Sightseeing Around the San Juan Skyway
Welcome to the San Juan Mountains, one of the great outdoor playgrounds in the Lower 48 or anywhere else on the planet. Encircled and traversed by the 235-mile-long San Juan Skyway are nearly 5 million acres of the San Juan National Forest, dozens of fourteeners, thirteeners and more than 1000 beautiful mountain peaks over 10,000 feet, great rivers like the Rio Grande, numerous sparkling lakes and tall waterfalls, and old frontier towns that are very different from one another and offer a rich legacy left behind from mining booms of the 19th century. Only 108 miles long from Cortez in the south to Ridgway in the north, this designated All-American Road and scenic byway passes through historic towns like Durango, Silverton, and Ridgway, and passes four wilderness areas that contain countless weeks of outdoor adventures. Any traveler can enter the San Juan Skyway at any point, circle the loop in any direction and have an adventure that blends scenic beauty, history and landscapes full of options for outdoor activities. The rich mining history of the San Juans has left a network of old roads that lead to scenic destinations and memorable experiences.
Full of Native American and other history, Mesa Verde National Park, the new Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, the Anasazi Cultural Center, and the Crow Canyon Archeological Center are all near the Skyway along with the historic and reborn mining communities of Dolores, Rico, Ophir and Telluride. Downhill from Telluride, the Skyway continues to Placerville and then heads east to Ridgway on Highway 62 over the 8,983-foot Dallas Divide, revealing spectacular views of 14,157-foot Mount Sneffels and several 13,000-foot peaks. Ridgway offers a great home base for exploring the northern San Juans.
Visitors who intend to strap on hiking boots to do their sightseeing have a vast number and variety of choices within short drives or even walks from towns along the Skyway. Not everyone wants to hike trails but simply want to enjoy the amazing scenery. Some trails in the San Juans offer the option of driving to a place near a trailhead just for the views. A good example is that Animas Overlook Trail, a half-hour drive from Durango to enjoy a scenic view of Animas Valley or picnic near the overlook/trailhead. Other trails, like the Junction Creek Trail, are near town yet provides an "out in the woods" feel and great viewpoints. Trails like the Junction Creek Trail are popular with bikers (including fat bikers in winter) as well as hikers at all skill and experience levels. This trail is the beginning (or end) of the 486-mile Colorado Trail which straddles the Rocky Mountains and runs from Durango to near Denver.
Some sightseeing in the San Juans calls for seasonal trips to experience the beauty of spring, summer and fall. Such is the Last Dollar Road between Ridgway and Telluride: a dirt road winding through a valley surrounded by jagged peaks, each bend revealing stunning scenery, vistas with pines and aspens, lush greenery, multi-colored foliage in the fall, and alpine wildflowers in the spring. 4-wheel drive is not required when dry, but the adventure requires an ATV or jeep after rains or when muddy.
Some visitors may remember and perhaps even recognize the ranch immortalized in the “True Grit” western starring John Wayne. (“True Grit” begins and ends at the family ranch of young Mattie Ross, filmed on Last Dollar Road near Ridgway). History says that the owner of the road that provided access to Telluride in the 1800s charged prospectors a dollar to use it. Prospectors seeking their fortunes saved what could be their last dollar in order to leave town if they didn’t succeed. For visitors, the history of the 20 unpaved miles of road and its famous movie will be much less important than the fantastic views of Wilson Peak (14,252 ft.), Lizard Head (13,114 ft.), and other peaks. (Visitors should be prepared to encounter sheep herds kept in ranches along the road.)
The Last Dollar Road provides only one of many trips back in time around the San Juan Skyway. Some of them are only for backpackers. Chicago Basin near Silverton is one of them. The 15-mile out and back trail for backpackers requires passage on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This trip back in time from Durango to the Needleton stop is about 2.5 hours (the train is not in a hurry). Needleton is 6.5 miles from the basin. Head for backcountry camps at the base of Mount Eolus, Sunlight Peak, and Windom Peak -- all fourteeners – and get ready for fantastic hikes and climbs in the area, including to Twin Lakes and Columbine Pass. Hikers in these areas are more likely to come across mountain goats than other hikers.
Anglers head for the many rivers, streams and lakes of the San Juans and along the way discover and enjoy scenery that non-anglers often miss. Clear Lake is a really good example of fishing combined with sightseeing. Trout fishing itself is worth the 9-mile round-trip hike to Clear Lake but, as so often is the case, people with a four-wheel drive and high clearance can drive as far as their vehicle will allow and hike from there. Either way, aspen groves are especially beautiful in late September to early October as well as the spruce and fir forests any time of year up to the tree line. Clear Creek forms a waterfall and then the basin opens up to reveal a beautifully green alpine lake.
