No other country is more fascinated by road tripping. America’s motorized culture resulted in the single greatest network of roads in the world and one of its most cherished pastimes is hitting the pavement to explore the country’s infinite beauty.
For those who love scenic byways, you could hardly do better than San Juan Skyway.
Road to the Sky
The San Juan Skyway is one of only 31 roads in the United States designated as an All-American Road, treasured for its natural beauty, history, culture and recreation. It’s a 233-mile (378km) circuitous route in southwestern Colorado, which traditionally starts in Durango, about 340 miles (547km) from Denver.
It’s called the Skyway because it takes drivers to the top of the world, meandering around the 14,000-foot (4,267m) peaks of the San Juan Mountains. The trip can be completed in as little as five hours, but it takes a long weekend to fully appreciate the multitude of attractions along the way.
Durango to Cortez
Durango is the biggest city along the route and a great place from which to start your journey. Head west along Highway 160 towards Cortez. This 45-mile stretch offers pleasant open valleys, tall mountains, elk ranches and Mesa Verde National Park. Visiting the park for a closer look at the amazing ancient Anasazi cliff dwellings is a must.
Cortez to Telluride
Leaving Cortez, the road starts to head north on Highway 145 toward Telluride 76 miles (122km) away. It follows the Dolores River for a while before entering San Juan National Forest. After passing the town of Rico, you will enter Lizard Head Pass at more than 10,000 feet (3,050m) as several 14,000-foot peaks come into view.
Spend some time in Telluride, a major ski and tourist center which used to be an old silver mining town. Even though it’s a bit touristy, it retains some of its historical charm. While here, take a sojourn to the 385-foot (117m) Bridal Veil Waterfalls.
Telluride to Ouray
This scenic section forms the 49-mile (79km) northern San Juan Mountain loop, passing several small historical villages and skirting additional majestic peaks. Once in the lovely town of Ouray, visit the Hot Springs and Box Canyon Falls with a 285-foot (87m) tall waterfall.
Credit: Rob Lee
Ouray to Silverton
Heading south now, the 23-mile stretch to Silverton is called “The Million Dollar Highway, a reference to the large amounts of gold and silver mined in the area. For most, it will feel like a death-defying ride along a precipitous gorge passing through tunnels and by waterfalls. A sharp climb will bring you to Red Mountain Pass, sitting at over 11,000 feet (3,353m).
Silverton to Durango
The final 48-mile (77km) run becomes a little less spectacular (and harrowing), but offers a pleasant ride back to Durango. Between these two towns, visitors can take a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which dates back to 1882. The steam train offers more spectacular views than the road and is worth the expensive (upwards of $80) ticket.
The Skyway goes through several national parks and forests that are popular with campers and full of hiking and biking trails. There is great fishing on the lakes and rivers, as well as rafting. Cortez is a good place to stay for those who wish to visit Mesa Verde, Monument Valley and the Four Corners all on the same trip.
If you are into road trips and sightseeing, then the San Juan Skyway should definitely be on your list.
- Image from ByWays.org.
- Drive Colorado
When To Go
The best time to take a scenic drive in Colorado is in May, June or September when the weather is pleasant and there are fewer summer crowds.
In May, June and September, the average high temperatures range from 71 to 81°F (21 to 27°C), lows from 36 to 43°F (2 to 6°C), and precipitation from 0.6 to 2 inches (15 to 50mm) each month.
Getting There & Around
The San Juan Skyway drive is a scenic 233-mile (375km) loop that starts and ends in Durango, Colorado.
To get to Durango, fly into Denver International Airport and drive 337 miles (542km) southwest.
- Mid-range accommodations: $75-125
- Meals: $15-20
- Bottle of beer: $1.50
- Stop at the various view points along the way for some incredible sights and photo ops.
- Stop at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center to purchase tickets to see the Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House.
- Pack or buy sandwiches and drinks to have picnics at one of the may scenic points along the way.
- Speed. Lay off the pedal, cruise and take in all the sights.
- Forget your driver’s license.
- Miss the ghost towns of Howardsville, Eureka and Animas Forks (located 14 miles / 22km from Silverton).
- In 1996, the San Juan Skyway was named an All-American Road.
- The highway from Silverton to Ouray is nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway for the large amounts of silver and gold that were carried through the passes.
- Durango has more restaurants per capita than San Francisco.
Feature Image Credit: cogdogblog