San Juan Skyway, CO
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San Juan Skyway, CO

Round up your wild bunch for a high-altitude tour of the wild (and ancient) west.

Destination Guide

Copyright Telluride & Mountain
Village Services/Doug Berry

Looking for the perfect place to take your little cowboys and Indians? Look no farther than southwest Colorado and the incomparable San Juan Skyway.

This 236-mile route over high peaks -- and through old western towns, goldmines, and ancient cliff palaces -- will provide lasting memories (and Kodak moments) for your wild bunch.

Take Durango, for instance. Once a rail junction for the gold-rush town of Silverton, it still feels like a 19th-century movie set. (Don't look now, but there's a quick-fingered gunslinger right around the corner!)

Or how about Mesa Verde, just a half hour away? Your little ones will be wowed by the ancient cities clinging to the sides of 7,000-foot-high cliffs. The Native American tribes disappeared by 1300 AD, but their amazing dwellings remain.

You can start this National Scenic Byway tour at any point, and travel in either direction. But to make the most of your visit, we recommend the following weeklong route:

Alps and Outlaws

Start in Telluride, a Victorian mountain town that's also a National Historic Landmark. In spring and summer, this glitzy ski town (elevation 8,750 feet) near the north end of this route is jumping with outdoor adventure, sports, and festivals celebrating the Wild West, wine, jazz, and more.

Pick up a free walking tour map at the Visitors Center. The whole downtown area is only five blocks wide and 10 blocks long, so you can tour it in 1-2 hours. Among the highlights: the spot where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank in 1889. The Gondola is another great freebie. The 12-minute cable car ride ends at Mountain Village, a ski resort area perched on a mountaintop high above town.

Ancient Ways

Copyright Aramark

From Telluride, head south on Hwy 145, stopping for a picnic at Lizard Head Pass, a 10,222-foot-high viewpoint. Three miles past the town of Dolores, make a detour on Hwy 184 to the Anasazi Heritage Center. The kid-friendly exhibits about ancient tribes of this area make an excellent introduction to the Mesa Verde National Park, just down the road. At the Cortez Cultural Center and Museum, just 15 miles south, your brood can whoop and holler during a Friendship Dance with Native American families.

Castles in the Air

Ask anyone who has traveled the Southwest to name their favorite spot. They'll probably say Mesa Verde National Park. This sky-high World Heritage Site, nine miles east of Cortez on Hwy 160, is home to the best-preserved Native American cliff dwellings in the world.

To see the ruins up close, you'll have to do some hiking -- and the altitude can be trying for those with breathing or heart problems. But if you're up for the trek, get to the park early. Many of the areas are accessible only on ranger-led tours, which sell out early. in summer. Also, wear comfortable shoes and clothes; you'll be climbing ladders to get to many of the ruins.

Here are the most popular sites:

  • Cliff Palace. The largest dwelling in the park has more than 200 rooms. It is accessible via ranger-led tours, which involve hiking a steep, half-mile roundtrip trail.
  • Balcony House. Also accessible only by tour, Balcony House is reached by climbing a 32-foot ladder. The payoff: a 40-room ruin, with breathtaking views over Soda Canyon. You'll exit through a tunnel, a sure-fire hit with kids. Note: Tots under three must be carried in a "baby backpack" on Cliff House and Balcony House tours.
  • Petroglyph Loop Trail. You'll see ancient rock carvings, as well as great views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons, on this 2.8-mile hike.
  • Spruce Tree House. If you're a tenderfoot or have toddlers, don't despair: The 114-room "house" is a short, easy walk from park headquarters and can be toured without a guide.
  • Long House. At Wetherill Mesa, take a mini-tram, then a short, steep trail with 50 steps to the second-largest complex in the park.

Into Thin Air

Next stop, Durango. Located 36 miles east on Hwy 160, this former depot for the Denver and Rio Grande railroad was once a mining boom town. Some 120 years later, trains are still the top attraction here.

Set aside a full day for a ride on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The three-hour trip to the old mining town of Silverton chugs over canyons and hugs mountainsides, all the way to its final destination, 9,318 feet up. Unless you own a helicopter, choo-choo is the only way to see the remote wilderness along the route.

Some practical tips: Wear dark clothes. The coal-fired locomotive has open coaches, so you may get dusted with soot and cinders. Sunglasses are recommended too, for the same reason. And bring a jacket. Temperatures drop as you gain elevation.

But don't worry about packing snacks: There's a concession car on board. The round-trip journey only allows a two-hour stop in Silverton, just enough time for lunch and a stroll, but you'll pass through town again on the Skyway.

Six hours roundtrip too much for your brood? A combination ticket allows a quicker return to Durango by bus. Or vary your journey on a wild jeep ride to Silverton conducted by Outlaw Tours. The excursion includes stops at ghost towns and abandoned gold mines, with a return by train.

