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The San Juan Mountains Colorado--Traveling the San Juan Skyway

Updated September 25, 2017.

Journey with us through majesty, the San Juan Mountains Colorado . . . the most resplendent range in the Rockies!

Our point of origin for this leg of our road trip began at the southwestern tip of the San Juan Skyway National Scenic Byway in Cortez, Colorado where we stayed for a few nights while touring local sights, including visiting the stunning Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

With so much to see, a week spent on byway in the San Juan Mountains Colorado was just not enough!

Already, we are planning another visit here to experience everything we missed on this trip.

History of the San Juan Skyway

About National Scenic Byways

As part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, the National Scenic Byways program was established in 1992 to preserve special roadways with historical, scenic, archeological, natural, cultural and recreational significance.  These roadways are national treasures and have great stories reflecting the heart and spirit of America.

The San Juan Skyway National Scenic Byway

In the late 20th century, a spotlight highlighted this Colorado gem and never dimmed.

It began in September 1988 when the mountainous route over the Continental Divide received its first recognition and was designated a National Forest Service Scenic Byway.  The next year, 1989, the route was selected as a Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway.

In 1996, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation awarded the San Juan Skyway with the highest distinction, making it the premier American Byway in Colorado.

The San Juan Skyway Series

The byway’s popularity escalated when Travel+Leisure published its 2012 recommendations and considered the San Juan Skyway as one of “America’s Best Spring Drives”.  

Sunset Magazine illustrates the stately scenic drive, “The San Juan Skyway . . . possibly America’s greatest fall-color drive . . . its aspen views are alternately breathtaking and intimate.”

I have to agree . . . traveling the byway through the San Juan Mountains Colorado is more than just an entertaining jaunt through a gorgeous wilderness, it’s a memorable experience, especially for mountain lovers!

The San Juan Skyway is a 236 mile loop soaring to the top of the world with elevations well over 10,000 feet through its highest passes.  

Driving the Skyway is a 7 hour, non-stop, round trip tour, but for those who wish to really experience the San Juan Mountains Colorado, plan at least 2 days here . . . more if you wish to soak up the historical vibe of the region.

Traveling through the Uncompahgre and San Juan National Forests, through four mountain passes, myriads of climates and elevations, not to mention the amazing flora and fauna, and the alpine lakes, pristine air . . .  

. . . it’s no wonder the San Juan Skyway is considered America’s most beautiful drive!

You can learn more about our San Juan Mountains Colorado road trip in part 2 of the San Juan Skyway series.

Explore the San Juan Mountains Colorado

Click on the links below to find fantastic places to see and thrilling things to do.

the journey begins here . . . live the adventure!

Map Your Road Trip to the San Juan Mountains Colorado

Use the map below to locate the destination of your choice.  Click on the red pins to get more information.

How to Get To the San Juan Mountains Colorado

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, we started this leg of our journey to the Great Southwest at Cortez, Colorado.  

Then, we headed east on the Navajo Trail/US Route 160 toward Durango.  

In Durango, we turned north on US Route 550 and immediately ascended into the heavenly heights of the San Juan Mountains Colorado.

Cortez, Colorado

Smack dab in the middle of the Colorado Plateau littered with archaeological sites of ancient ruins, Cortez is a hard-working town.

Did You Know?

U.S. Route 160 is famous!  Country Music singer, C. W. McCall’s song, "Wolf Creek Pass", highlights the Navajo Trail.  

Originally built to house workmen hired by the Montezuma Valley Water Supply Company to dig canals and ditches from the Dolores River to water the Montezuma Valley, today, the town houses the thousands of tourists who flock here year around to explore the region as well as housing residents in quite pleasant neighborhoods.

Because of its close proximity to Durango, Cortez shares the same attractions and recreation opportunities . . . with a Native American spin.

We greatly enjoyed the hospitality of this friendly town and look forward to staying there again in the future.

Durango, Colorado

When you think of the “wild west”, that’s Durango!

This frontier town was established in 1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to serve area mining interests.  Situated on the cusp of the treacherous San Juan Mountains Colorado and an arid high desert mesa, Durango is an ideal location for outdoor sports enthusiasts.  

