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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.

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

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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.

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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.