Tag Archives: colorado byways

The San Juan Skyway: Worth the Million Bucks

If you only have one chance in your life to drive in Colorado, this is your byway. From mountain views reminiscent of Heidi to sacred Ancient Pueblan cities to a working 19th century coal-fired train, the San Juan Skyway is Colorado on steroids. The stretch between Ouray and Silverton alone, known as the Million Dollar Highway, will stun you into a kind of scenic ecstasy.


Yeah, it’s that good. So how do you drive this 233-mile loop?


Image: Byways.org

If you only have one day, a leather cap and driving goggles, go ahead and power through it. But when you check into your Budget Inn at 10 p.m., drenched in sweat and full of blurry memories, don’t say I didn’t warn you.


The best option is to give yourself three days to a week. Here’s my dream version of the San Juan Skyway:

Start in Durango. Hit up Seasons of Durango if you’re hungry. Fuel up with a Blonde or two at the Ska Brewing Company. Jump on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Train (advance tickets required) and disembark at one of the designated wilderness stops. Enjoy one of the pristine San Juan National Forest and Weminuche Wilderness backcountry hikes available to you. Once finished, flag down the train and ride back to your car in Durango. (Family options for this trip: Ride to Silverton and enjoy a day there. Or sign up for one of the organized wilderness adventures http://www.durangotrain.com/packages/adventure-packages.)

Drive to Silverton. After a breathtaking climb up Molas Pass and ridiculous views of the San Juans, dip into Silverton. This is the town where 19th-century miners, fatigued from hollowing out the stone bowels of the surrounding mountains, would loosen up with liquor, gunfights and ladies of the night. The grit of the era remains embedded in Silverton’s antique downtown, the painted facades of its restored saloons. Experience it with a funnel cake in one hand and a Montanya rum in the other.

Onwards to Ouray. After a gut-clenching series of swerves past city-sized mines and burnished cliffs, the “Switzerland of America” will beckon you in for a soak. Tucked into a steep-walled canyon, Ouray is known for its annual ice climbing festival and its hot springs. Set up camp at the forested, view-flanked Amphitheatre Campground and rumble down to the Ouray Hot Springs. These large, family-friendly soaking pools that will imbue you with a pleasant mineral buzz. Grab a meal at the Bon Ton Restaurant in the St. Elmo Hotel, dessert at Mouse’s chocolates, and bed down for the night.

Ridgway and Telluride. If you’re in slow mode, make Orvis Hot Springs of Ridgway your next stop. Hike around, soak for half a day, grab Costa Rican cuisine at Land & Ocean Restaurant and drive to Telluride.

Or just drive to Telluride. Time it right, and you’ll hit the Film Festival, the Mountainfilm Festival, the Bluegrass Festival or any one of the endless festivals in this cliff-hugged global village. Despite having hosting fifth homes for the likes of Tom Cruise and Oprah, Telluride has stayed true to its free-living roots, liberated, perhaps, by its remote location.

Telluride is where you chill out and savor, in case the hot springs weren’t enough. Mountain bike, listen to music, grap a cuppa at the Steaming Bean, wolf down some organic south Mexican cuisine at La Cocina de Luz, walk in the park, hike, live free. Note also that you may run into celebrities. Colin Firth made fun of my mountain biking outfit here one year.

Take off your jacket and put on some good music, because next up is the high desert. Swoop out of Telluride and greet the ridged faces of the San Juans as you climb to Lizard Head Pass, your final big mountain pass before you descend into farmland and, eventually, the high and ancient deserts of the Four Corners region. Roll through fertile valleys and small towns to land at the Anasazi Heritage Center, a deep dive into all things ancient Pueblan. To learn more about this hands-on museum, as well as how best to experience Mesa Verde and the rest of the Four Corners region, read my Trail of the Ancients post. (Note: Cortez, the Ute Mountain Ute reservation and Mesa Verde are both on the San Juan Skyway and Trail of the Ancients).

Once your finished with Mesa Verde, the route takes you back to Durango. If you feel like exiting via US 160 towards Monte Vista, note that there are some nice hot springs at Pagosa.

For in-depth coverage of the San Juan Skyway, including best places to stay, eat, drink and have fun, grab a copy of the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition.

Trail of the Ancients: A Living Mystery

Epic mysteries and lost civilizations. That’s what you’ll find in the southwestern corner of Colorado, on the Trail of the Ancients.


On December 18, 1888, two cowboys trotted up to a stone city built inside of a cliff. Labyrinthine and built with stunning attention to detail, the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde has fascinated and confounded visitors ever since.


It’s one of the key attractions on Colorado’s Trail of the Ancients, which takes you to the palaces, kivas and residences left by the Ancient Pueblans when they mysteriously abandoned their homes en masse in the late 1200s.

ToA Map

On the Trail of the Ancients, backstory is everything. Nobody to this day can figure out exactly why the ancestral Pueblans abandoned their homes. Maybe everyone ran out of food or water. Maybe there was a war. Some believe in a conspiracy. In any case, they disappeared within a generation or two. Moved onto better pastures.


An oral culture, these first Pueblans didn’t leave archives describing how they lived, either. Anthropologists have learned the most from the trash they threw away outside of their cliff dwellings.


We know that a group of hunters first settled in the area around 550 A.D. Dubbed the Basketmakers for their woven craft, these former nomads cultivated farms and found rich hunting grounds. Over hundreds of years and generations, their dwellings, farming methods and craftsmanship evolved. The roofed kiva, which stays 50 degrees year-round and only needs a fire to heat it in winter, is an example of their architectural ingenuity.

In the late 1200s, something happened, and it was time to go. Their legacy is in their architecture, which fuses beautifully with the surrounding desert. Dozens of books have been written about the ancients—how they lived, what they did, theories about their disappearance. But no written text can depict the majesty and visceral intrigue of visiting these places yourself.


For a mile-by-mile journey into the all that the Trail of the Ancients has to offer, including a little-known, but equally majestic, alternative to Mesa Verde, grab a copy of the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition.