Arguably one of the most scenic roads in the U.S., Colorado’s 235-mile San Juan Skyway showcases a diverse landscape featuring high mountains, striking rock formations, gorgeous alpine lakes, and meadows.
Surrounded by the 14,000-foot-high San Juan Mountains, the road takes travelers through popular resorts and historic mining towns, but also through some of the most spectacular and best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan ruins. Passing through the Uncompahgre Wilderness and the San Juan National Forest, the road navigates high mountain passes and aspen and evergreen forests, while showcasing some of the best alpine views.
You’ll find recreation opportunities along the route, from hiking and biking trails to hot springs and ski slopes, and even a narrow-gauge railroad. Here are 10 sites worth stopping for along this National Scenic Byway.
The largest town along the route, Durango, is the perfect place to start and end this trip. Explore the Historic Downtown, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and dominated by the landmark Strater Hotel built in the 1880s, and dine at the El Moro Tavern.
Stop at the Colorado Wildlife Museum to learn about the local animals, and walk or bike areas of the Animas River Trail, through family-friendly parks, nature trails, and city sidewalks, crossing several picturesque bridges. Before leaving town, stop at the historic train depot where the Durango-Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad starts. You can take it to Silverton for a day trip for a different perspective, before driving the same route on the road.
2. Andrews Lake and Molas Pass
As the road climbs above Durango through forested areas, you’ll have several opportunities to stop. If you find it open, stop at Honeyville, where you can watch local bees at work, and enjoy some mountain wildflower honey products.
For a short hike, stop at Andrews Lake for an opportunity to take a break, hike, or have a picnic in a gorgeous setting surrounded by mountains in all directions.
For its stunning views of Molas Lake and the surrounding mountains, you can’t miss a stop at the nearly 11,000-foot summit of Molas Pass. If you want to spend more time here, take a short hike on the trail starting at the viewpoint.
Secluded in a narrow valley surrounded by steep peaks, Silverton offers a perfect combination of stunning natural beauty and charm. Established as a mining settlement in the 1870s, the entire town is a National Historic Landmark, and one of the most intact historical sites in the U.S.
Step back in time in the Grand Imperial Hotel, built in 1883, where you can enjoy a unique dining experience or stay overnight. Stroll over to the historic train depot across the street, take a walk along the infamous Blair Street (the Red District of the original mining town), and visit the Mining Heritage Center at the San Juan County Historical Society located near the city hall.
4. The Million-Dollar Highway
The 25-mile stretch of the scenic San Juan Skyway between Silverton and Ouray, known as the Million Dollar Highway, ascends and descends three of the highest mountain passes in the U.S. Make a stop on top of Red Mountain Pass for stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the remains of the Red Mountain Mining District.
After a steep descent through the Uncompahgre River Gorge, break near the abandoned mining town of Ironton for a walk in a dense aspen forest. A few miles farther, a gorgeous lake with stunning views of Red Mountain offers access to more trails.
Don’t miss the overlook of Bear Creek Falls. And before you head into town, stop at the Ouray Overlook for a perfect view of the town below.
Nicknamed the “Switzerland of America,” Ouray is one of the most scenic mountain towns in Colorado, known for the Ouray Hot Springs Pool on Main Street and the Ouray Ice Park. Spend time in the center of town, lined with Victorian-era buildings, hotels, the county courthouse, and city hall, along with several private residences, in a National Historic District. To learn more about some of the history of the region, visit the Ouray County Museum and the unique pharmacy museum, the Ouray Alchemist. For a dining option, try the Brickhouse 737 or the Thai Chili Ouray.
For hiking options, try the short but steep trail up to the Lower Cascade Falls and a walk along the Uncompahgre River. For a longer hike, attempt the Ouray Perimeter Trail, which is accessible from different points in town.
Rich in history and heritage, Ridgway is another picturesque small town worth a stop, especially if you’re a fan of the film True Grit. Stop near the visitor center, visit the Ridgway Railroad Museum, and stroll through Hartwell Park. Then, walk back on Lena Street, where you’ll see the old courthouse facade and the saloon. Make sure to stop for a meal or coffee at the True Grit Cafe before you head on your way.
The most famous town along this road, home to one of the best-rated ski resorts in the U.S., Telluride, lies in a box canyon surrounded by stunning 14,000-foot peaks. As you enter the town, watch for the large herds of elk in the valley, especially in the summer. Once in town, visit the Telluride Historical Museum and stroll through the historic city center with its colorful buildings and European architecture. Enjoy the alpine surroundings, and if you have time, take the Mountain Village gondola to the top of the mountain.
8. Rico and the Dolores River Valley
From Telluride, the drive offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and hiking options near or above the timberline. When you reach the old mining town of Rico, stop at its Rico Historical Museum to learn about the area’s past. Past Rico, the road follows the scenic Dolores River Valley, with plenty of trailheads leading to dense forests and rushing mountain streams.
9. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
The small town of Dolores is a must-stop along this route, especially for a visit to the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum. This is an ideal place to learn about the Ancestral Puebloans and how to visit with respect. Indoors you’ll find museum exhibits and a replica of a Pueblo-style loom you can learn how to use.
Outside, a short but steep paved trail leads to the Escalante Pueblo, a small site dating from A.D. 1100, featuring several kivas and remains of ancient rooms. This site, along with thousands of others, is part of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. You can reach one of its largest ruins, Lowry Pueblo, by taking a short side trip from Dolores.
10. Mesa Verde National Park
The town of Cortez is best known as a gateway to Mesa Verde National Park, home of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the Four Corners region. The world-famous Cliff Palace is the largest one in North America. The first archaeological site designated as a national park, Mesa Verde is home to more than 4,000 sites built between the 6th and 12th centuries. A UNESCO Heritage Site, the park is a must-do for anyone driving this route.