What is the San Juan Skyway?

Golden in Autumn

The San Juan Skyway

The 236-mile loop of the San Juan Skyway offers one of the most scenic drives in North America. Winding through forests of aspen and pine and over breathtaking high passes, again and again the drive reveals panoramic views of volcanic Rocky Mountain summits in the San Juan range, many exceeding 14,000 feet. Visitors experiencing parts or all of the San Juan Skyway soon understand why it was designated a National Scenic Byway and one of 10 All American Roads.

From Durango through Silverton and Ouray to Ridgway, cut from the side of a mountain, about 25 miles of this one-of-a-kind scenic roadway delivers jaw-dropping vista after vista that became known as the “Million Dollar Highway”. Like almost everything else in the San Juan Skyway area, this mountain road, with its hairpin curves and dangerous drop-offs, is connected to fascinating history and legends. One of those legends is that its fill dirt contains millions of dollars in gold ore mined in the area. True or not, the “Million Dollar Highway” is like no other road that any visitor has travelled. It is a road with scenery that is almost impossible to describe and you have to see to believe.

Million Dollar Highway

The road did not cost more than a million dollars to build, but it did cost a huge sum for its time. It may contain some waste from early gold mills and silver mines, but nowhere near a million dollars worth. There’s also some mystery and dispute about the length of the Million Dollar Highway. The six miles from Ouray to Ironton Park? The 26 miles from Ouray to Silverton? The 75 miles from Ouray to Durango? The federal government decided to call it part of the San Juan Scenic Highway and a part of U.S. Highway 550. Irrespective of names and length, its geologic history covers billions of years, the extraordinary terrain contained very rich ore, and it did take almost 50 years to complete the whole stretch of roadway. And the scenic beauty of this unique road, and its wealth of recreational opportunities, in fact was revealed thanks to rich discoveries of silver and gold.

History buffs will love the story and photos of the mining boom in the San Juan’s that led to efforts in the 1870s and 1880s to build a road between Ouray and Silverton. These efforts were unsuccessful until, in the 1880s, Ouray turned to Russian immigrant and famed Colorado road builder Otto Mears. Established in 1876, Ouray was located in a box canyon at the north end of the San Juan mountains separated from rich mining districts to the south by very steep and rocky terrain. In 1883 Mears won the race with Silverton road builders to build a road from Ouray to Ironton. The shrewd Mears then made a deal with San Juan County to build a toll road to connect with Ouray’s road. Thanks to Mears’ toll road, not only did mining bring prosperity to Ouray but, in the late 1880s, tourists flocked to the spectacular views.

Mine Ruins in the Fall Foliage

Building wagon and toll roads in the 1880s by Mears and the people of Silverton and Ouray is a fascinating and inspiring story leading up to the Million Dollar Highway. From the outset, everyone involved envisioned that its awesome scenery would dramatically increase local tourism. They were so right. News media at the time talked about the incredible views of Uncompahgre Valley, masses of rock rising thousands of feet, the exquisite beauty of Bear Creek Falls, and much more. But when that new-fangled invention the automobile showed up in Colorado early in the 1900s, people in the San Juans realized that their dirt roads needed to become paved highways. Early in the 1900s the federal government and its U.S. Forest Service began supporting this vision with minimal funding.

Today the San Juan Skyway incorporates stretches of U.S. Highways 160 and 550 as well as State Roads 62 and 145. Connecting the former 19th century mining towns of Silverton, Ouray, Telluride and Rico, it passes Ridgway, Dolores, Cortez, Mancos and Durango. It traverses four mountain passes above 10,000 feet, skirts rivers, reveals waterfalls and a wealth of beauty and recreational opportunities.

Most of the land visible along the Skyway is within the San Juan National Forest, established in 1905, that encompasses 1.9 million acres. Also created in 1905, the Uncompahgre National Forest consists of another million acres. The Weminuche Wilderness Area spans yet another 500,000 acres of the range. Management of these marvellous forest resources is in the capable hands of several federal agencies that strive to ensure benefits for locals and everyone else. In addition to protecting the natural resources of forests, agricultural and ranch lands, the San Juans have several major rivers that are protected as providers of water for much of the Southwest and even westward to Los Angeles.

The major use of the land, and most important economic benefit, is recreation and simply enjoying its beauty. For eons, hunting and fishing have been time-honoured traditions and pastimes. In the last decades, the San Juans increasingly have become a renowned destination for mountain climbing, road cycling, mountain biking, four wheeling and skiing in the region’s fabled ski resorts. Non-wilderness and back road trails and pathways have been seeing ever-growing numbers of users. Hang gliding and hot air ballooning are flourishing in annual events. Mountain running has taken root in the San Juans. Whitewater rivers thrill kayakers and rafters. The allures of the area provide siren calls for increasing numbers of visitors from around the globe.

No wonder that early Ute Indians thought that what later became the San Juan Mountains were the work of their gods. Geologists explain the various stages of geological mayhem that over millions of years delivered both fantastic mineral wealth and the awesome sculpting of rock formations in the San Juan Mountains. Created by fire, the San Juans were sculpted by ice during the ice ages. Glacial action moving down mountainsides produced angular peaks and U-shaped valleys that captivate visitors. One of the largest glaciers in the mountain range is located between Red Mountain Pass and Ridgway. Lake San Cristobal, near Lake City, also manifests glacial activity.

After plate tectonic uplifting, massive volcanic activity churned out massive amounts of magna, spewing ash and rock across the landscape. Volcanoes collapsed into vast calderas. Subsiding volcanoes formed a huge volcanic plateau, later eroded by streams into peaks and valleys. Visitors are enthralled by many different examples of dramatic volcanic remnants. For example, Lizard Head Peak southwest of Telluride is a pillar of lava that solidified in the vent of an active volcano. Mount Sneffels also might be the neck of an immense volcano.