Exploring Colorado’s San Juan Skyway

Looking for an awesome road trip that is rich in history, surrounded by spectacular scenery, and offers exciting outdoor adventures? Then look no further than southwestern Colorado and the San Juan Skyway. This 236-mile adventure is a terrific way for travelers to sample the best of what Colorado has to offer. Travelers along the San Juan Skyway will pass through the historic, mining boomtowns of Ouray and Silverton, have a taste of the “old west” in Durango and Telluride, and then discover ancient Anasazi ruins at Mesa Verde near Cortez at the skyway’s south end. Taking a journey along the San Juan Skyway gives travelers the feeling that they, somehow, have taken a step back in time.

Travelers along the skyway have an open invitation to explore the five million acres of picturesque wilderness that comprises the San Juan, Gunnison, Grand Mesa, and Uncompahgre National Forests while in the shadows of several of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks. The San Juan Skyway offers travelers spectacular scenic examples of nature’s handiwork, from the towering sheer cliffs to the rugged rocky terrain found in Uncompahgre River Canyon. The San Juan Skyway can be driven in just over six hours but, with so much natural scenic beauty and geological marvels, it is best to just relax and take your time to explore the sights of the skyway.

In the springtime, while winter snow still blankets the towering peaks of the San Juan Mountains, the yearly snowmelt begins to feed the small creeks and streams sending water cascading down into the river canyons creating spectacular waterfalls. The springtime also brings massive thunderstorms that build up in the early afternoon and provide some very tense moments for those travelers caught unexpectedly outdoors. Summertime brings out the colorful wildflowers that blanket the alpine meadows and forests floors. When autumn arrives in the San Juans, travelers are greeted with an explosion of vivid colors; reds, ambers, oranges, yellows… colors of the yearly Aspen Gold Rush. The fall season brings the cooler temperatures and always a chance of unexpected snowstorms along the skyway so travelers are encouraged strongly to use the side of caution while traveling at this time of the year. Of course, wintertime brings with it hundreds of inches of Colorado’s “champagne powder snow” to the skyway area creating a winter wonderland for travelers.

Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

In Durango, visitors find an “Old West” town that was founded in 1880 and continues to retain some of its original Victorian charm. The Purgatory Ski Area, aka Durango Mountain Resort, receives more than three hundred inches of snow each year, attracting travelers from around the world during the winter season. The spring and summer months offer a wide variety of outdoor activities for visitors from golf and tennis, to horseback riding, hiking, river rafting, and jazz festivals. Travelers will also find the historic Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad that is a ride worth taking.

On the north end of the historic narrow gauge railroad is the town of Silverton. Skyway travelers will find this old west boomtown of the nineteenth century tucked away high up in the San Juan Mountains. In Silverton’s historic district are several well preserved structures dating from the 1870s, including the old train depot itself. Today, Silverton continues to be a living mining town with the One Hundred Gold Mine and keeps the “old west” history alive with daily shootout re-enactments courtesy of the Silverton Gunfighter’s Association, during the spring and summer on historic Main Street.

The stretch of the San Juan Skyway between Silverton and Ouray is often referred to as the “Million Dollar Highway.” Many local historians claim that the highway was given this nickname due to the huge amounts of gold and silver that the miners carted out of the mines during the boomtown era. Today this stretch of the skyway provides some of the most spectacular scenic views found in the San Juan Mountains. As travelers drive through the magnificent Uncompahgre Gorge and then up and over Red Mountain Pass, they should not pass up the chance to stop at the “Million Dollar Overlook” where they will find breathtaking views of the rugged mountains of the Uncomphgre National Forest. From this overlook travelers have unobstructed views of several thundering waterfalls, that produce multicolored rainbows within their own mist clouds.

In the town of Ouray, travelers are immersed in the town’s mining history at every turn. Situated on the valley floor, the town is enclosed by 2,200ft vertical slopes on three sides. It appears as though nature had squeezed the town between the rugged mountain walls. Ouray is another town, whose history is found in the Colorado Gold Rush of the nineteenth century. Today, travelers are encouraged to visit the Bachelor-Syracuse mine. The mine tour will take you down more than three thousand feet into Gold Hill where miners discovered the rich veins of gold that gave birth to Ouray as a boomtown.

Mianstreet in Ouray

Mianstreet in Ouray

Another natural attraction for travelers to visit is the Box Canon Falls Park ($3.00 adult entry fee), where Canyon Creek, a tributary from the Uncompahgre River, flows over the canyon wall to create a two hundred eighty foot waterfall. Ouray with its location and boasting spectacular scenery of jagged peaks and rugged mountains has been referred to as the “Switzerland” of America. Skyway travelers should make Ouray a definite pit stop along the drive in order to enjoy this historic boomtown.

For travelers looking for a back country experience check out the town of Telluride. Another descendant from the historic old west mining era, this town is full of Victorian buildings from the nineteenth century. It is due to these historic buildings that Telluride itself is listed as a National Historic Landmark. This old west mountain town is home to a world class ski resort, Colorado’s version of Bridal Veil Falls, and hosts an annual film and jazz festival that brings in celebrities from around the world. Telluride is also home to the San Miguel Valley Bank that was robbed by the famous Butch Cassidy in 1889. Skyway travelers looking for great outdoor adventures should drop in during the spring and summer to experience the excitement that is Telluride.

As skyway travelers head south they will drive over Lizard Head Pass, at 10,222 feet above sea level, this is a perfect spot for those “top of the world” photos to add to your scrapbook. Proceeding south travelers will come to the town of Dolores, where visitors should check out the Anasazi Heritage Museum. Then it’s onward to the town of Cortez, situated between the La Plata Mountains, the Sleeping Ute Mountains, and historic Mesa Verde. With Cortez being at the doorstep of the Mesa Verde visitors should definitely check out the UNESCO World Heritage site loaded with ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. This is definitely one place to visit during your lifetime!

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Colorado’s San Juan Skyway snakes through millions of acres of untouched, pristine forest land located in the rugged San Juan Mountains. As the skyway makes its way through this wilderness, travelers will be driving in the shadows of several of the areas 14,000 foot peaks with each one being a natural marvel. Each year thousands of travelers make this journey to take advantage of the many festivals, outdoor adventures, and natural beauty found along the skyway. For those of you who want to experience riveting history, breathtaking scenery, and fantastic outdoor adventures take the drive along the San Juan Skyway.

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