Ouray to Durango
Heading south on Hwy 550 from Ridgway to Ouray, the panorama is full of summits and jagged ridges of the Uncompahgre Wilderness. The very pretty Victorian mountain town of Ouray, tucked beneath a dramatic granite amphitheater, is surrounded by 12,000-ft. peaks. Located in the heart of the Uncompahgre National Forest, Mt. Sneffels rises to the west of the town in the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness. The Uncompahgre Wilderness, home to several fourteeners and numerous peaks over 13,000-ft., lies to the northeast of Ouray. Almost needless to say, Ouray is a perfect base camp for outdoor enthusiasts. Most visitors to Ouray drive the Million Dollar Highway, the 24-mile section of the San Juan Skyway between Ouray and Silverton. But before leaving Ouray, there are plenty of attractions.in and near town.
The entire town of Ouray is listed in the National Register of Historic Districts. Most of the structures built between 1880 and 1900 are still standing. Day trippers and other visitors discover beautifully restored Victorians architecture hidden on the town’s back streets. After a day of hiking, visitors look forward to soaking in Ouray’s Hot Springs. The experience includes being able to gaze at the red sandstone and granite cliffs above the town from different pools that vary in temperatures. Several short walks from town add to enjoyable visits: the Uncompahgre River trail that meanders along the river and also a walk to Cascade Falls, the lowest of a series of seven waterfalls above the town. Cascade Falls also can be visited from the 6-mile Ouray Perimeter Trail that reveals great mountain views.
The route traverses jaw-dropping scenery, pass countless mining relics, and climbs over 11,000-ft. Red Mountain Pass. Before leaving the Ouray area, a few ghost towns are accessible with a passenger vehicle but most require a 4WD. Adventuresome drivers with 4WD vehicles may opt for the area’s backcountry roads. Yankee Boy Basin, for example, southwest of Ouray, leads to several ghost towns, views of beautiful Twin Falls, and wildflowers in summer. Visitors who enjoy hiking also should consider at least one of several fantastic choices for exploration. The Blue Lakes Pass (13,000 feet) hike visits three scenic lakes in beautiful glacial basins surrounded by rugged ridges and peaks. This hike is one of the few in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness. Lower Blue Lake is about 6 miles RT for hikers that prefer an easier day. Another great choice is the Bridge of Heaven hike with its panoramic views of the Cimarron and Sneffels Ranges. This well-engineered trail takes some effort ascending 3,000 feet in just 4 miles, but wonderful views make the effort very worthwhile. Finally, not to mention several other possible hikes, the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail follows an amazing route up beautiful Bear Creek Canyon.
The San Juan Skyway itself is an incredible scenic drive but visitors to the region in various seasons also should view it as the access route to other scenic mountain experiences. South of Ouray, for example, in June to September the Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway provides an unforgettable variety of landscapes for backcountry jeep, 4×4 or adventure biking journeys connecting Ouray, Silverton and Lake City. Heading south on Hwy. 550 out of Ouray, the Alpine Loop route can cover as much as 100 miles and more than a very full day. The Alpine Loop connects summits in the Rockies by way of two mountain passes (4WD high clearance vehicle strongly recommended!): Engineer Pass, to the north, that rises over 12,000 feet and provides a superb vantage point for photographs of Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn peaks towering more than 14,000 feet high, has to be seen to appreciate the toll road than Otto Meers built in the 1870s; and Cinnamon Pass, also 12,000 feet that provides views of some of the Colorado’s highest mountains — Handies, Sunshine and Redcloud peaks. Starting at Corkscrew Gulch, the iconic Red Mountains provide a scenic backdrop on the way to California Gulch and the ghost town of Animus Forks north of Silverton.
Not only is the scenery spectacular over these passes, but they provide a taste of history during the gold rush when, for example, Cinnamon pass was used to reach what would become the town of Silverton. In 1877, a wagon road was established over Cinnamon Pass connecting Lake City to the Animas Valley. However, the bustling mining towns around Cinnamon Pass began to disappear in the early 1900’s. Today Cinnamon Pass connects to the Victorian mining town of Lake City. But be forewarned and alert: the ascent of the pass to the summit from the west side is challenging, with steep and rocky terrain that can be extremely tough in wet conditions. Cinnamon Pass usually is closed to vehicles from October to late May. The rest of the year, east of the summit Cinnamon Pass Road is easier, but an off- road, high clearance vehicle is still required.
Returning to Hwy. 550, tiny Silverton is nestled between two rugged San Juan Mountain passes, Red Mountain and Molas. A wonderfully preserved mining town constructed between 1882 and 1910, like Ouray but somewhat grittier, it is a national historic landmark. During the town’s heyday, lavish hotels, dance halls, brothels and saloons were built along with the ornate homes of respectable citizens. Thanks to the fact that Silverton never experienced a major fire, many of these structures are still standing and worth visiting. The San Juan Historical Society owns many local historic properties that are in its tours. Many people visit Silverton to board the northern terminus of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tour. The historic steam-powered locomotive runs on the same tracks that miners, cowboys and settlers took over a century ago. The tour winds through spectacular canyons in the remote wilderness of the San Juan National Forest. This unforgettable journey is not to be missed.
The Silverton Area offers a number of great day hikes, but one especially – the Ice Lake trail — is not to be missed by hiking enthusiasts. Climbing 1600 feet in the first few miles through forests and flower-filled meadows leads to a lower basic with great views, waterfalls and a marvelous array of wildflowers in season. Challenging mountain biking can be found all around Silverton on many of the same old mining roads that also serve as four-wheel routes. Molas Lake, just 4 miles from town, is popular with trout fishers but it is just one of the alpine lakes near Silverton popular with anglers. The surrounding San Juan National Forest contains numerous hiking trails that include access to the Continental Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness. Thanks to the Silverton Snowmobile Club, many miles of these trails are groomed for snowmobilers in winter. Kendall Mountain provides a destination for easy winter activities and Silverton Mountain, Colorado’s highest ski mountain, has the steep slopes that intrepid skiers are looking for. Continuing south from Silverton toward Durango on US 550, the Skyway passes the Purgatory ski resort. From November to April Purgatory boasts some of the deepest powder in Colorado. Purgatory has 85 ski trails and is one of the least crowded in the US. The trails also are great for hiking and mountain biking. Family fun in Purgatory also includes tubing, snowshoe tours, dog sledding, sleigh rides and snowmobiling.
For visitors to Colorado who already have traveled the San Juan Skyway clockwise from Ridgway to Ouray and perhaps on to Silverton and Durango, there is an alternative (counter-clockwise) San Juan Skyway route from Ridgway to Durango that heads west on Hwy 62 over the Dallas Divide and past Mt Sneffels where the road becomes CO Hwy 145 S into the beautiful box canyon in which Telluride sits. After enjoying Telluride’s incredible winter skiing or plethora of summer festivals and activities, return to Hwy 145 out of Telluride and then drive over Lizard Head Pass that passes two more of Colorado’s majestic 14ers: Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak. Continue following CO Hwy 145 south through Rico and then along the Dolores River. In the ranching community of Dolores, perhaps stopping at the McPhee Reservoir, one of the largest man-made lakes in Colorado. From Dolores, the San Juan Skyway (CO Hwy 145) continues to US Hwy 160 into Cortez. home of many archaeological sites and monuments including Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients and Ute Mountain Tribal Park. From here continue on US Hwy 160 E for less than 50 miles from Cortez to Durango through the beautiful La Plata Mountains.