Sidebar: Trip Tips Length: About 230 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round, but especially beautiful in early fall when aspen leaves are golden.
Words to the wise: Carry tire chains and a shovel in winter.
Nearby attractions: Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, Chimney Rock (call the Pagosa Springs Ranger District for times and dates of guided tours).
Lowry Pueblo Ruins, west of Pleasant View. Ute Indian Museum, Montrose.
Visitor center: Mesa Verde National Park.
Further information: San Juan Public Lands Center, 15 Burnett Court, Durango, CO 81301; 970-247-4874, www.fs.fed.us /r2/sanjuan.
The locals call their homeland “Colorful Colorado,” and a ride along the San Juan Skyway in the southwestern corner of the state proves the aptness of the nickname. As you climb from dusty lowlands to snowy peaks, you’ll see nearly every shade in nature’s kaleidoscopic palette, from creamy sands and rusty bluffs to multihued alpine meadows and the shimmering gold of aspens in autumn.
Though Will Rogers once described Durango as “out of the way and glad of it,” by the late 1800s it was in fact a bustling railroad hub. Today visitors can recall that era by strolling through the restored downtown, with its gaslit street lamps and Victorian shops that sell everything from Mailpouch tobacco to mink earmuffs. Mexican cantinas, Irish pubs, and vintage Old West honky-tonks invoke the robust days when miners and cattlemen clomped in for a pint of brew.
Another way to relive the town’s halcyon past is to board the Durango–Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which runs between May and October, for a daylong round-trip journey through stunning mountain scenery. In one of the great engineering feats of its time, a part of this route was blasted into a sheer rock wall 400 feet above the Animas Canyon. Today, with guests settled into a variety of cars—open gondolas, coaches, or 1882 parlor cars—the train sounds a plaintive whistle as it chugs up the Animas River valley through the San Juan–Rio Grande National Forest, making occasional stops for backpackers. The end of the line is Silverton, a mining town seemingly frozen in time.
2. Animas River Valley
Departing from Durango, the Skyway itself (here Rte. 550) roughly parallels the rail route from Durango to Silverton, meandering along the Animas River. Passing green pastures grazed by cattle, and red-rock cliffs that rise abruptly from the valley, the Skyway climbs to the alpine heights enfolding Durango Mountain Resort, a down-home ski resort that used to be called Purgatory. Its unpretentious spirit is touted in an ad that proudly declares, “No Movie Stars Here!”
Looming above are the San Juan Mountains, a jumble of imposing peaks draped across southwestern Colorado. Two million years of periodic glaciation sculpted this awesome landscape, leaving behind precipitous gorges, broad valleys, craggy ridges, and skyscraping peaks—more than 100 of which exceed 13,000 feet in height. Volcanic eruptions played a part as well, spewing lava and ash over the region. Deposits of gold, silver, lead, copper, zinc, and other metals enriched the landscape, ultimately yielding billions of dollars to those with the fortitude to retrieve them.
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Approaching Silverton, the Skyway zigzags to 10,910-foot Molas Pass, overlooking an array of lofty peaks, ridges staircasing up from the canyon floor, and the turquoise gem known as Molas Lake.
From Molas Pass the Skyway drops sharply into the town of Silverton, strikingly set between high mountain walls. According to local lore, the town was named by a miner who once exclaimed, “We may not have gold here, but we have silver by the ton.”
The quaint streets of Silverton are lined with historic relics—the gold-domed county courthouse, once-elegant hotels such as the Grand Imperial, and a former red-light district where locals stage mock gunfights on summer evenings. At nearby Hillside Cemetery, perched above town, grave markers tell of young men who lost their lives in mining disasters.
4. Million Dollar Highway
From Silverton the Skyway climbs to Red Mountain Pass, the highest point on the tour at 11,018 feet. The breathtaking view from here takes in Bear Mountain, so named because its contours resemble a giant bear licking a honeycomb.
A portion of the road between Silverton and Ouray is known as the Million Dollar Highway. Built between 1880 and 1920, the old toll road served as a mail, stage, and freight route. Depending on whom you ask, the highway was named for the amount of gold and silver mined in the area, the value of the low-grade ore tailings used to pave the road, the cost of the construction, or the rewarding views.
Despite the splendid scenery, motorists should definitely keep their eyes on the road along this stretch of the Skyway: it threads a tortuous, two-lane path around precipitous slopes—without the benefit of safety guardrails. From November to May, blinding blizzards dump up to four feet of snow in one day, transforming the Skyway into a slick chute through treacherous avalanche country. During heavy snowstorms, crews close the road and fire cannons to trigger slides, which they then plow away. A rumbling sound, like distant thunder, announces that somewhere an avalanche is on the move, crushing everything in its path.