Classic Roads: Riding High on Colorado’s San Juan Skyway

Apr 28, 2017 View Comments by

San Juan Skyway

Colorado’s San Juan Mountains are home to some of the most beautiful alpine landscapes in the Centennial State. They are also home to a collection of exceptionally scenic and challenging motorcycle roads. Starting in Durango, riders motor north on U.S. 550. This stretch of road between Durango and Ouray, which tops out above 11,000 feet, is also known as the Million Dollar Highway. Although the inspiration for the name is a matter of conjecture and debate, the last several miles of vertiginous highway to Ouray are priceless. The asphalt rests on a ledge carved from the sheer rock face of the Uncompahgre Gorge—don’t look down!

Riders pick up State Route 145 near Placerville. It leads on a scenic southwesterly trajectory, along the sinuous Dolores River Valley, to Cortez. Although its sweeping curves are generally less challenging than those of U.S. 550, the scenery is a pleasure to behold. Tall aspen and pine trees border the roadway, and imposing mountain peaks reach skyward in the distance. U.S. 160 at Cortez leads motorcyclists across high desert back to Durango. However, a day spent exploring Mesa Verde National Park will leave all with unrivaled memories of a native culture from long ago.

Portions of the San Juan Skyway, particularly U.S. 550, can have slow traffic in summer months, but the shoulder months of May and September are notably less trafficked. With its jaw-dropping scenery, serpentine roads, four passes in excess of 10,000 feet, well-preserved Old West towns, narrow gauge steam railroad, incomparable national park, and shopping venues, the 238 miles of San Juan Skyway are a must-ride for any serious touring motorcyclist.

Points of Interest:
1. Durango: Discovery of gold in the San Juan Mountains in 1860 turned Durango into a boomtown, and it retains much of its Western charm today. It’s also the home of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which transports riders along precipitous cliffs through the ruggedly beautiful Animas Valley.
2. Silverton: In a high valley at over 9,300 feet, this former silver mining camp was a rough, uncivilized place in the 19th century. In the 21st century, though, the false front buildings, shops, and dirt streets are filled with throngs of tourists hunting for treasures of their own.
3. Ouray: This stunningly attractive 19th-century village, which was named after Chief Ouray of the Ute tribe, also began its life as a mining town. Situated at the head of a narrow box canyon, Ouray bills itself as the “Switzerland of America” and has close proximity to some of the best Jeeping trails in Colorado.
4. Ridgway: A former railroad hub in the 19th century that served nearby mining towns, Ridgway is known as the “Gateway to the San Juans.” The area also has been the setting for several Westerns, including John Wayne’s original True Grit. Be sure to check out the movie artifacts in the True Grit Cafe.
5. Telluride: This village is another beautiful former 19th-century mining town situated in a deep box canyon. Bridal Veil Falls, at the head of the canyon, is a favorite stop. The Telluride Historic District, with its tony shops and restaurants, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
6. The Anasazi Heritage Center: Focusing on pre-Columbian Ancestral Puebloans (or Anasazi), the AHC has a rich collection of exhibits on archaeology, local history, and Native American cultures. In addition to over three million artifacts, the facility also has two 12th-century archaeological sites. www.mesaverdecountry.com/see-do/archaeology/anasazi-heritage-center
7. Mesa Verde National Park: Just off of U.S. 160, not far from Cortez, is one of the most fascinating places in our National Park System. This high, verdant mesa is home to some of the best preserved and most iconic ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings. Plan your stop by first visiting www.nps.gov/meve.

Text and Photography: James T. Parks

 

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