeeps going up steep off-roading pass
Keith Seaman

Venture Over to Ouray

The next stop worth adding to the itinerary is Ouray. Named after Chief Ouray, a leader of the Tabeguache band of the area’s Ute tribe, the city was incorporated in 1876 after prospectors discovered significant ore deposits. As the mining industry exploded, the city became a key shipping point and logistics center for the region. And while the population gradually declined over the generations, it was never abandoned entirely to become a ghost town.

Today, Ouray goes by multiple nicknames, including the “Switzerland of America” and the “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Colorado.” This high-alpine outpost is set in a topographical bowl, surrounded by steep mountain peaks, sprawling valleys, and cascading creeks. The vibrant city has a small-town feel that lures outdoor enthusiasts throughout the year. And even though tourism is a main economic driver here, Ouray has managed to fly relatively under the radar.

The downtown district is jam-packed with gems. History buffs flock to local attractions like the Wright Opera House (dating back to 1888) and the Ouray County Historical Museum, which originally served as a miners’ hospital from the late 1880s through the 1960s. You can also step back in time by visiting the area’s various ghost towns, marked by ramshackle bunkhouses, dilapidated mills, and other crumbling clues of the once-bustling mining industry. Silvershield Mill, Camp Bird Mine, and Red Mountain Town are all notable examples.

Hunt for unique souvenirs at independent retailers like Rockin P Ranch, The Shaggy Coo, and High Country Leathers. Afterwards, grab a bite at one of Ouray’s eclectic eateries. Colorado Boy Southwest Pub boasts the best brick oven pizza around, plus your favorite Mexican specialties. Snag a patio seat at Maggie’s Kitchen and try one of their famous burgers, or head to The Outlaw to enjoy the sophisticated-but-rugged ambiance and dishes like country fried steak and porterhouse pork chops.

There’s also a surprisingly good craft beer and distillery scene. Tucked at the base of Million Dollar Highway, Ouray Brewing features award-winning beers and sweeping rooftop views. Red Mountain Brewing is another cozy brewpub with an ever-changing lineup to sample. For something stronger, swing by the tasting room at KJ Distillers. The distillery combines Rocky Mountain glacial water with the best locally grown ingredients to make whiskey, gin, and vodka. Even wine lovers are in luck, thanks to spots like Sauvage Spectrum and the Ouray Wine Garden at Ouray Manor.

Make sure to carve out time to soak in the area’s famous hot springs. The warm geothermal waters are the best way to unwind after a day of non-stop exploration. The Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa is a fan favorite. All the Wiesbaden springs flow straight from the source and are naturally infused with minerals. The family-friendly Ouray Hot Springs Pool draws visitors of all ages thanks to its sulfur-free waters and extra perks, like a rock-climbing wall, volleyball nets, and waterslides. Perched on a terraced hillside, the Box Canyon Lodge offers seven therapeutic geothermal springs with unobstructed mountain views. And for an adults-only (clothing optional) experience, travel 15 minutes from town to the Orvis Hot Springs, which offers indoor and outdoor soaking areas.

Two man and woman sitting around fire at campsite
Keith Seaman

Overnight Stays in Ouray

Whatever sort of lodging and accommodations you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Ouray. Beaumont Hotel & Spa is a historic property constructed during the height of the gold boom. This grand getaway has hosted everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Oprah Winfrey. The Imogene Hotel + Rooftop Bar is another historic hot spot. Originally a saloon and brothel, the stylish property underwent a top-to-bottom renovation in 2020 and offers six striking rooms. And quaint retreats like the Ouray Main Street Inn, River Run Cabins, and AlpLilly Inn all make for a memorable stay.

There are also plenty of convenient camping options nearby. Amphitheater Campground boasts 35 camping spurs and is best suited for tents and smaller trailers. Family-owned for 60 years, 4J+1+1 RV Park & Campground features 58 RV sites, 10 tent sites, and a standalone cabin. And Million Dollar Highway Dispersed Camping in Ironton is the only campground of its kind near Ouray.

Other Off-Road Routes Nearby

With its mountainous topography and stunning backcountry vistas, it’s no surprise that off-roading remains a favorite pastime in Ouray and the surrounding communities. The city serves as the perfect starting point to embark on the Alpine Loop, which carves 75 miles through the San Juan Mountains.

The easy cruise through the Red Mountain Mining Area is an enjoyable loop that meanders along defunct railroad grades and historic mining sites like Yankee Girl Mine. Located just eight miles south of Ouray, Corkscrew Gulch offers a more moderate drive, famous for its red soil summit at 12,000 feet. And for a challenge, hit Black Bear Pass, which is known for its extremely narrow trail, steep switchbacks, and jaw-dropping vistas.

Engineer Pass is another can’t-miss drive. At 12,800 feet above sea level, this rough, rocky road features some of the best views along the Alpine Loop. Break up the journey with a pitstop at Animas Forks. This ghost town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and there are nine original buildings that you can explore unrestricted. Conclude the drive by hanging your hat at Arrowhead Mountain Lodge, a rural 12-room getaway with a fantastic restaurant and full-service bar.

It’s worth mentioning that you should have some off-roading experience—and maybe even expertise—before embarking on this expedition. But if you’re just starting out, you can always tap the experts. There’s a range of reputable companies in the region that would be happy to show you the ropes. Alpine Scenic 4×4 Tours is based in Ouray and has a series of half-day tours to choose from. You can even customize your own experience up to eight hours long.

Established in 1946, San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours is another trusted local option that provides half- and full-day tours of sites like Yankee Boy Basin, Engineer Pass, and Corkscrew Gulch. Or reach out to Ride-N Adventures for one of their family excursions or scenic photo tours.

Up here in the Colorado Rockies, you really can choose your own adventure.

 

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