Cruising the San Juan Skyway

By Julie Bielenberg

EXPERIENCE A SUMMER PARADISE along this Western Colorado loop

Photo: By Nick Kogos

THE SAN JUAN SKYWAY is a seven-hour scenic loop through southwestern Colorado’s rugged country with charming Victorian mountain hamlets, remote rivers and valleys, a national park, and two national monuments, not to mention legendary ski towns turned summer paradise. 

Start in Ouray for a clockwise loop. Plan an overnight at Box Canyon Hot Springs for access to their private pools or visit Ouray Hot Springs pool in town for a soak. Don’t miss Khristopher’s Culinare on Main Street, a nearly two-decades-old independent kitchen store with aisles packed with goodies. Ouray is also the beginning point for the Million Dollar Highway, aptly named for the one million dollars it took per mile to build the road in the 1880s in addition to the million-dollar vistas. This 25-mile southern stretch between Ouray and Silverton is revered as one of the most scenic drives in America. 

Photo: Courtesy of Visit Ouray

Upon arrival in Silverton, about 45 minutes from Ouray, road-trippers will be immediately entranced by the high-altitude mining town turned base camp of outdoor adventure. The National Historic Landmark District has views of numerous 14ers located within just a few miles of the town. 

Next, travel south on Highway 550, following the Animas River until you arrive in Durango, one of the largest towns on the Western Slope and home to Fort Lewis College. There’s the historic downtown and train depot for the infamous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Numerous breweries, farm-to-fork eateries, and an easily navigable bike trail are all located in the heart of this quaint town.

If you’re looking for an overnight, head west on Highway 160—the next leg of the route—a few miles and bed down at Blue Lake Ranch in Hesperus. This long-established boutique hotel and private ranch is vivacious in summer with wildflowers. Each morning’s southwestern breakfast, made-to-order, is included in the price. 

A half-hour more on the San Juan Skyway will put travelers in Mancos, an artist and ancient community. There’s Mancos State Park, fishing and rafting in the Mancos River, and easy access to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument along with its visitor center and impressive museum. Along this section of the Skyway is where you can also access Mesa Verde National Park with a fabulous visitor center, mild to challenging hikes and the famed cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloan people. Mesa Verde is the only National Park dedicated solely to ancient human communities. 

Photo: By Adobe Stock/CBDusty

Heading northwest, you will cruise by thousands of acres of the San Juan National Forest, take in views of McPhee Reservoir, which has access to paddleboarding and fishing, before you drive through Dolores, an agricultural hub. Stop at Dolores Brewery, open Tuesday through Sunday, for craft beer, pizza, salads and more. 

Left Photo: By Trav Perk Photo | Center Photo: Courtesy of Mancos State Park | Right Photo: By @John Fitzpatrick_Grumpyhighlander

Follow the Dolores River northeast, driving through the towns of Stoner and then Rico. Open mid-May through fall, the Fireweed Cafe and Mercantile in Rico has hot and cold beverages, a seasonal menu and plenty to choose from for a picnic along the next leg of your trip. Telluride is your next destination—an iconic ski town, mountain festival mecca and one of the most picturesque summer towns in America. Known for the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Telluride Food and Wine Festival, and a stunning 4th of July display, this is one town to plan and book ahead if you want access to festivals or specific lodging. 

Leaving Telluride, you will head west and then northeast, passing through Ridgway, another historic mining town. Then, you will enter the heart of the Uncompahgre Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains, which has dozens of hot springs scattered about. Stop and soak before you finish the loop back to Ouray. 

Photo: By Adobe Stock/Danica Chang