A local saying about this alpine country goes: "You can hike it if you've got the legs, ride it if you've got the horse, and jeep it if you have the nerve." And every day, a parade of jeeps sets out from Ouray to prove that people do, in fact, have the mettle to scale the San Juans on four wheels.
Is jeeping dangerous? Of course. You drive on narrow mountain roads without guardrails and must pay attention to what you are doing. Even if you've been on the same road before, you still can't be sure of what to expect: Every winter, every rainstorm, every rockslide creates the road anew. And you're at high elevations, where the weather can turn mean at any time. Fortunately, the low gears reduce a jeep's pace to about 10 miles an hour, which gives you plenty of time to react to problematic situations, and most routes require no special skill. Still, you don't have much margin for error.
My own extended weekend on the back roads of the San Juans was a father-son trip: two dads, three teenage boys, and a hope that they would discover there's more to the world than video games. The first day, I took the front passenger seat as my friend drove his Suburban along one of the well-traveled jeep roads that head east or west from the Million Dollar Highway. Just south of Ouray, we struck out along the route to Camp Bird, an old gold mine that was so lucrative its owner bought the Hope Diamond for his wife. A good route for us novices, the dirt road entered a thickly forested canyon, then climbed to a narrow ledge poised above a frightening chasm. To our immediate right was a sheer wall of rock; to our left, the abyss. In one section, the mountain had been blasted away to make room for the road, and the water seeping through the overhanging rock made it seem as if we were driving through a cave with one side missing.