The San Juan Skyway, a 233-mile circuit, crosses five mountain passes and takes in the magnificent San Juan Mountains, as well as the cities and towns of the region. It can be accomplished in a single all-day drive from Durango or divided into several days, incorporating stops in Cortez, Telluride, and Ouray—all of which are discussed in this chapter. Check for closed passes in winter and early spring. The route can be driven either clockwise (heading west from Durango on U.S. 160) or counterclockwise (heading north from Durango on U.S. 550). I’ll describe the clockwise route.
Eleven miles west of Durango you’ll pass through the village of Hesperus, from which a county road runs 10 miles north into La Plata Canyon, with its mining ruins and ghost towns. Farther west, U.S. 160 passes the entrance road to Mesa Verde National Park. About 45 miles west of Durango, just before Cortez, turn north on Colo. 145, which traverses the historic town of Dolores, site of the Anasazi Heritage Center, then proceeds up the Dolores River Valley, a favorite of trout fishermen. Sixty miles from Cortez, the route crosses 10,222-foot Lizard Head Pass, named for a startling rock spire looming above the roadside alpine meadows. It then descends 13 miles to the resort town of Telluride, set in a beautiful box canyon 4 miles off the main road.
Follow Colo. 145 west from Telluride down the San Miguel River valley to Placerville. Then turn north on Colo. 62, across 8,970-foot Dallas Divide, to Ridgway, a historic railroad town and home of Ridgway State Park ([tel] 970/626-5822; www.parks.state.co.us), with a sparkling mountain reservoir, trout fishing, boating (there’s a marina), swimming, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping ($16–$26). There are also three yurts available for overnight rentals ($70, plus a $10 reservation fee). The day-use fee is $7.
From Ridgway, turn south and follow U.S. 550 to the scenic and historic town of Ouray. Here begins the remarkable Million Dollar Highway, so named for all the mineral wealth that passed over it. The 23-mile drive from Ouray over 11,008-foot Red Mountain Pass to Silverton is unforgettable. It shimmies up the sheer sides of the Uncompahgre Gorge, through tunnels and past cascading waterfalls, then follows a historic toll road built in the 19th century. Long-abandoned mining equipment and log cabins are in evidence on the slopes of the iron-colored mountains, many of them over 14,000 feet in elevation. Along this route you’ll pass a monument to snowplow operators who died trying to keep the road open during winter storms.
From Silverton, U.S. 550 climbs over the Molas Divide (elevation 10,910 ft.), then more or less parallels the track of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad as it follows the Animas River south to Durango, passing Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort en route.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.