The San Juan Skyway, home of the Million Dollar Highway, has been wowing visitors to this area for decades. Taking in some of the most spectactular mountain scenery in the world with a white-knuckle drive and interesting stops on the way, the SJS awaits you.
This blog will guide you along one of the most scenic highway trips in the world, the San Juan Skyway. Departing from Durango, we’ll follow HWY 550 north across Coal Bank and Molas passes to Silverton, then on to Ouray via white-knuckle Red Mountain Pass. From Ouray we’ll continue on to Ridgeway and turn south to cross the Dallas Divide, finally entering the box canyon that contains the town of Telluride. The road out of Telluride will cross one last pass, Lizard Head, and continue down the beautiful Dolores River Valley to the town of Mancos, entry-way to Mesa Verde National Park. After a visit to the park, we’ll find our way back to Durango.
Why not spend the night in Silverton and take a day to explore the beauties of the Alpine Loop. The 65-mile back country by-way will convince you that the Rocky Mountains earn their name. It will also convince you that the miners and settlers who first settled this region were a tough breed indeed.
You can rent a 4X4 vehicle or an ATV in Silverton and depart early for your adventure. Start by following the Animas River for a short drive until you reach Animas Forks, a mining ghost town. After exploring that area, you’ll head straight up via a series of switchbacks to the 12,600 foot (3800+ meters) Cinnamon Pass. No sooner will you reach the top when you’ll be invited to drop back down into the beautiful American Basin, trailhead for hikers up Handies Peak (14,048 ft, 4200+ meters). This is a beautiful spot for a picnic, especially in full summer when the wildflowers are in bloom.
After lunch, continue on to Lake City. Take a little time to explore this quaint mountain town before heading back onto the Loop and taking on Engineer Pass, another 12,000+ foot pass. Drop back down into the Animas watershed and complete your 65-mile adventure with a beer in Silverton’s brewpub. You’ve earned it!
Nowhere will you find a more authentic Western mining town than Silverton. With only 500+ year-round inhabitants, it has been described as “a gritty little mining town with Victorian pretensions.” Opened to mining in 1874 as a result of a treaty with the Utes, the mountains surrounding Silverton attracted fortune hunters from near and far. By 1876, the town had grown to over 500 determined and hardy residents servicing the miners. Today, it is best known as the destination of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway which floods the little town with tourists during the summer months. In the past, the D&SNG hauled in supplies for the miners and residents while returning to Durango with ore for Durango’s smelter. Silverton most recently gained fame as the home of the private training site used by snowboarder Shaun White prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics. If you’re into extreme skiing, this is where you want to be. If you’re into the Old West, this is where you want to be.
The D&S NG disgorges passengers at Silverton for lunch each day in the summertime, but if you want to experience the “real” Silverton, hang about and spend the night. Take a short trip up into the mountains to experience the Old One Hundred gold mine tour. Walk around an “authentic” mining town. Enjoy the night skies as nature made them and the peace of nature absent the sound of automobiles. Just enjoy the magic of the mountains.
The drive from Durango Mountain Resort to Silverton is beautiful and it would be a shame not to stop along the way to visit the mountains, up-close and personal. There are several good hikes along the way which would appeal to travellers of any ability and/or agility.
The summit of Coal Bank Pass (el. 10,640 ft. /3243 m.) offers two different trails. At the summit itself, beyond the road and the comfort station, there is an accessible, paved, short loop, offering handicapped visitors the opportunity to experience the peace and views of the mountaintops while escaping from the highway.
A short ways past the Pass Summit parking lot, there is a turn-off to a parking area for Engineer Mountain Trail. This trail, one of the prettiest in Colorado, winds around the hillside forest until breaking out onto a mountain prairie with an excellent view of Engineer Peak and the surrounding valleys. It’s a fairly short, moderate, 6-mile round trip scramble that offers magnificent wildflowers in the summer and suburb fall color in the fall. The hardiest can attempt to scale Engineer Peak. Don’t forget, however, that it is a mountain hike and the weather can be unpredictable. Be prepared… take plenty of water, layer your clothes for warmth and include some protein bars or trail mix, and a rain jacket. I once got caught on this trail without a rain jacket in a hail storm. I was feeling bad until two girls came running by in flipflops and tank tops. Be prepared.
If Engineer Mountain sounds too challenging, continue down 550 to the bottom of Coal Bank Pass. After passing Cascade Creek, look for a sign to Old Lime Creek Road. A short 3 ½ mile drive will bring you to the Spud Lake trailhead from which you can make the easy 2-mile round-trip trek to Spud Lake. If you miss all of these hikes, you’ll still have the opportunity to picnic at Andrews Lake or Molas Lake before beginning your descent into Silverton. Whatever you choose, don’t let the opportunity to commune with the mountains pass you by.
