San Juan Skyway

Drive Through the Clouds on a High-Altitude History Lesson
Gorp.com

Travel to the top of the world and back in time on the San Juan Skyway (US 550), a National Scenic Byway. This loop trip through the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado follows 236 miles of state-maintained highways on a journey from towering mountains and alpine forests to the rolling vistas and ancient ruins of Indian country. View stunning scenery from your vehicle or pull off at the many points of interest and get out your camera.

Drive through the heart of the San Juan and Uncompahgre national forests. The Skyway takes you over high mountain passes and through quaint historic towns. The Forest Service offers audio-tapes, videotapes, books, and brochures to guide you through the history, ecology, and geology along the way.

There's also plenty of action if you get out of your car: hiking, backpacking, bicycling, hunting, photography, fishing, kayaking, and rafting are all options. And there's rest and relaxation, too. Browse town shops, soak in historic hot springs, stay in a Victorian lodge, or sleep under the stars in one of the countless campgrounds along the way.

You can tour the San Juan Skyway in one day or several any time of year. See waterfalls in spring, wildflowers in summer, golden aspen in fall, and a snowy wonderland in winter. Our guided tour begins in Durango. but you can start the drive from anylocation along the loop.

Durango

An Old West town that boasts the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train. Founded in 1880 as a bustling railhead to serve the booming mining industry, Durango still retains its Victorian charm. Restored historic landmarks line downtown streets with shopping and fine dining. Nearby is the Southern Ute Indian Reservation.

Animas Valley

Head north out of Durango and up into the San Juan National Forest. Historic mineral hot springs at Trimble Lane are open to the public year-round.Haviland LakeEnjoy a picnic or fish for rainbow trout in this easily accessible spot, offering camping and beautiful scenery.

Coal Bank and Molas Pass

These consecutive mountain passes top 10.000 feet in elevation. revealing dramatic alpine scenery. The Colorado Trail, which connects Durango to Denver, crosses the highway nearby.

Purgatory

Purgatory Ski Area is known for powder snow and abundant sunshine. Summer attractions include an alpine slide, tennis, festivals, horseback riding, swimming, and lodging with nearby camping.Molas LakesCamping, fishing, and picnicking in spectacular settings with nearby trailheads leading into the Forest.

Silverton

Silverton is a living mining town tucked in a high mountain Valley. This National Historic Landmark features quaint shops marking the end of the line of the famous narrow gauge railroad that runs between Silverton and Durango. Victorian lodging and local campgrounds are available. The nearby Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway offers rugged four-wheel-drive adventure.Red Mountain PassTravel the highest paved pass in the San Juan Mountains at 11,075 feet. Ghost towns dot the area where some of the most profitable mining ventures in the world took place. Here the Skyway passes into the Uncompahgre National Forest.

Million Dollar Highway

This famous section of the Skyway runs along part of an historic toll road built by Otto Mears, the "Pathfinder of the San Juans." This incredible stretch of road winds through the iron-colored Red Mountains, along the sheer sides of the Uncompahgre Gorge, through tunnels, and above cascading waterfalls. The Bear Creek National Recreation Trail climbs up from the highway.

Ouray

Ouray is an alpine village surrounded by towering mountains. Victorian shops, restaurants, and hotels line downtown streets. Box Canyon Falls features a plummeting waterfall in a deep cave-like canyon. Historic hot spring pools are open year-round. Four-wheel-drive roads lead to gold and silver mines. Scenic campgrounds abound.

Ridgway

This historic railhead was used as the film location for old westerns like "True Grit" and "How The West Was Won." The area features Ridgway Reservoir State Recreation Area, Owl Creek Pass, and the Uncompahgre Wilderness. Just north is Montrose, home of the Ute Indian Museum and gateway to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. There's also access here to one of Colorado's premier mountain bicycle trail systems.

Dallas Divide

This drive offers a spectacular view of enchanting mountain ranchland framed by the rugged "fourteeners" of the Mount Sneffels Wilderness. Forest access roads lead into the backcountry.

Telluride

This Victorian mining town, founded in the late 1800s, is now an international ski resort. The infamous Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank here, long before tourists descended for the year-round shopping and lodging that distinguish Telluride today. Festivals feature bluegrass & country music, jazz, international films, wine, balloons, and hang-gliding competitions. Four-wheel-drive roads lead to historic mining towns deeper in the Forest.

Lizard Head Pass

The Skyway again tops 10,000 feet with spectacular views of high mountains and alpine meadows. Trails lead from roadside picnic grounds into the Lizard Head Wilderness, named after the Lizard Head Peak. Historic markers tell the story of the famous Rio Grande Southern Railroad, which once traveled this route. The Skyway passes back onto the San Juan National Forest here near the popular Barlow Creek/Bolam Pass four-wheel-drive road and campground.

Ophir

This tiny historic town is named after King Solomon's mines. Peaks, waterfalls, and rugged cliffs line the Skyway. The famous Ames Power Plant, which generated the world's first alternating electric current, is located in the San Miguel Valley below. Campgrounds and four-wheel-drive roads abound.

Trout Lake

Enjoy fishing, picnicking, and boating at this picture-perfect high-elevation lake.

Rico

Rico was once connected to civilization only by wagon train along the historic Scotch Creek toll road. The route is now popular for hiking, mountain biking, and four-wheeling.

Dolores

The Rio Grande Southern "Galloping Goose" railcar is on display here. This unique piece of history is part train, part bus, and part car. Dolores is the gateway to McPhee Reservoir, which boasts quality fishing, boating, picnicking, and camping.

Anasazi Heritage Center

Located three miles south of Dolores on Highway 184. This museum depicts ancient Indian life and holds artifacts excavated during construction of McPhee Reservoir. The Dominguez and Escalante ruins maybe viewed.

Dolores River Valley

The Skyway follows the Dolores River through meadows dotted with farms, ranches, and great fishing spots. Four-wheel-drive roads lead to campgrounds and trails.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde is the only National Park dedicated solely to the works of man. These cliff dwellings were mysteriously abandoned by the Anasazi Indians 200 years before Columbus arrived in America. Mesa Verde offers guided tours, a museum, camping, lodging and restaurants.

Cortez

Cortez is known as the "Archeological Center of the US." Just south is Four Corners Monument, where you can stand in four states at once. Cortez offers a mild climate and the nearby Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation at the base of the Sleeping Ute Mountain. MancosNestled in the beautiful Mancos Valley, this agricultural community was home to the famous Weatherill family, who discovered the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. The Dominguez-Escalante Memorial Highway (State highway 84) intersects the Skyway and retraces portions of that historic trek.

Move on to:
San Juan National Forest
Uncompahgre National Forest


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

advertisement

Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »