Nothing can match the San Juan Mountains when it comes to jeeping. If the Rocky Mountains were a jigsaw puzzle, the San Juan range would be a piece that fell on the floor. Separated from the main trunk of the Rockies, the San Juans rise out of the high desert plateau of the Four Corners region, as high as the Rockies (18 summits top 14,000 feet), but younger, drier, dustier, and steeper. The main road through the region, a famously scenic and arduous route known as the Million Dollar Highway, connects the area's biggest town, Durango, to the villages of Silverton and Ouray farther north.

Yet other routes, even more difficult, wind through this land of deep chasms and severe slopes. Negotiable only by high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles, these dirt tracks scraped out of stubborn mountainsides reward the venturesome with unmatched vistas of the San Juan high country and unrivaled challenges behind the wheel. Along the way lie ghost towns, abandoned mining camps, and places whose names ooze with the history of the Old West - Yankee Boy Basin, Rose's Cabin, Black Bear Pass, Poughkeepsie Gulch. At the heart of it lies Ouray (pronounced "You-ray"), which bills itself as the jeeping capital of America.

It is a wonder that these jeep routes exist at all. Many are the legacy of master road builder Otto Mears, who looked at the mountains and saw passages where all others saw impassability. At the height of the mining boom, in the last quarter of the 19th century, Mears created 450 miles of roads and charged the mine operators tolls to use them. (He also laid out the narrow-gauge line of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad from Durango to Silverton - today the route of America's best-known tourist steam train.) His roads, how-ever, were designed for horses, not automobiles. Most are too steep for passenger cars and too rough. Jeeps, with their high clearance, low gears, and tight turning radius, are essential to negotiating Mears' handiwork.