San Juan Skyway
Drive Up, Slow Down & treat yourself to spectacular summer vistas and adventures.
The waterfalls are just starting to flow off the high country cliffs and canyons around Ouray. If you haven’t experienced spring and summer in Ouray County and the San Juan Mountains, now is your chance.
One of our favorite drives this time of year is the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, which travels a 236-mile loop through Southwest Colorado from Ouray to Ridgway, Telluride, through Dolores, Cortez and Durango, and back along Highway 550 for the classic Million Dollar Highway section between Silverton and Ouray. It's a drive through some of the most spectacular views in Colorado and accesses boundless public lands and adventures that range from fishing, climbing, biking and rafting. It's also a trip back in time with unique museums, ghost towns, historic hikes, horseback rides and cattle drives and old-mining-roads-turned-Jeep and OHV trails along the route.
Photo Courtesy of Mark Johnson, BoxCanyonBlog.com
If you're on a wildflower hunt, spring brings lovely pasqueflowers and mariposa lillies. In the high country, the wildflowers peak between mid-July and mid-August, though you can find flowers from early June through Labor Day, depending on the weather conditions and your elevation. Some of our favorite photo stops are along the Dallas Divide between Ridgway and Telluride for an iconic view of Mt. Sneffels and fields of lupines and yellow daisies in June, off on a trail along Red Mountain Pass or Molas Pass during July for wildflower meadows, and Lizard Head Pass in July and August for flowers with a backdrop of the imposing peaks at the pass. Make sure to stop at Ironton for a short ghost town hike through the green aspens and wild raspberries.
Venture Off the Beaten Path
If you want an adventure that takes you off the highway, summer has plenty to offer along the San Juan Skyway Route.
Summer is high season for our 4x4 & OHV trails. Here are two of our favorite full day, off-road itineraries:
- Ouray to Yankee Boy Basin and Governor’s Basin. Then take Imogene Pass to Telluride and come home via Last Dollar Road and Ridgway. Both Yankee Boy and Governor's Basin are covered in blankets of wildflowers each July.
- The Alpine Loop: Ouray to Lake City via Engineer Pass, then back to Silverton via Cinnamon Pass and back to Ouray via Corkscrew Gulch. A classic long 4x4 route that will probably take you 2-3 days with all the photo opportunities you'll find! A favorite side hike is heading north along the Horsethief Trail atop Engineer Pass to Wild Horse Peak.
Find more details about our OHV trails here. If you don't feel like driving, contact one of our local Jeep tour companies for comfortable and relaxing tours into the mountains that give you the added bonus of a great commentary about the natural and mining history in the area.
If you're looking for a perfect summer hike or bike ride, the San Juan Skyway has many to choose from along the route. We'd recommend any section of the Dallas Trail system that starts in Ouray and continues through Ridgway into Telluride, with off-shoots to the famous wildflower basins of Blaine Basin and Blue Lakes. Make it a multi-day trek and stay in one of the cozy San Juan Huts or let a horse pack your gear while you camp. The whole Dallas Trail system is accessible to mountain bikes, too, but it's a long ride. If you're looking for shorter loops with incredible views, check out the Ridgway Area Trails - or RAT - near Ridgway State Park. For an uncrowded hike, check out Spirit Basin near the REd Mountain Mining District Overlook. It's wildflowers and peaks are spectacular and easily accessible from the highway. The feature great views and some major fun among conifers and aspens on their mountain bike trails.
The History is Colorful, Too
The history along the San Juan Skyway is just as rich as the scenery and the adventures. Here are our favorite historical stops along the way (some of these are a short detour off the main route):
- Ouray County Historical Museum (Ouray): named one of the best small museums in the West by Smithsonian Magazine, the Ouray County Museum is housed in the former miner's hospital in downtown Ouray. Their current exhibitions (in addition to permanent displays) are "How the San Juan Peaks Got their Names" and the annual quilt show.
- Ouray Alchemist Pharmaceutical Collection (Ouray): take a tour of the history of medicine through the lens of a frontier physician. The tour showcases a fascinating collection dating back to 300 B.C. led by a former pharmacist and curator of the museum.
- San Juan Odyssey (Ouray): a multi-screen panoramic theater production about the history of Ouray and the San Juan Mountains narrated by Ouray's own C.W. McCall, presented Friday- Monday at 7:30 PM through the end of September.
- Historic Gold & Silver Mine Tours (Ouray & Silverton): The Bachelor Syracuse Mine Tour in Ouray and the Old 100 Mine Tour in Silverton let you experience what life was truly like for the miners of the 1800s in the San Juan Mountains. Step back in time for an hour, then try your luck at panning for gold or have a miner's breakfast on weekend mornings.
- Ridgway True Grit Film History Tour (Ridgway): a weekly tour of historic filming locations for the origina True Grit. Tours leave the Ridgway Visitor's Center on Fridays at 11:00 AM through the end of October.
- Ridgway Railroad Museum (Ridgway): displays the history of Ouray County's world-renowned Rio Grande Southern, Silverton and D&RG narrow-gauge railroads. Don't miss Railroad Days for some hands-on history and hikes along historic railroad grades between September 17-20, 2015.
- Ouray County Ranch History Museum (Colona): about ten miles north of Ridgway, this jewel of a collection in the historic Colona School celebrates the pioneer ranchers of Ouray County and the Ucompahgre Valley. Open Sundays, 1-5 PM, through the end of September.
- Durango, Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (Durango): This historic steam train travels between Durango and Silverton daily through the end of October. Even if you can't take the full train ride, definitely visit the incredible railroad museum in downtown Durango.
- Chimney Peak National Monument
- Mesa Verde National Park (between Cortez and Durango): offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300. The park protects nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.
- Anasazi Heritage Center (Dolores): a museum of the Ancestral Puebloan (or Anasazi) Culture and other Native cultures in the Four Corners region. It is also the starting point for visits to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
- Galloping Goose Historical Society (Dolores): visit the fully restored Galloping Goose No. 5 mail car, which operates seasonally on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, as well as an exact replica of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad's Dolores Depot
Can't quite make it here this summer? Take a break, sit back and enjoy this summertime video of the gorgeous wildflower meadows in Yankee Boy Basin!
Video courtesy of David Casler
This activity is supported by the Colorado Tourism Office, a state agency.