Mountain Bike Overlook at DMR
The drive up the Animas River Valley is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Red cliffs rise on either side of the road while the river meanders its way between them. During fall, golden aspen line the route. Just 27 miles north of Durango on HWY 550 we find Durango Mountain Resort (DMR) which sits at the foot of Purgatory Mountain.
DMR first opened as a ski resort in 1965. Since that time, it has built world-class ski facilities and added summer activities to become a popular year-round resort. This should be a must-see stop on the San Juan Skyway. Summer activities include the Purg Plunge Zipline, an Alpine Slide, climbing wall, min golf. Mountain biking is another great option; take your bike to the top on the ski lift and ride down. In the winter…well, is there anything better than flying down the mountain on a bed of soft snow? DMR has something for the whole family.
Animas River Valley
We’ve dragged our feet long enough. It’s time to leave Durango behind and start on our Skyway journey. We’ve managed to delay our departure in order to experience the Iron Horse Classic, enjoy the river at its peak during Animas River Days, and attend a couple of downtown Durango festivals, but we want to arrive in Silverton in time for its award-winning Fourth of July celebration so we’d best hit the road.
The Animas River often runs high and late in the spring as heavy, mountain snows feed into it; the tumbling whitecaps offer river rats excellent water for rafting, kayaking and racing. But now it’s time to gas up the car and follow the river north. The Animas Valley is a special place, with moraines and the Animas River tracing the route left behind by ancient glaciers. I’ve made this drive hundreds of times and never tire of it.
Magnificent red cliffs line the fertile river valley and both are framed by the snow-capped peaks of the San Juans. Before we get too far out of town, we can note Trimble Hot Springs on our left. One of the joys of the high mountains are the hot mineral springs which bubble through the rocks and offer travelers respite for weary bones. Trimble isn’t necessarily the best hot springs we’ll pass on our trip over the Skyway, but it is the first. A little further down the road is the Dalton Ranch Golf Club, a beautiful course that challenges even the best players.
If golf is not your game, you’ll find on the west side of the road the ending to one of the most challenging mountain bike trails in the world—the 21-mile long Hermosa Creek Trail. Hermosa Creek Trail begins in a meadow behind Durango Mountain Resort and continues in a straight shot of single track following the track of Hermosa Creek as it wends its way to the Animas River; however, the entire trail is not downhill. Hard core locals are known to take the trail as a grueling 50-mile loop out of Durango…to each his own.
Hermosa Creek Mountain Bike Trail
There at least one other site to attract us as we continue up HWY 550. We must stop and partake of a picnic at Lake Haviland. You’ll have to pay a $5 fee for the privilege of spreading out your picnic on one of the tables supplied by the State Park Service Campground, but it’ll be well worth it. You might even cast a lure into the still waters of the lake and see what you can pull out. But we mustn’t linger too long; we need to carry on to our first stop: Durango Mountain Resort. We’d like to pull into DMR in time to enjoy some of the summer activities DMR has added to make it a year-round experience. We’ll start with those activities on our next post.
Memorial Day brings with it the excitement of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. In 2011, the 40th annual Memorial weekend running of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic pitted about 2500 bicycle riders against the Durango/Silverton Narrow Gauge Train in a race to Silverton. You can see highlights of the 2011 race here: 2011 Iron Horse Classic.
The idea is to see if the bicyclers can negotiate the 48 miles and almost 1000 meters of elevation gain (1988 m. in Durango to 2836 m. in Silverton) and can beat the train to Silverton. The riders must deal with the constant gain in elevation to Purgatory Mountain before attacking the steep slopes of Coal Bank Pass. Once they reach the top of Coal Bank at 3242 m. they get a bit of a breather, descending at breathtaking speeds on the 6.5% grade of the descent. The final test involves another climb to the top of Molas Pass. At 3325 m., Molas is the peak elevation of the competition. The racers must then manage the switchbacks, unprotected by guard rails, of the descent into Silverton.
Highway 550 is closed to vehicular traffic during the race, one of the few races in the United States to close a major highway for a bicycle road race. If the racers haven’t topped Molas Pass by 12:30 p.m. (they leave Durango at 9:00 a.m.), they must accept a ride into Silverton. Some riders beat the train every year, although this year there were rumors that the D&NG would add an extra engine in order to try to even the playing field.
If you can’t get here for the race, you can still make this ride from May through October. In fact, fall probably presents the best opportunity to enjoy the beautiful fall colors and mild temperatures on the road from Durango to Silverton. Any time of year, this ride is on every bikers bucket list!