The combination of dramatic scenery, spine-tingling driving, historic towns and ancient settlements along the way makes the San Juan Skyway loop a must drive for fans of the American Road. It is an All-American Road and one trip along part or all of its compelling route will show you why. You could begin at any of the places we are highlighting here, or you could drive the other direction. We suggest a clockwise loop, staring at Durango, but if you want your drive on the Million Dollar Road to be a bit less thrilling, go counterclockwise.
Nestled in the San Juan Mountains in the Animas River Valley, Durango is the seat of La Plata County. The most popular attraction here is the Durango Silverton Narrow Gage Railroad, which takes you along a breathtaking journey. Ride in the glass top car for the best views. You may see some wildlife such as deer, hawks, prairie dogs, and mountain sheep. It is an all day trip with a lunch stop in Silverton. Pre-order lunch and eat at picnic tables there; or get to your restaurant fast, because the train leaves on time for the return trip. Hint: the train goes only half way to Silverton in winter months. Whether or not you ride the train, plan to stroll and enjoy historic downtown Durango.
Take highway 160 also known as the Navajo Trail, westward out of Durango heading toward Hesperus. The road offers beautiful views as you climb into the mountains. At Hesperus, a great place to eat is the Kennebec Café, a slice of high-altitude Tuscany – try their famous savory squash soup. Mancos is the gateway to Mesa Verde, just nine miles west of town. It also is home to several dining choices including Olio, where the combination of good food with good art is a delight. Save room for their chocolate silk or coconut crème pie. Millwood Junction Restaurant is also a popular lunch or dinner spot here. Mesa Verde National Park is a must see. The National Parks Service advises that you spend at least four hours at Mesa Verde. Two hours of this time will be spent driving in and out of the park. You will be awestruck by the 600 cliff dwellings and nearly 5,000 known archeological sites where the Ancestral Pueblo people made their home for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300.
The Colorado Welcome Center in Cortez is friendly and helpful; they probably will have some pointers for you as you continue your drive. In Cortez, dining options include La Casita de Cortez which gets constantly high marks. Take 145 north to Dolores to see the Anasazi Heritage Center and Museum’s highly respected orientation to the area. It serves as the visitor’s center for the Canyon of the Ancients, a collection of ancient dwellings amid one of the most serene and still wilderness places in the Four Corners Area. For dining in Dolores, try the Naked Moose. Then continue on through Stoner to Rico, a charming old mining town founded in 1879, with a classic Victorian courthouse and a picturesque collection of vintage commercial buildings. The Argentine Grille is a popular dining spot. Continue on to Lizard Head Pass at an elevation of 10,222 feet, and stop to enjoy the spectacular views that include the nearby peak that is said to resemble a lizard’s head. Savor the wonderful mountain scenery throughout this portion of your drive. Just for fun, stop and mail a post card at the cute little US Post Office at Ophir, it looks like grandma’s potting shed and is one of the smallest post offices in the USA. (Trivia fact: the very smallest is in Ochopee, Florida).
Telluride’s downtown has the magnificent combination of towering mountains and captivating old buildings. Explore the shops, galleries and restaurants of this former gold rush town that has become famous for its skiing and festivals. Take the 11-minute gondola ride to Mountain Village. Black Bear Pass road is famous, but be warned, it is only for the most daring and experienced drivers. Dining options are many; a few standouts are: Cosmopolitan Telluride, 221 South Oak, and Allred’s Restaurant. For pizza, it’s The Brown Dog. The Angler Inn Restaurant in nearby Placerville offers amazing burgers. From Placerville take 62 east to Dallas Divide with views of the San Juan Mountains. From here to Ridgway you have great views and a relatively smooth grade drive along 62 east.
At Ridgway, visit the Dennis Weaver Memorial Park north of town, a park with a larger than life eagle statue in a serene setting. Continue the Skyway loop to Ouray known as the “Switzerland of America,” where the town awaits exploration as does the Ouray Box Canyon Waterfall dramatically hidden in a canyon. There are two choices of paths to get there; pick the lower trail which is the easiest and takes you directly to the falls
The stretch of Hwy 550 between Ouray and Durango, is called the Million Dollar Highway, a fabled road that offers the most thrilling section of the San Juan skyway. The road has lots of twists and turns, no margin for error, and no guardrails. Driving in this clockwise direction, you are mainly on the outside edge of the drive. If you would prefer to hug the mountainside, and allow a bit of room between you and the valley so low, you might prefer driving the San Juan Skyway in a counter clockwise direction. You will drive through dramatic Red Mountain Pass, so named for the red-tinged peaks.
Once a mining town, Silverton is the county seat of San Juan County and like several other of the towns you visit on the Skyway, it is has great collection of Victorian buildings with the surrounding mountains as a backdrop. In addition to plenty of winter wonderland skiing, Silverton is home to the Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour. While in town, visit the San Juan County Historical Society. Experienced hikers will aim for the long trail to Island Lake. For Silverton dining, we suggest Mattie and Maud’s, The Pickle Barrel and Kendall Mountain Cafe. For a splurge, have a treat at Rocky Mountain Funnel Cakes. South of Silverton, Moias Pass is one of the highest mountain passes in the San Juan Mountains, at an elevation of 10,910 feet. Pause at the rest area to take in the views.
Purgatory is a popular ski area; the name is said to stem from the mining days when the potential minders were stuck here till they could afford the fifty cent toll to continue north to Silverton. You will continue on 550 until you make your descent into Durango, with this last lovely stretch of road reminding you of the glories of Driving the Nation.