Thursday, January 14, 2021

Driving Colorado's San Juan Skyway

For a spectacular spring or summer drive, map your course on the 233-mile (a little more with detours) San Juan Skyway in Colorado. This road trip will take you around half of the largest mountain range in Colorado.

Wildflower meadows surrounded by majestic mountains.

The loop can be driven in less than seven hours, but plan at least a long weekend to enjoy all the sights and activities along this famous highway. Take time to explore abandoned mining sites, scenic trails for hiking or biking, jeep tours over mountain passes and through wildflower meadows, natural hot springs perfect for soaking in glorious views, and Old West towns along the way.

Jeep ride to mountain pass from Silverton

Journey overview

Start your tour in Durango, stop at Silverton (48 miles by car), then head to Ouray (23 miles), Ridgway (another 10.5 miles), and on to Telluride (39 miles) or nearby Mountain Village, which is exquisite in summer. Continue on the western portion of the San Juan Skyway to Cortez (75 miles) and then return to Durango (46 miles).


Fish, float, or raft on the Animas River which runs through Durango.

Durango is well-known as the starting point for the historic Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. But with the free-flowing Animas River running through town and the rugged San Juan Mountains in view, it has become a gateway for outdoor activities in southwestern Colorado. In addition to the beauty of its natural setting, Durango’s Old West history and Southwest-inspired shopping and cuisine make it a top travel destination.
Stay at or visit the renowned Strater Hotel in Durango.

the haunted 19th century Strater Hotel, a prominent landmark in downtown, or at least take a tour. For a special treat, feast on a sumptuous breakfast at The Rochester Hotel and Leland House. Take a jeep tour into the mountains, play golf on a hillside, ride the train, or tube in the Animas River. 


Take the train or drive to Silverton, an Old West mining town.

Drive to Silverton, where you’ll think the time machine has zapped you back a century. Then continue to Ouray via the Million Dollar Highway (U.S. 550), a scenic mountainous stretch of hairpin curves.

The Million Dollar Highway is a spectacular drive.

Although it’s only 25 miles from Silverton to Ouray, this road, which was rebuilt in the early 1920s at considerable cost (hence the name), requires navigating narrow lanes on the edge of steep cliffs. Allow time to gasp at the crimson mountains of Red Mountain Pass as you navigate this breathtaking road.

Waterfall in Box Canyon
at Ouray

Called “Switzerland of America,” Ouray is the perfect base camp for exploring peaks and valleys of the San Juan Mountains, as well as remnants of mining towns,  by jeep, bike, or on foot. Fish or raft in the Uncompahgre River. Dip into the soothing hot springs, watch a glassblower at work, and marvel at the waterfall in Box Canyon.


In addition to summer festivals, 
Telluride's red rock landscape is
fun to hike--this one to a waterfall.

A famous ski resort in winter, Telluride becomes a city of festivals in summer—bluegrass music, yoga, arts, and mountain biking. Stay in town to be close to activities and shopping. The entire town has been designated a National Historic Landmark District with all construction promoting its Victorian image.

Alternately, stay at beautiful Mountain Village, just a free gondola ride up the mountain, where panoramas viewed from 9,500 feet include magnificent peaks of the San Juan Mountains and plenty of outdoor adventure for all skill levels.

A free gondola take visitors between Telluride and Mountain Village.

Mesa Verde

Spend a day at Mesa Verde National Park for an historic look at how the Anasazi tribes lived and worked long before “civilization” came to this part of the country. Explore the cliff dwellings to learn about ancestral life in one of the most preserved archeological sites.

Mesa Verde National Park features Anasazi ruins.

For a less crowded look, check out Ute Mountain Tribal Park near Cortez, only open to the public with Ute guides navigating visitors into the wilderness adjacent to Mesa Verde's southern boundary. With only 1,300 visitors per year, Ute Mountain is a quiet spot where you can hike narrow trails and climb steep ladders onto high ledges.

Hieroglyphics are visible at Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Complete the loop by returning to Durango. Follow up with activities you might have missed the first time here, or just savor your memories of this spectacular journey.

Try a game of golf when you return to Durango.

  • The byway passes through five million acres of both the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests.
  • Recreational activities are also available along the Byway at Mancos State Park and Ridgway State Park.
  • For more information:

This article originally appeared in Dallas Morning News.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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