The San Juan Mountains are some of the most beautiful in all of Colorado, and that is saying a lot for a state renowned for its mountain scenery. This range has more than 1,000 mountain peaks over 10,000 feet, and 100 of these are over 13,000 feet. The San Juan Skyway encircles and traverses the entire range, and in 1996 it was designated an All-American Road by the Department of Transportation, the highest possible distinction for a scenic byway. It passes through historic towns like Durango, Cortez, Silverton, and Ridgway, and it runs adjacent to four wilderness areas and over 5 million acres of national forest. The skyway and surrounding sights could be the focus of many weeks of adventures.
The portion of the skyway from Cortez, in the far southwestern corner of the state, up to Ridgeway, the northernmost reach of the route, is 108 miles long. Cortez is a hotbed of history, with Mesa Verde National Park, the new Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, the Anasazi Cultural Center, and the Crow Canyon Archealogical Center all nearby. North of Cortez, the skyway passes through the ranching and historic mining communities of Dolores, Rico, and Ophir. Just before Ophir the road crosses Lizard Head Pass at 10,222 feet, named for the nearby 13,113-foot spire. The pass is spectacularly scenic and worth a long stop to admire the meadows, wildflowers, and surrounding mountains.
The skyway passes near Telluride, the historic mining town now reborn as a ski area for the rich and famous that is definitely worth a visit for its scenery and ambiance. The skyway continues downhill to the town of Placerville and heads east on Highway 62 over the 8,983-foot Dallas Divide. Along this road there are spectacular views of the northern San Juans, featuring 14,157-foot Mount Sneffels and several 13,000-foot peaks. At the bottom of this grade, the skyway reaches Ridgway, which is a great home base for exploring the northern San Juans.
This segment of the San Juan Skyway is great for people pulling trailers who want to avoid the “Million Dollar Highway” route between Durango and Ridgway, but it is wonderful in its own right as a scenic introduction to the San Juan Range of Colorado.