San Juan Skyway
While in Colorado, don’t miss the scenic San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile, breathtaking loop of paved, state maintained highways through the San Juan Mountains.
The San Juan Skyway is designated as an All-American Road, a National Forest Scenic Byway and a Colorado Scenic & Historical Byway. The Skyway has been called one of the most beautiful drives in America, and has been described as a place “where the road touches the sky.”
The trip can begin at any point along the route; ours will begin in Durango. The San Juan Skyway begins in Durango on US Highway 550 North heading towards Durango Mountain Resort.
There are spectacular views of Pigeon and Turret Mountains that rise to 13,000 feet, and three fourteeners; Windom, Eolus, and Sunlight. At Durango Mountain Resort the road begins its ascent up Coal Bank Pass that tops off at 10,000 feet. Here is where you can get on the Pass Creek Trail to the climb up Engineer Mountain, a difficult but rewarding climb. The road continues along mountainsides providing gorgeous views up to Molas Pass’s summit at 10,910 feet. The area has many lakes and hiking trails to be explored at the summit; one can even walk part of the 470 mile Colorado Trail that crosses over Molas Pass on its way to Denver.
The air on Molas Pass has earned the distinction of being the cleanest air in the Nation.
From Molas Pass you will descend into the active mining town of Silverton, which is also the northern terminus of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
The San Juan Skyway joins the Million-Dollar Highway here and climbs up Red Mountain to descend into Ouray. Red Mountain, a collapsed volcano cone that got its name from the lava flow and oxidized minerals within the rocky surface was discovered to have gold in 1860. Miners rushed to the area and proceeded to obtain $750 million worth of gold, silver, and other minerals from its soil. The Million Dollar Highway was engineered and designed by a Russian immigrant named Otto Mears, who became known as the “Pathfinder of the San Juan’s.”
The Million Dollar Highway’s name comes from either the cost of construction or from the value of ore bearing fill used in the road, the debate will continue on where the name came from but won’t be solved. The Million-Dollar Highway ends in the quaint Victorian town of Ouray.
Ouray is known for it’s large natural Hot Springs and picturesque views.
Having relaxed for a little bit in the springs the trip continues leaving the mountains behind and entering the ranching community of Ridgeway.
In Ridgeway, the San Juan Skyway leaves 550 and turns onto Colorado State Road 62. This winds through fields, over Dallas Divide and passes Mount Sneffel. The road changes to Colorado Highway 145 and drops into the deep box canyon where Telluride is located.
The San Juan Skyway proceeds out of Telluride on Colorado Highway 145 over Lizard Head Pass leading to views of two more 14,000-foot peaks, Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak.
The Skyway descends into Rico where there are beehive structures that were once used in the early parts of the smeltering process. The road follows the Dolores River, and if you a fisherman bring your rod and enjoy the river. The route leads into another small ranching and logging community, Dolores, also known as the gateway to McPhee Reservoir. McPhee Reservoir is one of the largest manmade lakes in Colorado. Before building the reservoir archeologists removed many Ancestral Puebloan sites and ruins to preserve history. The excavated artifacts along with a set of ruins are on display in the Anasazi Heritage Center, just a few miles down the road.
Leaving Dolores, the San Juan Skyway continues on US Highway 160 into Cortez, which is known for its rich pinto bean crops and ranching land. Cortez is the home of the Archaeological Center of the United States. The facility holds programs where inquisitive people can spend a week excavating ruins with professional archaeologists. This is a rare and amazing experience with Mesa Verde just a few miles further down the highway between Cortez and Mancos. Mesa Verde National Park is 52,000 acres of mesas and canyons that were inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloan people seven hundred years ago. The site contains many cliff dwellings located in alcoves in canyon walls, the most famous being Balcony House, Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, and Long House. After being named a United Nations World Heritage Cultural Site in 1978, Mesa Verde has become an important stop for many foreign and domestic visitors to explore.
The final stretch of the San Juan Skyway goes back to Durango from Mesa Verde National Park through Mancos on US Highway 160. In Mancos, there is a mill that processes Aspen trees into matchsticks and many great lakes for boating and fishing. The drive is again mountainous, this time they are the La Platas which is a sub-range of the San Juans. This area, between Mancos and Durango, is home to cattle and elk and even llama farms.
The All American Road is the highest designation, given by the US Department of transportation and was awarded to the San Juan Skyway because of the rich experience in culture, archaeology, history, scenery, and recreation the road offers to visitors. This skyway was one of the first six roads in the United States to receive this designation.
Drive Length: 236 miles
Drive Time: 5 to 51/2 hours (this is straight through with no stops; not suggested)
Be Careful: Before heading out on your adventure call Colorado Department of Transportation for road conditions (970)-247-3355 or for weather conditions call (970)-247-0930
Get out of your car: All the scenic overlooks and historical sites