The San Juan Skyway is the ultimate road trip. Along its breathtaking 236-mile loop are vibrant alpine communities, historic landmarks, Mesa Verde National Park, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, wild rivers, pristine waterfalls and lakes, high-elevation passes and the gorgeous, jagged San Juan Mountain Range for which it is named.
Telluride Publishing is proud to produce the San Juan Skyway Visitor Guide each year. We showcase the people, places, and activities that make this corner of the world so special.
Here’s a look at the route:
U.S. Highway 160
Starting in Durango, Colorado, the largest city on San Juan Skyway, the byway follows U.S. Highway 160 (US 160) west through the town of Mancos to Cortez passing the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park.
State Highway 145
At Cortez, the byway turns north following State Highway 145 (SH 145) through the town of Dolores and follows the Dolores River into the San Juan National Forest. The byway passes through the small town of Rico, county seat of Dolores County prior to 1941; the old Courthouse still remains. From Rico, the byway crosses 10,222 ft (3116 m) Lizard Head Pass and enters the Uncompahgre National Forest. Lizard Head Pass provides views of the 14,159-foot (4,316 m) El Diente Peak, the 14,246-foot (4,342 m) Mount Wilson, the 14,017-foot (4,272 m) Wilson Peak and the pass’s namesake, the 13,113-foot (3,997 m) Lizard Head Peak. The byway descends near the little town of Ophir past the location of the famous Ophir Loop of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad. A spur road heads off to the old mining town turned ski resort of Telluride. The byway follows the San Miguel River down to the little town of Placerville.
State Highway 62
The byway turns east at Placerville onto SH 62 and follows it over Dallas Divide. There are many excellent views of the San Juan Mountains, especially of the mountains around the 14,150-foot (4,310 m) Mount Sneffels. From top of the divide the byway descends into the town of Ridgway. The entire route of the byway from Durango to Ridgway roughly follows the route of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad.
U.S. Highway 550
From Ridgway, the byway turns south onto US 550 following the Uncompahgre River into the Victorian mining town of Ouray. From Ouray south back to Durango, the highway is referred to as the Million Dollar Highway, not for its priceless beauty but for the extreme costs of its initial construction. The first 7.0 miles (11.3 km) south of Ouray, the byway follows through the Uncompahgre Gorge. Just past the only tunnel on the route, just south of Ouray, the road crosses over Bear Creek Falls on a bridge at the location of an impassable toll booth on the original road. The Alpine Loop National Back Country Byway, a four wheel drive jeep road takes off in the gorge south of Bear Creek Falls. Before leaving the gorge, the byway passes through a snow shed under the Riverside Slide avalanche zone. A monument stands near here honoring those who have lost their lives in the avalanche, including several snowplow operators. At this point the byway enters Ironton Park, a nice flat valley in contrast to the gorge. The road ascends several switchbacks, or S-curves, past the Idarado mining operation to the 11,018-foot (3,358 m) summit of Red Mountain Pass, providing views of Red Mountain (Colorado) and several ghost towns. Back into the San Juan National Forest, the highway descends through the Chattanooga Valley to Silverton.
From Silverton, the byway passes over the 10,910-foot (3,330 m) Molas Pass and the 10,640-foot (3,240 m) Coal Bank Pass descending past the ski resort of Durango Mountain. From Hermosa, the road parallels the Durango and Silverton narrow gauge railroad before returning to Durango.