Showdown Downtown

Want to explore Silverton some more? From Durango take Hwy 550 north. Don't be surprised if this scenic mining town and National Historic Landmark looks familiar -- lots of old western movies were shot here. The false-front stores along "Notorious Blair Street" once housed 40 saloons and "sporting houses." Those rowdy times are now recalled in a daily shoot-out in late afternoons.

From here, you'll travel a 24-mile stretch of Hwy 550 called the Million-Dollar Highway. The name refers to the road's huge cost and difficult construction. But after driving it, you'll swear it was named for its priceless views. As you pass through Uncompahgre Gorge and over Red Mountain, watch for the Million Dollar Overlook, where you'll see an unparalleled vista of waterfalls and mountains.

Bring Home a Nugget

In Ouray, you'll find out why pioneers came to these parts in the first place -- gold. Take the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine tour. It drops 3,350 feet into Gold Hill, where rich veins of ore gave birth to boomtowns like the one above ground.

Hardhats and yellow slickers are provided, but bring a sweater -- it's cool down there. Outside the mine, your kids can pan for nuggets in a run-off stream and keep what they find. Who knows? Maybe they'll pay for the next vacation.


Type of trip: Scenic, outdoor adventure, historic

Best for ages: 7 and up

Ideal trip length: One week

Distance: Santa Fe, NM (240 miles), Flagstaff, AZ (355 miles), Denver (405 miles)

Best time to go: Mid-April to mid-October, when all of the sites at Mesa Verde are open to the public, and snow is not likely. Avoid July to miss the biggest crowds.

Weather: Low 80s/ upper 40s June through August, 77/40 in September, 66/31 in October. Temperatures can fluctuate widely in spring and fall. For high-altitude spots like Telluride, subtract 5-10 degrees.

Lodging: Prices range from budget motels to chain hotels to historic Victorian hotels.

Squirm factor: Some

If You Go...

Copyright Paul

Telluride Visitors Center. 700 W. Colorado Ave., Telluride, 800-525-3455.

Anasazi Heritage Center. 27501 Hwy.184, Dolores, 970-882-481.

Cortez Cultural Center. 25 North Market St., Cortez, 970-565-1151.

Mesa Verde National Park. Hwy 160, 9 miles east of Cortez, 970-529-4465.

  • Far View Visitors Center. 970-529-5036. Open April to November.
  • Morefield Campground. 970-533-7731. Open April to November.
  • Far View Lodge. 800-449-2288. Open April to November.


Copyright TMVS/ Brett Schreckengost

Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. 479 Main Ave., Durango, 888-872-4607.


Outlaw Tours. 690 Main Ave., Durango, 970-259-1800.


Gunfighters Association. 12th and Blair Sts., Silverton, 800-752-4494. Daily "shoot-out" street performances.

Bachelor-Syracuse Mine Tour. Hwy 14, Ouray, 970-325-0220.

Contact: National Scenic Byways, 800-4-BYWAYS; Durango Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information, 800-525-8855.


The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spots:

Bar D Chuckwagon, 8080 Country Rd. 250, Durango, 888-800-5753. End the day with a chuckwagon supper at Bar D. Weather-beaten cowboys dish out roast beef, barbeque chicken, and baked potatoes, then hop on stage for a one-hour show of Western songs, stories, and comedy.

Strater Hotel, 699 Main Ave., Durango, 970-247-4431. For a grown-up western treat, head straight to this gorgeous Victorian landmark. Its Diamond Belle Saloon is the perfect place to toss back some firewater and listen to the ragtime piano -- once the kids are asleep.

Best souvenirs: Railroad engineer caps from the Durango Silverton Railroad gift shop that keep the sun off little noses. For adults, replicas of Ancient Puebloan baskets and pottery at the Mesa Verde gift shop.

Annual event: Durango Pro Rodeo, La Plata Fairgrounds, 25th and Main Sts., Durango, 970-247-1666. The real thing, with bull riding and bronco busting.

Safety alert: The sun's rays are more harmful at these high altitudes, so bring sunscreen and use it liberally, especially on kids. Also, the thin air in high-up places like Telluride will tire you out faster than normal, so don't over-exert.

Traffic Alert: Unpredictable weather and extreme topography can pose hazards. Check the Colorado Department of Transportation Web site for road conditions and closings.


Side Trips

Vallecito Lake

After a day under the beating sun at Mesa Verde, head for this pristine mountain valley 25 miles northeast of Durango. The crystal-clear waters of this lake will be welcome refreshment.

Not many tourists know about Vallecito Lake. But Coloradoans love it here. You can rent boats and fishing gear at several nearby marinas; local stables can arrange lakeside-riding expeditions. North of Bayfield on Route 501, 970-247-1573 (Chamber of Commerce).

Reviewed April 2004.