Drive the San Juan Scenic Skyway in Colorado
It’s no wonder this southwest-Colorado route was one of the National Forest Service’s first Scenic Byways.
To call the San Juan Skyway one of America’s most scenic drives may be an understatement.
This 232-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains passes through a majestic landscape of alpine forests, lush ranch lands, quaint Old West towns and ancient Indian ruins.
The scenery is as beautiful as any in the Rockies, but since this area is more confined, it’s easier to explore. And while the views are rugged, the Skyway itself follows paved federal and state highways, so you don’t need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to enjoy it.
Best of all, since the Skyway is far from metropolitan areas, it’s never crowded. The closest big city is Denver, 6 hours to the northeast, and the largest town on the route has a population of just under 15,000.
We like to start our trek near the loop’s northernmost point, in the tiny railroad town of Ridgway. Scenes from several Westerns, including How the West Was Won and True Grit, were filmed in this historic area. Our family always enjoys searching for these movie locations.
From Ridgway, U.S. Highway 550 goes south through the friendly little town of Ouray. This beautiful gold- and silver-mining community was built in the late 1800s and is surrounded by mountains. The entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Districts!
One of the most beautiful sections of the Skyway is just south of Ouray along Highway 550–but it’s one of the scar-iest, too. It’s known as the “Million Dollar Highway” and clings to a ledge overlooking the Uncompahgre Gorge.
This twisting stretch is the highest along the Skyway–the elevation at Red Mountain Pass tops 11,000 feet. I’ll never forget how tense I was on my first trip down this road. Just inches from the pavement, sheer cliffs drop thousands of feet–and there are hardly any guardrails! But the scenery is amazing.
Farther south on Highway 550, you’ll pass Silverton, another laid-back mining town, en route to Durango. This Old West community is the largest town on the route and is home to the popular Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad.
While you’re in Durango, don’t miss the superb meals offered at Bar D Chuckwagon Suppers (open only in summer; $15 for adults and $7 for children age 8 and younger). We thoroughly enjoy the Bar D’s ranch-hand meals and the stage show, which features lots of singing and humorous cowboy stories.
And we highly recommend the accommodations at the historic Strater Hotel. (Room rates vary by season; call 1-800-247-4431 or visit www.strater.com for details.) Built in 1887, it’s lavishly decked out with lots of Victorian-era decorations and antiques.
From Durango, U.S. Highway 160 runs west toward Cortez, past Mesa Verde National Park, home of the largest cliff-dwelling ruins in the world. The Anasazi Indians lived here centuries ago. It’s fascinating to scale the ladders and climb through the small openings of their ancient homes.
More spectacular scenery awaits as you drive north on State Highway 145 to Telluride. Known today as a ski resort, Telluride once was a thriving mining community. Outlaw Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank here way back in 1889. Mountains surround Telluride, so it’s easy to find lots of hiking trails–some even start right in town.
To complete the route, stay on Highway 145 northwest out of Telluride. When you reach Placerville, take State Highway 62 northeast back to Ridgway. Along the way, you’ll see lush ranch lands surrounded by the Sneffels Wilderness. No matter how many times we drive this route, we still stop at the scenic overlooks.
You can drive the entire Skyway in a day, but to fully appreciate it, plan on taking about 3 days. This is one area you won’t want to rush through!
Before You Visit
The San Juan Skyway is open year-round but may be snow-covered in winter. Check driving conditions with the Colorado Highway Patrol. For more information about the Skyway, call 1-800-933-4340.
For more information about communities along the route, consult these sources:
To learn more about Mesa Verde National Park, contact 1-970-529-4465 or visit
More to See
Four Corners National Monument, the only place in the United States where four states meet, is about 43 miles southwest of Cortez. The park is on U.S. Highway 160, at the borders of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Located on Navajo Nation land, it’s open year-round. To find out more, call the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department at 1-520-871-6647 or log on to navajonationparks.org/.