This is generally not a recommended practice but we took the opportunity in mid-June to spend one single day driving around the full 236 mile San Juan Skyway loop. It is a bit rushed to do so all in one day but we wanted to give our viewers an idea of the approximate length of the trip and also wanted to show some of the highlights that can be seen from the road. Ideally of course you would want to make the trip around the ‘Skyway’ a multi day adventure simply because there is so much to be seen in each area. All that being said, this is what we did and in the following video you will have a general synopsis of what you might see as some of the highlights of your adventure along the San Juan Skyway. Our trip starts in Ridgway, moves on to Ouray, then Silverton, then on to Durango and Mesa Verde and the last stop is in Telluride.
The Chipeta Resort in Ridgway was our starting point about 7:30 in the morning and the cool mountain air in the town gave us the invigoration and energy to propel us through the day.
Just 10 miles down the road was our first mountain town stop in Ouray. This town, like so many on the skyway, is shoe-horned between two steep mountainsides with the main road passing right through the centerpoint. On the slopes high above town you can see remnants of some of the mining activity that had occurred in the late eighteenth century and this is the home of the famous ‘Box Canyon’ and the ice park that is a notable component of the town during the winter season. This is also the home of one of the most famous hotels on the skyway, the Beaumont Hotel, which had its origins in the 1880;s.
From here we headed to our next stop of Silverton along the infamous ‘Million Dollar Highway’. This roadway was constructed in the 1880’s by the renowned roadmaker of his day, Otto Mears. Mears was responsible for carving out the space for passage by narrow gauge railroad through much of the difficult terrain along the San Juan Skyway but his efforts to place train tracks through this area were thwarted by the enormous slopes of these mountainsides. His failure in that regard did not dissuade him from constructing a toll road through the slopes that was barely wide enough to allow for the passage of a small wagon pulled by horses. This is essentially the same road you will drive over today and with much of the same trepidation you may have had during those days. The lack of guard rails in most places will give most people quite a start and this in itself will justify the below 25 MPH speed limit on this section of the road. A stop at the Bear Creek Falls will give you pause as you look back and imagine the feat it must have taken to build this famous roadway. Although the road itself is well maintained, it is often the practice of many people navigating the roadway in their own vehicle to choose to do the San Juan Loop in a counter-clockwise direction so they can hug the wall of the inside lane as they descend the highway. Though the driver of the vehicle won’t often have the opportunity to observe it, the spectacular scenery in this area will rival that of just about any other location you can imagine.
The high mountain town of Silverton is the next stop at an elevation of 9000′. Once again squeezed in between two enormous mountainsides this is a major ski destination during the winter months as the mountains tower over the town by another 3000′. Silverton was one of the major mountain towns during the mining era and today it is a laid-back mountain hamlet. Located front and center on the main street is the iconic Grand Imperial Hotel. This 1880′ vintage classic is truly the centerpiece of the town and it has been restored to mint condition in recent years. It is located just a block or so away from the famous train that will transport visitors on a scenic train ride along the inland slopes and inaccessible riverbeds on a three hour ride to the town of Durango.
The next segment of the roadway takes you by Molas pass and Molas Lake as you make your way down-elevation to Durango which will be highlighted by a visit to another iconic inn, the Strater Hotel. This, once again 1880’s vintage hotel has seen so much of the history of the town in the making and it too has been restored over the years to an immaculate condition.
At this point we were ready to make our way from the mountains to the high desert of Mesa Verde. Located on the far southwest corner of the San Juan Skyway this became the home of a people called the Anasazi for about 1300 years up until just before 1300 AD. They farmed this area also known as the ‘Four Corners Region’ for all these centuries but were most well known for their intricate and amazing cliff dwellings. Much of their life in this region is still a mystery and it is really still not known why they abruptly left the area in approximately 1260 to 1280 AD. Mesa Verde includes a very large area and requires a 20 mile or so drive to get from the park entrance to the cliff dwellings. On the day we arrived we only went a short distance into the park and did not have enough time to make a thorough visit. Mesa Verde deserves a full day or two on its own and this is another reason why it is not ideal to take on the ‘Skyway’ all in one day.
The next leg of the journey took us out of the high desert and back into the mountains on our way to Telluride. We made our way past a number of small towns including Rico which was just a blip on the radar screen but was very beautiful and quaint. The higher elevations will take you into areas with amazing scenery including lakes, huge mountain summits, high mountain passes, beautiful meadowland, giant forests, flowing rivers, enormous escarpments and unique land formations. One of the most unusual is a peak called Lizard Head which has an elevation of 13114′. It is impossible not to see as you drive by and it is considered to be among the most difficult and dangerous mountain climbs in all of Colorado and was not first climbed until the year 1920.
Last but not least was the high mountain town of Telluride which lies at an elevation of just under 9000′ with surrounding mountain peaks of 13 to 14 thousand feet. Once again this mountain town is absolutely shoe-horned between two large mountain-sides only allowing for a grid of streets within the valley 12 blocks long and 8 blocks wide. The mountains surrounding Telluride provide a well known ski resort in the winter and also provide great summer activities during the summer months. The town itself is well known to have great bars, restaurants and very elegant but pricey shops and in its own right is a fantastic visitor destination.
At the end of Telluride’s enormous valley is a box canyon wall that showcases the famous ‘Bridal Veil Falls’ which, with it’s drop off of 365′, is the longest free-falling waterfall in the state of Colorado. Other waterfalls can be found on its wall face as well and for those who enjoy a good hike there are switchback trails that wind their way to a beautiful panoramic view.