"It’s just like driving a car," Erick told me. I was about to put the key in the ignition and take off on my first ever OHV adventure, and it seemed easy enough. I pushed the gas, and the vehicle jerked forward. I let up and it jerked back. Maybe not exactly like driving a car, I thought to myself.
Luckily, I was in very capable hands. Erick Loyer, with his wife Lizzie, run Rock Pirates Backcountry Tours & Rentals in Silverton, Colorado. They’ve been around for a couple years and have quickly become the best-known off-road vehicle operator in southern Colorado. So when I got an email asking if I’d like to explore the Alpine Loop with them, I jumped at the chance.
There was a group of us on the trip, and somehow the only two people who had never driven an OHV ended up in the same vehicle. We were taking out Polaris RZR (pronounced "razor," not “R-Z-R”) side-by-sides with all the bells and whistles: cushy seats, a tablet that tracks your location, an emergency call button, and plenty of space in the back to pack your gear. The RZRs also come with an electric start, reverse, automatic transmission, and power steering,—features that don’t come standard in all side-by-sides. I’ve also heard that some hardcore drivers don’t like some of those fancy additions, but I was happy to have them.
I should also note that technically, these two-to-four-seat vehicles are called "side-by-sides" or “off-road vehicles/OHVs”. While most people call them ATVs, according to the Polaris rep I spoke with, an all-terrain vehicle/ATV is a single-rider machine. I thought they were all the same thing, but apparently not!
Our group of four OHVs rumbled down the main street in Silverton, the epitome of a small town. About 700 people live here year round and there is a single paved road named Greene Street. We took Greene Street out of town and had our first and only big creek crossing soon after, which was one of the highlights of the adventure.
After passing the Mayflower Gold Mine (one of the few mines in the area that you can tour), we continued on to the Alpine Loop—a 63-mile unpaved OHV and Jeep route through the San Juan Mountains, connecting a couple small towns along the way. We weren’t tackling the whole 63 miles that day, but we were setting our sights on Engineer Pass, one of the two 12,000-foot passes on the loop.
Our first stop was Animas Forks, one of seven ghost towns on the Alpine Loop. I’ve done quite a bit of hiking in the mountains in Colorado, and usually the ghost towns you find are just scraps of wood scattered about. Sometimes there will be a building, but you either can’t go in or you really shouldn’t go in. Animas Forks is unique in that the buildings have been preserved and you can actually walk around in them.
Like Silverton and most mountain communities in Colorado, Animas Forks was a mining town in the late 1800s. In its heyday, the town had more than 400 residents, a hotel, a general store, a saloon, and a post office. But life over 11,000 feet was tough. There are stories of snowstorms so deep that people had to dig tunnels to get from building to building. To say that the people who lived here were hardy is an understatement. Today, a few cabins have been restored and you can get a glimpse into what life was once like.
After looking around for a bit, we hopped back in our RZRs and started up towards Engineer Pass. While most vehicles with decent clearance (even two-wheel drive) can get to Animas Forks, the rest of the route requires an OHV or four-wheel drive with high clearance. Even with a Jeep, it wouldn’t be the most comfortable ride. Up to that point, we’d been on smooth and wide dirt roads. I thought I was getting the hang of driving this thing.
Then we hit the switchbacks.
It was super rocky and bumpy, which took some getting used to. My foot started bouncing around on the gas pedal as we hit rocks, which resulting in more jerking back and forth. I apologized to my riding partner, and she assured me it was fine (I think she was just being polite).
Thankfully, the RZRs are super comfortable, so it wasn’t too bad from that perspective. The switchbacks, though, were another story. Before we set off, Erick gave us some advice: "Just make sure you are straight when you start going uphill." I wouldn’t call the switchbacks “tight” per se, but there were a couple that were… exciting. We were climbing up the side of a mountain on a path that was wide enough for one vehicle, with the occasional pull-out for passing. There was a drop-off on one side and snow higher than our OHVs on the other side. There wasn’t a ton of space to make these turns and driving a four-seater side-by-side feels a little like driving a Cadillac—you feel safe because you’re in a tank, but they aren’t as maneuverable as a smaller sports car would be.
But I figured if families can make it up this mountain, I sure as heck can.
After negotiating the switchbacks without incident, we finally arrived at a big open space at the summit. If you’ve ever been in the mountains, you know the higher you get, the windier it gets. The temperature dropped so I pulled out my jacket. I took my helmet off to look around and take pictures. Only then did I realize that, because we only had a half-windshield, my goggles were splattered with mud. Side note: A really great tip someone gave me was to pull up my Buff over my mouthpiece. It protected my neck and mouth from getting muddy/dusty, so was glad I had one with me.
From the top of Engineer Pass at 12,800 feet, there were mountains as far as the eye could see in most directions and the town of Ouray in the distance.
After taking photos and hanging out at the top, we started back down. My riding partner and I switched spots so I was able to be a passenger on the return trip. I quickly learned that even the little puddles will splash all over your arm, so it’s a good idea to keep your arms (and your camera) inside the vehicle. From this perspective, though, I got to see the things that I didn’t notice when I was white-knuckling it on the way up—the alpine lakes, the creeks running along the road, the blooming wildflowers in the meadows, and even a waterfall.
Once we got back to town, we parked our RZRs in front of the Golden Block Brewery, where we were going to grab a pizza for lunch. Both our vehicles and our group were covered in mud splatters. The summer tourist train had just dropped off a bunch of people, and it was easy to tell who was a visitor and who was a local—the tourists stared, the locals smiled.
We fit right in.