The 236-mile San Juan Skyway loop winds over stunning mountain passes and through some of Colorado’s most iconic mountain towns. Here you’ll explore ancient cliff dwellings, ride aboard a steam locomotive, and drive stunning byways. Plan your own route or book a package—either way, the Inns of the San Juan Skyway will provide creature comforts at historic inns and relaxing spas along the way.
This story was created in partnership with the Inns of the San Juan Skyway. Photos by Nick Cote or provided by Inns of the San Juan Skyway.
Day 1: A tour within a tour
Start out at Mesa Verde National Park, home to some of the most well-preserved cliff dwellings in the southwest, built by the Ancestral Puebloans over 1,000 years ago. A self-guided tour along the Mesa Top Loop Road leads to twelve archaeological sites to give you a taste of what the park has to offer. For a more immersive experience, book a tour into one of the cliff dwellings, such as the 150-room Cliff Palace (make your bookings well in advance).
At the end of the day, head to Durango. Check in at the Strater Hotel, a Durango landmark that’s been hosting weary travelers since 1887.
Day 2: Slow Down
Travel to Silverton the old-fashioned way: by steam-powered train on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Climb aboard an immaculately restored 1920s-era locomotive and enjoy sweeping views of the Animas River Gorge from the comfort of your train car. The 3½ hour trip (each way) includes a stopover in the rugged mining town of Silverton, and we recommend spending the night, too—look no further than the Grand Imperial Hotel, just two blocks from the train depot (and these combo packages can be arranged by the Inns of the San Juan Skyway).
Day 3: Get Wild
The mountains towering over Silverton are criss-crossed by old mining roads that climb over high mountain passes dotted with mining ruins. A high clearance 4×4 vehicle (and knowing how to use it) is essential if you want to do any backroads exploring, so if you’re not feeling up to the task leave the driving to a local guide, which the Inns of the San Juan Skyway can help facilitate.
Want to stick to pavement? Just head towards Ouray from Silverton over Red Mountain Pass, known as the Million Dollar Highway. This narrow, winding mountain road is chock full of stunning scenery and climbs to over 11,000 feet before descending into Ouray, known as the “Switzerland of America.” If you plan on staying in Ouray, you’ll find another meticulously-preserved 1880s-era hotel, the Beaumont Hotel & Spa.
If you want to continue a bit further along the San Juan Skyway, push on to Ridgway. Make sure you leave enough time to cast a fly for cutthroat trout on the Uncompahgre River at Ridgway State Park or an easy stroll through Dennis Weaver Memorial Park in town. When you’ve had enough, soak in the relaxing waters at Chipeta Solar Springs Resort while taking in views of the San Juans.
Day 4: Leaf peeping and movie scenes
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting in the fall, a foliage drive is a must-do. Near Ridgway, Owl Creek Pass winds 14 miles through old-growth forest to the 10,118 foot summit. Quaking aspen stands bursting with color are juxtaposed against jagged peaks and hoodoos, making this one of the most scenic drives in the state.
After reaching the summit, head back down and make your way towards Telluride, because there’s another foliage drive you shouldn’t skip. Turn off onto Last Dollar Road, where you’ll find wide-open views of ranchlands in the shadows of the San Juans. Pay homage to the cabin where John Wayne’s True Grit was filmed, then press on to Telluride. Both drives are on well-maintained gravel roads, but watch the weather – they can become impassable to 2WD vehicles in wet conditions.
If your visit happens to be during the spring or summer, take a detour to Black Canyon of The Gunnison National Park, where the Gunnison River has spent the past 2 million years cutting a 2,772 foot-deep and 48 mile-long ribbon through the rock. A strenuous, near-vertical hike will take you down to the river, however most will opt for a drive along the south rim, where there’s no shortage of vertigo-inducing views and easier hiking trails. For the last stop on the San Juan Skyway, treat yourself to Colorado’s largest spa at The Peaks Resort & Spa in Telluride.
Day 5: Gondola Views and More
Tucked into the end of a box canyon, the mercantiles and rowdy saloons of Telluride’s mining days have been overtaken by boutique shops and restaurants, but the historic character remains. Start off by driving to the edge of town to the bottom of Black Bear Road, the starting point for the hike to the 365 foot-tall Bridal Veil Falls, the tallest in Colorado.
Later, ditch your car at the hotel and explore Telluride on foot by taking the free gondola ride into town. Over your last dinner on the San Juan Skyway, don’t be surprised if the conversation turns towards planning your next trip to this corner of Colorado.