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.
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.
As the highway curlicues down to Ouray, it noses through a tunnel blasted through solid rock, skirts the spectral remains of old mines, and breezes past waterfalls crashing down from invisible heights.
Nestled in a narrow, steeply walled valley, Ouray and its environs have been called the “Switzerland of America.” Its steep streets are lined with Victorian hotels and shops—even a public pool fed by hot springs that sends billows of steam into the air as guests who have come to “take the cure” gaze up at snowcapped peaks.
At Box Canyon Falls and Park, the turbulent waters of Clear Creek thunder 285 feet down a narrow gorge. A steel suspension bridge and well-marked trails offer glorious vistas.
From Ouray, the Skyway leaves the San Juan Mountains behind and coils into a broad valley where elk and deer graze in verdant meadows. Turning west on Rte. 62, the drive eases into Ridgway, which may look vaguely familiar, for this former Wild West town was used to film scenes in a number of Hollywood westerns, including True Grit and How the West Was Won.
If time permits, follow Rte. 550 north to Montrose and turn east on Rte. 50 to the road (Rte. 347) that leads to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Here a menacingly deep gorge was carved over 2 million years by the erosive power of the Gunnison River. Its charcoal-gray walls are shrouded in shadow for most of the day, hence the name Black Canyon. One of its prominent features, the 2,200-foot behemoth called the Painted Wall, is the highest cliff face in Colorado.
7. Dallas Divide
From Ridgway, Rte. 62 rolls west past broad ranchlands dotted with cattle, climbs to scrub oaks and aspen, and finally enters the spruce-covered hills of the Dallas Divide. It overlooks the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness Area—an array of jagged, snowcapped peaks whose centerpiece is 14,150-foot Mt. Sneffels (named for a mountain in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth). From the Dallas Divide, the highway descends to cottonwood country and into the tiny town of Placerville, where it turns south on Rte. 145. After several miles the route veers east to Telluride.
Its fanciful setting and gingerbread architecture give Telluride the kind of ambience you’d expect from a fairy tale come to life. The quaint streets of this turn-of-the-century town are crowded with a mixture of colorful clapboard houses and brick buildings. Mountains rise a mile above the valley floor, their flanks adorned in spring with tumbling waterfalls.
Some locals claim Telluride is a contraction of “To hell you ride,” a reference to the town’s rowdy past. (Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank here in 1889.) Actually, the town was named after a mineral compound often found with gold and silver that, ironically, is extremely rare in Telluride.
Because of its remote location, Telluride was once “hell” to get to as well—especially in winter when snowdrifts blocked the winding roads. But thanks in part to a new airport that accommodates small jets, the town has become a popular destination. This may explain why the price of real estate around Telluride has soared higher than the peaks, and why part-time residents include a bevy of high-profile celebrities. The town is shared as well by a new breed of buckaroos: kamikaze skiers and mountain bikers who hurtle themselves down the surrounding slopes. On some days it seems all roads lead to Telluride: the burgeoning ski town is also the Festival Capital of the Rockies, hosting throughout the year a number of world-famous film, arts, music, and even hang-gliding festivals.
A must for Telluride visitors with some time on their hands is the relatively easy two-hour round-trip hike to Bridal Veil Falls. Accented by rainbows as it plunges off a 425-foot-high cliff, Bridal Veil has the longest freefall of any waterfall in Colorado.
9. Lizard Head Pass
After retracing the spur from Telluride to continue south on Rte. 145, the drive heads across a high plateau of grasslands and dense aspen groves, with Wilson Peak and Sunshine Mountain towering to the southwest. In spring (mid-June in these parts), lilies bloom from snowfields—vast canvases that also bear the tracks of passing animals in search of food. Put an ear to the snow and you may hear the soft tinkling of hidden streams.
Farther on, the road passes the defunct town of Ophir, glistening Trout Lake, and a campground with the ambitiously alpine name of Matterhorn. It then climbs to 10,222-foot Lizard Head Pass (named for a reptilelike monolith near the road). Indians used the pass for thousands of years, and highway markers note that the Rio Grande Southern Railway passed through here until 1952.
Several miles ahead, the road twists through a glaciated valley dotted with beaver dams before easing into the town of Rico.
Adopting the Spanish word for “rich,” this once-booming mining town is lined with stone and brick Victorian structures from the 1880s. For the next 30 miles or so past Rico, the route follows the Dolores River, which takes a leisurely, meandering course through a valley of aspens and spreading cottonwoods.
The pleasant town of Dolores is perched above McPhee Reservoir, popular for recreation and the site of ancient ancestral Puebloan settlements. Some of the remains that were excavated here before the gorge was flooded are on display in the Anasazi Heritage Center, located on a bluff overlooking the Montezuma Valley about four miles south of town on Rte. 145. The center also features a 25-room ruin and a full-scale replica of a pit house dwelling.
Descending past ranches and farms, the drive reaches the strip town of Cortez. Nearby are scenic desertscapes backed by the La Plata Mountains and unique Mesa Verde National Park.
12. Mesa Verde National Park
More than 700 years have passed since the ancient pueblo peoples occupied cliff dwellings along Mesa Verde’s precipitous walls. Even so, when visiting crowds dissipate in late autumn and snow dusts the distant peaks, you can almost sense the presence of “the Ancient Ones,” the name given to them by the Navajos. One imagines these cliff-dwelling people shaping pots, harvesting corn and storing it in preparation for winter, telling fireside stories passed down from their ancestors, or chanting prayers from the depths of ceremonial kivas.
The dwellings were first discovered in 1888 when two ranchers, Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason, set off in a snowstorm in search of cattle that had strayed away and stumbled instead upon the perfectly preserved Cliff Palace —a large dwelling that was once the home of more than 200 ancient pueblo people. The next day they found Spruce Tree House, naming it for the tree that grew beside the ruin, and Square Tower House, the tallest structure in the park.
Today, visitors can experience a similar sense of discovery as they roam through these apartment-like cliff dwellings, most built in the middle of the 12th century. The majority were tucked into alcoves facing south-southwest to let in low winter sun but not the searing overhead rays of summer. They range in size from one-room “studios” to structures containing hundreds of rooms.
At the Chapin Mesa Museum, lifelike dioramas and various exhibits on basket weaving, pottery, masonry, and other skills trace the evolution of Puebloan culture from its beginnings in settlements along the Colorado River to its demise nearly eight centuries later.
Many have speculated about the reasons this ancient people abandoned their homes, but no one knows for sure. Some suggest the soil became exhausted from overfarming. Others claim a period of relentless cold drove them away. One of the more plausible explanations suggests that, beginning one summer in the 13th century, the rain stopped and did not return for more than 20 years. By then, the cliff dwellings had become ghostly ruins where nothing moved but the wind.
With no written language to tell their story, we can only guess at the fate of these people, but it is likely that they dispersed throughout the Southwest and that some of the Indians who now live in northern Arizona and New Mexico are among their descendants.
From Mesa Verde National Park, the drive continues east on Rte. 160 to a lush valley occupied by the ranching town of Mancos, which exudes Old West ambience. Nearby Mancos Lake State Park has a lovely campground in the midst of a ponderosa pine forest, and the lake itself is a paradise for boaters and anglers.
Heading east again, the road passes through ranchland and aromatic sagebrush flats to Cherry Creek, the locale where novelist Louis L’Amour penned the westerns that immortalized southwestern Colorado. The wide-open spaces continue all the way to Durango, the drive’s point of origin. Thrilled by the captivating views throughout the San Juan Mountains area, many a motorist has simply turned around and driven the entire route back in the opposite direction.
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