San Juan Skyway

The San Juan Skyway is a 236-mile loop of State and Federal highways in southwestern Colorado. San Juan Skyway was designated a National Scenic Byway in 1996. The section of the byway from Cortez to Ridgway has been covered in detail in my photo-essay, Southwest Colorado Roadtrip Part 2. Most all the towns along the byway are also covered in individual photo-essays, and links are provided. The focus of this presentation will be on scenery and interesting places between the historic towns associated with the San Juan Skyway.

San Juan Skyway Map
San Juan Skyway Magazine Sumer/Fall 2022

U.S. Highway 160 - Durango to Cortez

It's 45 miles from Durango to Cortez on US-160. The road skirts the southern end of the La Plata Mountains and enters Montezuma County. Runs through the small ranching community of Mancos. If you are traveling early, the Absolute Cafe in Mancos is a good stop for breakfast. About three miles west of Mancos on the way to Cortez look for some LARGE arrows stuck in the ground on the north side of the highway. This is the Hogan Trading Post dealing in Native American Arts and Crafts, and is a must stop. I sort of lost track of it when I moved further north in Colorado. I know at one time it was up for sale, but I think it's still in operation, maybe under the name Mud Creek Hogan Trading Post. In any event, I'm sure the arrows are still stuck in the ground. Another 5 miles down the road is the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park. This is a great stop if you have one or more days to explore the park (can't be done in an hour or two). Continuing west US-160 passes the Montezuma County Fairgrounds and rolls into Cortez. Primarily a farming/ranching community, Cortez is also an excellent base for anyone interested in prehistoric and/or current native american culture. Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation, Mesa Verde, Canyons of the Ancients, Hovenweep, and Navajo Indian Reservation are all within easy driving distance.

DurangoMancosMesa Verde National Park Volume 1Cortez

La Plata Mountains

Absolute Bakery

Giant Arrows - Hogan Trading Post

Hogan Trading Post

Hogan Trading Post

Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center
Mesa Verde National Park

Cortez - view east along US-160

Mural on the side of the Cortez Cultural Center

Colorado State Highway 145 - Cortez to Placerville

The drive is 85 miles from Cortez to Placerville. Look for the prominent landmark of Sleeping Ute Mountain, which is visible throughout most of southwestern Colorado from Cortez to Dolores. A worthwhile stop is the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum (formerly the Anasazi Heritage Center) just south of Dolores. CO-145 passes through the towns of Dolores and Rico, climbing into the San Juans to the summit of 10,246 ft Lizard Head Pass. About 12 miles north of the pass a spur of CO-145 leads into Telluride. An interesting stop, time permitting, is the Ames Hydroelectric Plant, located about 10 miles south of Telluride. There is usually someone at the plant who will give a tour. From Telluride CO-145 passes through the small community of Sawpit on its way to Placerville. Dolores, Rico, Ames, Telluride, and Placerville can all be visited by clicking the Southwest Colorado Road Trip link.

Southwest Colorado Road Trip Part 2   Canyons of the Ancients National Monument   Rico   Telluride

Sleeping Ute Mountain

Anasazi Heritage Center
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument


CO Hwy 145 through Dolores

CO Hwy 145 through Rico

Atlantic Cable Mine

Rico Town Hall

Lizard Head Peak

Sheep Mountain - Lizard Head Pass

Ames Hydroelectric Plant


Telluride - View east along Colorado Avenue

CO Hwy 145 somewhere between Telluride and Placerville


Colorado State Highway 62 - Placerville to Ridgway

It's 23 miles from Placerville to Ridgway on C0-62. The byway crosses Dallas Divide (8970 ft) 12 miles southwest of Ridgway. There is a scenic turnout at the divide that provides a great view of the Sneffels Range. After the divide the road descends through picturesque ranch and farmland into Ridgway.


Sneffels Range - View from Dallas Divide

CO Hwy 62 through Ridgway

True Grit Cafe - Ridgway

U.S. Highway 550 - Ridgway to Ouray to Silverton to Durango

This is by far the most scenic portion of the San Juan Skyway. US Hwy 550 heads south from Ridgway, paralleling the Uncompahgre River and climbing the 11 miles to Ouray. Ouray is nestled in a valley surrounded on three sides by towering mountains and has been dubbed the "Switzerland of America". It's known for its hot springs and Box Canyon Falls. US-550 from Ouray to Durango is called the "Million Dollar Highway", and the scenery along the way is drop-dead gorgeous. US-550 travels high up along the east side of Uncompahgre Gorge on its way to Red Mountain Pass. Anyone who has not ridden on mountain hugging highways will find this part exciting, or possibly scary. The road drops down into Ironton Park before rising again to the summit of Red Mountain Pass (11,018 ft). This area is honeycombed with old silver mines. The Idorado Mine pullout is a must stop, providing information on Colorado's mining history and views of some of the more famous mines. After summiting Red Mountain Pass US-550 descends into Silverton. The town is the northern terminus of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and still retains the flavor of the old west. The distance from Silverton to Durango is 48 miles, and the highway crosses over two more mountain passes, Molas Pass (10,970 ft) and Coal Bank Pass (10,640 ft). Molas pass is very picturesque; Coal Bank Pass, not so much. Look for prominent Engineer Mountain to the west of Coal Bank Pass. Once over Coal Bank pass the drive to Durango is 34 miles. The highway snakes through Animas Canyon, paralleling the Animas River on its way to Durango. Make a quick stop at Pinkerton Hot Springs, located at roadside about 13.3 miles north of Durango. Be sure to check out the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad after arriving in Durango. This completes the San Juan Skyway loop.

RidgwayOuraySilvertonDurangoDurango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad


Beaumont Hotel Ouray

Ouray View from US-550

Scenic Ouray County

Mountains just north-northwest of Red Mountain Pass
Might be Telluride Peak center right

Idarado Mine Trestle

Yankee Girl Mine

Red Mountains #1, #2, and #3


Silverton - view from US-550

Scenery at Molas Pass - Molas Lake (left)

Little Molas Lake

Engineer Mountain

Pinkerton Hot Springs

Downtown Durango

General Palmer Hotel

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge RR

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