Driving Colorado’s San Juan Skyway and the “Million Dollar Highway” or Durango to Cortez the Long Way

Driving Colorado’s San Juan Skyway and the “Million Dollar Highway” or Durango to Cortez the Long Way

If you drive into Durango from the south, you’ll miss a good chuck of its awesomeness. We did just this in 2009, but we still fell in love with the city. This time, we went north along the San Juan Skyway and the “Million Dollar Highway” (US Route 550) to Silverton then onto Ouray before looping around in Ridgeway, visiting Telluride, and pushing to Cortez, CO. It’s a great drive. And Lisa took some great pictures — all the photos below are hers.

Durango to Silverton

The first leg takes you to Silverton and follows (loosely) the Durango & Silverton narrow gauge railroad. Silverton is a great little mountain town. Only the main street is paved — the rest of the streets are gravel. There are bars and restaurants and small, cute houses.

Silverton’s ski area is pretty intense — steep and deep. Maybe that’s why it has stayed so small and quaint. There are no in-town lifts, but there’s a shuttle to the mountain. There are also no bunny hills. And somebody died on the mountain this last winter. It’s a serious ski spot. I’d love to have a little cottage here and visit it via the railroad in the winter, but I don’t think I could handle the mountain without a lot of practice.

We had a great lunch at Handlebars — a mustache-themed place with a lot of taxidermy inside. I wanted to stay there until winter, but we had to press on.

Silverton to Ouray

Ouray, Colorado claims to be the “Switzerland of America.” It’s a quaint, little town with a lot of Victorian houses. One of their claims to fame are their local hot springs — there’s even a naturally-heated community pool located just north of the downtown.

Ouray is in a much steeper, sheer canyon than Silverton, so there’s no skiing here. There are a few trails and mountain dirt roads, but not as many as in Durango. It’s a cute place, but not my kind of mountain town. Better for soaking and rock climbing than for hiking, biking, and skiing.

Ouray to Ridgway

We stopped just north of Ridgway for the night at Ridgway State Park. It was a great spot to camp (yay, a shower!). We had views of the (artificial) lake and the nearby 13,000′ peaks. Yeah, the big mountains start just north of Durango. Some, like Mount Wilson, are 14,000′ tall. Huge. We didn’t realize that last time when we just skirted the bottom of the Durango area.

Somebody was taking a sunset sail while we were there on the Ridgway reservoir. Pretty pretty.

Near Ridgway, the valley opens up and there are farms and cattle ranches. There are views of the big mountains, but Ridgway isn’t in them.

Ridgway to Telluride

At Ridgway, we bent south and stopped in Telluride. Telluride is a rich-person’s town. We overheard a local saying, “Everybody is so spoiled here!” Yep. $2MM townhouses downtown. Insanity. It’s basically a more remote version of Vail or Aspen. Beautiful though — right in the notch of some huge mountains. And there are in-town ski lifts and a gondola. Seems like a good place to spend a week in the winter, but that’s probably it.

I was really hoping to love Telluride, but it didn’t do it for me. Too much polish and not enough grit. They like to say that Telluride is still a mining town (there is still an active mine here), but it’s a posh resort town. It’s spoiled. I could skip it in the future … unless you have a house there and want us to visit in the winter. We’ll bring some beer.

Telluride to Dolores

After all the compact towns, Dolores was a bit of a surprise. It was more spread out and didn’t have a cutesy downtown. We drove on through, but there are things to do there.

Mountains on the way from Telluride to Dolores.
Mountains on the way from Telluride to Dolores.

Dolores to Cortez

The mountains peter out after Telluride. By Cortez, you’re in the Montezuma Valley — and it’s a huge valley. Cortez feels like a New Mexico town, but it’s nicer than every New Mexico town. And it’s hot. Maybe 10 degrees hotter than Durango — it has Utah and New Mexico’s climate.

Cortez is right next to Mesa Verde National Park, and it hosts the 12 Hours of Mesa Verde bicycling race every year. I really want to do that race. Goddamn this area is cool.

Cortez to ???

After Cortez, you can head back to Durango to complete the circuit, or do like we did and plan to spend a few days in Mesa Verde before heading west in search of slot canyons, arches, and the occasional river.