Immerse yourself in the old west . . . rodeos, chuck wagon dinners, theater, events and festivals . . . historic old town, museums and . . . “all aboard!” the Durango & Silverton Railroad.

Remember the rollicking tale told of outlaws and gunmen in the movie, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid?  Scenes for that production were filmed here!  So were scenes for City Slickers and The Durango Kid.

There’s no doubt, Durango delivers everything visitors need to create a remarkable road trip to the San Juan Mountains Colorado.

The San Juan Mountains Colorado

I can’t begin to describe my exhilaration when sighting wildlife.  For me, it’s one of those must-sees that make or break a road trip.  You can imagine my delight when we rounded a bend going up into the San Juan Mountains Colorado about 20 minutes outside of Durango and saw these bighorn sheep using the byway as a salt lick.

It was early morning and the forest was still wiping the sleep from its eyes.  So, were we . . . my camera wasn’t ready.

Fortunately, these bighorn sheep weren't daunted by our presence.  

As we crept slowly to a stop and shut off the engine, we readied our cameras.  Unruffled, the bighorn sheep licked on.

Shooting photos of these amazing animals was difficult in the shadowed lighting and from our position in our rig.

I don’t know about Colorado, but where we live in the Pacific Northwest, sightings of bighorn sheep are rare.

So, I felt very blessed to capture these sheep on film at all, despite the quality issues.

Other wildlife spotted in the San Juan Mountains Colorado include, mule deer, mountain goats, elk and black bears.

As we ascended into avalanche zones, we couldn’t stop to take more photos of the splendor laid out before us, but this photo near Coal Bank Pass gives you some idea of the awesomeness enveloping us.

When we rounded another bend, the vista opened and the sheer pinnacles of Twilight Peak, a rugged, unforgiving massif, rose from the forest like a Phoenix from ashes.  Overwhelmed by the grandeur, I could barely breathe.

We’re traveling to top of the world!  

The road is narrow, steep and winding, lots of sharp curves . . . a knee-knocking experience for me, a white-knuckle, pry-your-fingers-off-the-dashboard experience for my husband.

Rock slides are common and we dodged more than one rambling rock and rolling boulder while en-route.

We marveled . . . larger than life mountains were everywhere!  

Just when we think we’ve seen them all, we round another corner in the road and . . . it’s nothing like we’ve ever seen before.

The byway rises, reaching for the sky.

Have you ever been on a roller coaster ride with a view like this?  There's nothing else like it in the world!

San Juan Mountains Colorado--Mystical MountainsMystical Mountains

The mountains work their magic.  We’re enchanted; must be the thin air and shimmering skylines.

Molas Pass, Elevation 10,899 Feet

Moved deeply by the astounding scenery I gazed upon from the viewpoint at Molas Overlook, a realization took hold.  It was as if I’d finely come “home” . . . 

. . . I didn’t want to leave, knowing I might never come here again.  I left a piece of my heart there, entombed in the snow.  The memory of this place and what it did to me is forever etched upon my soul.

“If you should, in your imagination, put together in one small group, perhaps 12 miles square, all the heights and depths, the rugged precipices and polished faces of rock, and all the sharp pinnacles and deeply-indented crests, and twenty times the inaccessible summits that both of us have ever seen, you would not have a picture equal to this . . .” W.H. Holmes, US Geological and Geographical Survey, describing the San Juan Mountains, September 7, 1876.  (from onsite signage)

Turk’s Head at elevation 12,734 feet dominates the center of this photo.  Grand Turk elevation 13,148 feet is to the right.

The temperature was hovering around the freezing mark, a huge change from the hot, dry 85 degrees we left behind in Durango earlier that morning.  

Taking photos was difficult because I was shivering so hard.  It was bone chilling cold!  I had packed for the heat of the desert, not for the wintery conditions we discovered in the San Juan Mountains Colorado.


