As the snow begins to melt (aside from the occasional and not-uncommon spring storm in Colorado), flower buds slowly begin to emerge, green leaves sprout and warm breezes flow through the Rocky Mountain air. Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs each offer plenty of warm-weather glory, but for those yearning for a road trip adventure, the 230-mile San Juan Skyway loop takes its visitors though some of the state’s most beautiful landscapes.
Stops along the sometimes-curvy and always-stunning route include Ouray, Silverton, Durango, Telluride and Mesa Verde National Park. Among the thousands of mountainous peaks and dozens of clear blue lakes along the way, 14 of Colorado’s 53 “fourteeners”—mountains rising above 14,000 feet—lie within the San Juan Mountains, many of which can be seen from the Skyway.
When to Go
The ideal months to make the drive along San Juan Skyway are May, June and September, in order to avoid the snowy conditions and to witness spring flowers in bloom, enjoy a warm breeze and experience the magnificent colors of fall’s leaves.
Where to Start
From Denver and Colorado Springs, the closest starting point is about a five-hour drive to Ridgeway, where US Highway 550 meets State Highway 62. Though the full Skyway loop can be driven in about five hours, take your time, enjoy the landscapes and spend a couple days in towns along the route.
Highlights of What You Will See
In an area referred to as the “Switzerland of America,” just 10 miles south of your starting point, sits a town called Ouray. Ouray has been attracting visitors since 1927 to its million-gallon mineral hot springs, open daily from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. While in town, visit the 285-foot waterfall called Box Canyon, which is easily viewed from a walking bridge located off of County Road 361 from US 550.
Continue south on US 550 on a stretch called the “Million Dollar Highway.” Alongside the ascending switchback road are waterfalls, gorges and mountain peaks, as well as a few abandoned mines. Here you leave the Uncompahgre National Forest and descend into the San Juan National Forest, passing through the town of Silverton. South of Silverton, stop and admire mountain-framed Molas Lake.
Your next town is Durango, home to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (and museum). The train’s route from Durango to Silverton was completed in 1882 and takes riders through the Cascade Canyon, San Juan Mountains and Mesa Verde National Park.
Durango is the perfect spot for a longer stay-over. Time it right and stay in town for Animas River Days (May 28-31), a town celebration with downhill river racing, kayak “rodeos,” stand-up paddleboarding and other water activities.
While in town, consider a stop into newly opened Animus Brewing Company, Durango’s oldest brewery Durango Brewing Company, or regionally recognized Ska. Four Leaves Winery and Durango Craft Spirits Distillery & Tasting Room offer more liquid temptations for the 21-and-older crowd.
After the extended break, head west on US Highway 160 for about 35 miles to Mesa Verde National Park, a World Heritage Site of hundreds of well-kept cliff dwellings. Guided and self-guided tours are available here, as well as nearby hiking trails, shopping, dining and lodging.
Get back on US 160 to State Highway 145; you will pass through the town of Cortez, and then Delores. From here, the Skyway runs next to the Delores River while climbing back into the San Juan Mountains. Keep an eye out for Lizard Head Peak Vista, an iconic, spire-like mountain summit.
Enjoy the mountain and valley views along this part of the drive and, if time allows, take a detour into Telluride. A popular destination during ski season, this picturesque town is just as stunning during warmer months. Ditch the car and take a much more fun and eco-friendly form of transportation around town—a gondola!
C0-145 meets with C0-62 just past Placerville. The last stretch of the drive climbs up over Dallas Divide Mountain, exposing breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks (a must-see for fall colors!) before descending back to your starting point of Ridgeway.