All of this beauty leads to good trout fishing at the lake and also trails to access Island Lake, a hidden gem and one of several amazing bodies of glacial water, including Ice Lake, that anglers and hikers can find in the Upper Ice Lake Basin. Along the way to these lakes, besides marvelous alpine wildflowers surrounded by jagged 13ers, anglers/hikers pass legacies of mining fortune-seekers, abandoned mines and equipment. Miners may not have struck it rich but visiting sightseers have discovered real treasures in the Basin among its beautiful lakes. Other mountain lakes in the San Juans are much easier to access and comparably scenic. Haviland Lake, for example, at 8100 ft. north of Durango, is just a short way off highway 550, the "Million Dollar Highway." A fishing trail goes all around the lake that is about 1.5 miles long and .5 miles wide.
Thanks to prospectors striking gold in 1873, and the booms and busts of subsequent mining, instead of remaining a trackless wilderness the San Juan Mountains became a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Historic towns were erected along the 233-mile loop of the San Juan Skyway and mining remnants in the vicinity remained for visitors to explore. Just south of Ouray and off of Highway 550 is one such site, the town of Ironton. Founded in 1883, Ironton was both a transportation hub for mining activity between Ouray, Red Mountain Town, and Silverton and a hub for local mining activities. Today there are a few buildings standing and remnants of the Colorado Boy Mine.
The nearby Yankee Girl Mine, along the Million Dollar Highway, is another relic of the era when the Red Mountain mining district was booming, ranches sprung up to feed hungry miners, and railroads like the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad were built through rugged mountain passes to carry ore to be processed. Today the mine is easily reached over a 1-mile rough road. A very picturesque relic of Colorado's history, sightseers will find the mine only a few miles from Red Pass, the highest of the three passes on the Million Dollar Highway. Across the highway from the Yankee Girl is an overlook with many informative displays and great views of the San Juans.
Sightseeing in the San Juans has to include its alpine lakes in many different forms, including reservoirs. In addition to the scenic Ice Lakes, between Montrose and Telluride the Blue Lakes (Lower, Middle and Upper) in a glacial basin provide a gorgeous hiking destination in the Mount Sneffels Wilderness. The hike up to Ice Lake and Island Lake in the San Juans is moderately difficult and the waterfalls and views of the lakes are fantastic. The hike up to Ice Lake requires more effort but views of the deep blue lake make it worthwhile. Continuing to beautiful green Island Lake is well worth it. (Sightseers hiking either Ice Lake or Island Lake trails need to know that these trails are not well marked and a map or compass is needed to stay on track.)
Every one of the towns along the San Juan Skyway offers visitors opportunities to tour the towns and their environs on bicycles or mountain bikes. For example, out of: Durango on the Animus Mountain Trail; Dolores on the Boggy Draw Trail; Pagosa on the Turkey Springs Trail; Rico on the Calico Trail; and Ridgway on the Uncompahgre Bike and Hiking Path. Ridgway and other towns along the Skyway have easily accessible bike touring options for people at every skill level. The Ridgway Area Trails (RAT), a series of interconnected routes within the San Juan Mountains, include the Weaver Trail System and the Angel Ridge Trails, both of which are accessible from Ridgway’s Town Park.
With over 2000 miles of bike trails, Durango attracts visitors who simply want to sightsee via bikes or compete in annual races. Every year on Memorial Day weekend the Million Dollar Highway is closed from Purgatory to Silverton as thousands of bicyclers turn up in Durango for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, a 47-mile bicycle race with a, 5,550 feet climb. Likewise for visitors to Ridgway whose aim is to pedal competitively, the town offers its signature mountain biking Rat Race scheduled for early June.
Many of the best sightseeing attractions near towns in the Skyway start within walking distance of town centers. For example, the trail to Bear Creek Falls, a beautiful 80-foot cascade into the Uncompahgre River, is accessed from downtown Telluride. This 5-mile round-trip hike that nets 1,100 feet of elevation gain also can be reached from Mountain Village with a free gondola ride added to the journey. People hike, jog or mountain bike on the trail, across the San Miguel River and into the Bear Creek Preserve in Bear Creek Canyon. The gondola from Telluride to Mountain Village itself has become a sightseeing attraction, even though originally built to provide easy, free transportation from downtown up the mountain.
Another stellar example of an outdoor activity that has become a sightseeing attraction in the San Juans is the Ouray Ice Park. Every winter, when the San Juan Mountains drop below freezing and the snows begin to fall, a tiny slot canyon in the Uncompahgre Gorge becomes a playground for ice climbers and a must-see attraction for visitors to Ouray. The Ouray Ice Park, within walking distance of downtown Ouray, is one of the best places in the San Juans for visitors to see a spectacular natural gorge, learn or polish ice climbing skills and, in sum, experience the kind of creativity that permeates communities in the San Juans.