“In 1975, with additions in 1993, Congress established the 488,700-acre Weminuche Wilderness, the largest wilderness in Colorado . . . to forever preserve and protect this vast tract of land for generations to come. “An area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” “Wilderness Act, September 3, 1964”  (from signage)

The Colorado Trail

Much like the Pacific Crest Trail running from the Canadian border through the Cascade Range in Washington and Oregon and through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, and ending at Mexico's border, the Colorado Trail is a challenge only for the most intrepid hikers.

We've hiked bits of the Pacific Crest Trail here and there . . . 

. . . Talk about off-road travel!  


I imagine the Colorado Trail is much the same, only at higher elevations in some places.

“The Colorado Trail cuts across the San Juan Skyway approximately ¼ mile north of Molas Pass.  This 470-mile trail traverses Colorado and connects Durango to Denver.  Access to the Colorado Trail is available from trailheads located at Little Molas Lake for west bound travelers at Molas Lake for east bound trail users.”  (San Juan National Forest Signage)

West Needle Mountains

The West Needle Mountains loom in the distance, as seen from Molas Overlook.  To the far right is Snowdon Peak at elevation 13,077 feet.  Glaciers carve clefts and draw attention to fissures and chasms.

The volcanic landscape in the San Juan Mountains Colorado harbor rich deposits of lead, silver, copper and gold, a mecca for miners.

Electric Peak at elevation 13,292 feet shows itself to the left, just off the slopes of the West Needle Mountains in the foreground.

Storm Peak, elevation 13,487 feet, is to the left.  On the right, Kendall Mountain’s elevation is 13,066 feet.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home, that wilderness is necessity . . . “  John Muir (1838-1914)  (from signage)

Mr. Muir's words echo how we feel.

As we left Molas Pass, our way is crossed by a pair of Mallard Ducks.

We are the intruders here, and the wildlife let us know it!  

Since this road trip to the San Juan Mountains Colorado is all about adventure, we stopped our rig at a distance and turned off the engine.  Then, we sat back and watched . . . 

. . . and took pictures, of course.

Not long after the ducks moved on, we went on our way and shortly thereafter, we rounded yet another bend . . .

. . . The sight was stunning!

Nestled in an incredible valley ringed by the San Juan Mountains Colorado rising precipitously on all sides, Silverton glistened like jewel.  


 . . . Our adventure continues in the San Juan Mountains Colorado; see Silverton Colorado--Traveling the San Juan Skyway Series (part 2).



Powerhouse Science Center

"Powerhouse Science Center is the Four Corners' hands-on, interactive science center dedicated to providing innovative learning and unleashing human potential. Located on the banks of the Animas River in Durango's historic coal-fired, steam-generated AC powerplant, the Powerhouse presents a wide range of programs, exhibits, and activities for curious minds of all ages."


Alpen Rose RV Park

"At Alpen Rose RV Park, you can enjoy the quiet of the Animus River Valley, along with fabulous mountain views, yet be close to Durango’s many attractions. Nestled beneath stunning, red rock cliffs, our full service RV Park makes the perfect base camp for all of your Southwest Colorado adventures."

Chris Park Group Campground

Chris Park Group Campground is a reservations only facility with tent and RV accommodations. Amenities include a pavilion, volleyball court and horseshoe pits.  Trails for bicycling, hiking and horseback riding provide a backcountry experience.

Cortez/Mesa Verde KOA

After visiting the amazing wonders of the four corners area, "return to your own high desert oasis. Swim in the heated pool or round up a game of basketball or horseshoes. Enjoy the 1-mile walking trail around Denny Lake (with fishing along the trail) and the 3-acre enclosed dog park".

Durango KOA

"The Durango KOA provides a panoramic view of the jagged San Juan Mountains. At an elevation of 7,000 feet, this piñon-shaded campground atop a mesa makes for comfortably cool summer nights. In season, wake up to buttermilk pancakes or strawberry & cream waffles served at the Kaboose Kafe every morning. In the evening, fresh-made pizza can be delivered to your site. The dessert bar has sundaes, root beer floats and fresh baked pies. Enjoy nightly movies, weekly duck races, mini golf, a heated pool and kids activities. Lodging includes basic Cabins to the all-out comfort of Deluxe Cabins."

