A Two-Day Tour of the San Juan Skyway

The San Juans are the largest and most rugged mountains in Colorado.

The San Juans are the largest and most rugged mountains in Colorado.

Story and photos by Tom Uhlenbrock

Tom is an award-winning travel writer and journalist based in St. Louis.

Soak in the hot springs, ride the narrow-gauge railroad or stay in a cozy lodge during this road trip.

The San Juan Skyway is a 236-mile looping route through the mountains of southwest Colorado. You could drive it in seven hours, but that would be a mistake.

We drove for two days in our rental car, spending nights in charming towns and taking a timeout at every scenic turnout along the way. The skyway is designated an All-American Road and has a reputation as one of the country’s most beautiful drives. No argument here.

The San Juans are the largest and most rugged mountains in Colorado, boasting 13 peaks above 14,000 feet. The Skyway climbs over four mountain passes, giving spectacular views of the range, and winds through two national forests.

The route includes the fabled “Million Dollar Highway” that has stretches where the two-lane road has a rock face on one side and air on the other without benefit of a guardrail. Welcome to the land of white-knuckle driving.

Telluride, Dolores and Cortez

We started in the north at Ridgway, where the Skyway heads west on state Highway 62 over the Dallas Divide with its backdrop of snow-capped mountains. An offshoot heads into the Victorian town of Telluride, a popular ski resort in winter and host of summer events that earn it the title of “Festival Capital of the Rockies.”

The Skyway continues south on state Highway 145 through Rico and then to Dolores, which has fishing and floating, into Cortez, on the southwest corner of the loop.

Cortez is known as the archeological center of the United States because of its location in the heart of the prehistoric Native American culture of the Southwest. Mesa Verde National Park and Canyon of the Ancients National Monument are nearby and offer a treasure trove of beautiful cliff dwellings.

Cortez also has several updated vintage motor courts, and we stayed at the Retro Inn, which is decorated in the style of the 1960s and ’70s. Our room was No. 1971 and had posters of TV shows from that year. It was, well, groovy.

That night we inspected the dinner choices on Main Street in Cortez and went with the Farm Bistro, which garnered high praise from our motel staff. The restaurant featured a farm-to-table menu and proved an excellent and healthy choice.

Durango, Silverton and Ouray

The next morning, we headed on U.S. Highway 550 through Durango, a busy metropolitan area where you can board the narrow-gauge railroad for a ride to the mining town of Silverton. The route follows the Animas River and takes 2 1/2 hours, one way. The cost is $95.23 for an adult and $58.85 for children. If you only go one way, you'll need to arrange your own ride back to Durango.

Continue driving north along the Million Dollar Highway, the 25-mile stretch from Silverton to Ouray. The name comes either from the cost of building the winding roadway or from the value of the ore-bearing fill used in the construction.

Our last night was in Ouray, a mining town with a mother lode of charming Victorian buildings. We splurged on steaks at The Outlaw restaurant, which has Western decor and a honky-tonk piano player. We didn't partake of the town's hot mineral springs but did stay at the Hot Springs Inn, where we left the door to the back deck open to hear the lullaby of the mountain stream rushing just below.


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