The rugged, impressive San Juan Mountains have much the same grandeur as the Rockies but fewer tourists, although they've become more popular. The San Juan Skyway is a scenic driving route that provides a wonderful way to become acquainted with this part of the state. It's a large loop, 235 mi/230 km in length. We suggest you take at least two days if you plan to drive the whole thing.
Beginning on the northern end of the skyway, Ouray is a historic mining town set in a scenic area you might recognize from such westerns as True Grit and How the West Was Won. The town garnered some notoriety when the daughter of a miner ended up buying the Hope Diamond. Others already knew about Ouray because its local newspaper, the Solid Muldoon, had established a reputation for being the most irreverent rag ever produced. (It's said that Queen Victoria was a subscriber.)
While you're in Ouray, be sure to see the Old Opera House with its iron facade and the historic Beaumont Hotel (where Theodore Roosevelt stayed). And don't miss a ride down into the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine (it's a cool 47 F/8 C at the end of the tunnel, 3,350 ft/1,020 m into the side of the mountain). Also impressive is Box Canyon, a deep gorge within the city limits, where you can walk across a suspension bridge or take a walking trail down into the canyon. If you have time, make a trip to see the spectacular wildflowers in Yankee Boy Basin, just west of Ouray. You'll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to cover the last part of the road.
Heading south of Ouray, the skyway follows Highway 550, also known as the Million Dollar Highway—there's supposed to be gold in the gravel used for its construction. Regardless of what's in the roadway, the views are priceless. It's an absolutely thrilling drive, with cliffs on one side of the road and deep canyons on the other—as exciting as any theme-park ride.
Your next stop is at Silverton. Make a point of visiting the town's historic district, with its town hall and the Grand Imperial Hotel. If you have time, you can take a Jeep tour through some of the surrounding ghost towns. Silverton is one terminus of the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, so you may want to catch the train there, if you don't plan to do so in Durango.
Continue on 550 South through Purgatory to Durango, one of the region's tourism hubs. From Durango, drive west on Highway 160, which passes the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park. Continue west to Cortez, which makes a good base for exploring the area. If you don't mind veering away from the San Juans for a bit, you've got two options: You can go 35 mi/55 km southwest on Highway 160 to the Four Corners Monument, where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet. It's run by the Navajo tribe, and it will cost you a couple of dollars to stand on the slab that marks the point. Unless you've got another reason to go that way, we suggest skipping the monument. A much better choice is to make the 42-mi/68-km drive to Hovenweep National Monument, on the Colorado-Utah border. The monument is a collection of six deserted Anasazi villages—notable for the masonry structures that look as much like medieval castles as they do pueblos.
Finish your tour of the Skyway by returning to Cortez and driving Highway 145 northeast through Telluride to Highway 62. Highway 62 will return you to Highway 550 near Ouray.
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