Durango Riverside RV Resort

"The San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado form the backdrop for Durango Riverside Resort and RV Park . . . enjoy the sounds and sights of the Animas River.  Our family-friendly campground offers excellent RV and tent campsites, plus 19 charming rental cabins and 3 Deluxe Member Cabins."

Durango RV Park

"The Durango RV Park is clean and quiet with an ambience of Days Gone Bye. Every site has trees, shade and full hookups"  Open year around, the park is "oriented towards Adults seeking peaceful, low key surroundings."

Haviland Lake Campground

Haviland Lake is rustic campground with no services.  Yet, this pack-it-out campground has accommodations for both tents and RV's.  Hiking, boating, and fishing are the main attractions.

Molas Lake Park and Campground

United Campgrounds

Located on the banks of the Animas River, United Campground accommodates tents, RV's, families and pets.  See local attractions via the City Trolley and the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge train, which both stop here.


Bar D Chuckwagon Suppers

"The Bar D Wranglers perform their Famous Stage Show after supper with songs of cowboys and the old west, comedy, and lively instrumentals to please the whole family."


Animas River Trail

"The Animas River Trail is an alternative to taking the train to get to Chicago Basin. The trail follows the riverbanks for much of its distance, offering fishing possibilities. The river canyon walls are steep and rocky, making the sun come up late and set early. There are many good campsites along the way."


Best Western Turquoise Inn & Suites

"Get away to this charming BEST WESTERN Turquoise Inn & Suites and delight in being near Mesa Verde National Park, the Four Corners, outstanding trails and much more."  We stayed here for several nights while visiting the area; the best lodging our whole road trip!

Country Sunshine Bed & Breakfast

"In the heart of the awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains lies the home of Country Sunshine Bed and Breakfast just North of Durango, Colorado. Nestled among ponderosa pines and scrub oaks on four wooded acres overlooking the Animas River Valley, this secluded getaway is conveniently located just minutes North of historic downtown. Country Sunshine is close to dozens of attractions and is the closest Bed and Breakfast to Purgatory Ski Area at Durango Mountain Resort."


Animas Museum

Preserving local history is what the Animas Museum is all about.  Situated in the restored 1904 Animas City School building in Durango, Colorado, the museum is filled to the brim with intriguing exhibits and fascinating collections. 

Anasazi Heritage Center

"The Anasazi Heritage Center is Southwest Colorado's premier archaeological museum of the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) and other Native cultures of the Four Corners region."

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum

"This historic train has been in continuous operation between Durango and Silverton since 1882, carrying passengers behind vintage steam locomotives and rolling stock indigenous to the line. Relive the sights and sounds of yesteryear for a spectacular journey on board the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad."


Mancos State Park

Year around outdoor enthusiasts make their home base at Mancos State Park where they enjoy a wide range of watersports, fishing and snow sports along the Jackson Gulch Reservoir, an outstanding playground for the whole family.  Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Mesa Verde National Park

"Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from A.D. 600 to 1300. Today the park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States."

Oxbow Park and Preserve

"The, almost 13 acres of riverside habitat . . . is a hidden urban gem . . . Unpaved trails . . . a very popular fishing spot . . . it's definitely worth taking a few minutes to visit."

Points of Interest

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

"Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado Saddlehorn Pueblo along the Sand Canyon trail contains a huge number of archaeological sites-- more than 6000 recorded so far, and up to 100 per square mile in some places-- representing Ancestral Puebloan and other Native American cultures."

San Juan National Forest

Click on the link for more information about accommodations and activities in the San Juan National Forest.


Conquistador Golf Club

"Conquistador Golf Club in Cortez, Colorado is a hidden gem of the Four Corners area and is located in the southwest corner of the state. Conquistador is an 18 hole par 72 championship golf course with rolling hills, large trees, water that comes into play on 8 holes, small undulating greens and pristine panoramic views of the La Plata Mountains, Mesa Verde and the Ute Mountain."

Soaring Tree Top Adventures


Durango Mountain Resort

With year around attractions and recreation opportunities, Durango Mountain Resort is best known for winter sports, especially skiing.  As a full service resort, including food and lodging, all your high adventure vacation needs are met at this one location.

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