This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019
One of the best-kept secrets in the U.S. are the San Juan Mountains. Few people realize this range is part of the Rockies because it is tucked away in the southwestern corner of Colorado. Ever see those calendar pics of beautiful fall aspens? Chances are they were taken in the San Juan Mountains, which I believe have the best fall colors in the western United States.
The San Juan Skyway in southwestern Colorado is a 236-mile long scenic drive that will amaze you with its huge stands of dazzling yellow aspens, multi-green conifer forests, deep gorges, jagged peaks, ski resorts, treacherous roads, and quaint mining towns. The San Juan National Forest is also known for its ancient cliff dwellings.
Million Dollar Highway
One section of the road known as the “Million Dollar Highway” goes from Silverton to Ouray. This stretch includes steep drop-offs, no guardrails, and few pullouts. It is best avoided in the winter! The Skyway takes you through some of the best mining country in the United States! You’ll see mine tailings on the mountainside and abandoned mine shafts and equipment. Plus the quaint mining towns of Ouray, Silverton, Durango, and Telluride!
The two largest towns along the skyway are Telluride and Ouray, both former mining camps turned into posh ski resorts. They have engaging shops to visit, great places to eat, via ferratas to climb, and some of the best hiking and biking trails in the country. The San Juans are also home to 314 13-ers (13,000 ft. high peaks) and a dozen 14-ers for those who love to mountain climb. Ouray is also home to a world-class ice climbing festival each January.
Make exploring the San Juan Mountains a 2-3 day trip
Even though you could easily drive the entire loop in a day, don’t shortchange yourself! It is best to spend at LEAST two to three days to give yourself time to stop and take pictures. Of course, you can also hike, bike, and walk through each of the towns along the way! We spent an entire morning hiking up to Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride for a view of the entire valley, then walking the town afterward!
Telluride’s free gondolas
We especially enjoyed riding Telluride’s free gondolas, the first and only free public transportation in the country! From Telluride you can ride up to San Sophia Station and get off to enjoy the shops. Or take the time to hike or bike through all the beauty. Get on another free gondola to ride into Mountain Village, an upscale ski resort town with more shops and restaurants. From there, ride one more gondola over the treetops of Mountain Village to get back where you started!
We enjoyed spending an afternoon in Silverton, a picturesque mining town in a huge mountain valley. While there, a movie was being filmed, as it provides the perfect setting for the Old West. If you have the means, take a ride on the old-time railroad from Durango to Silverton that runs parallel to the Million Dollar Highway.
Even though we have driven the San Juan Mountains Skyway in the fall, it is also spectacular in June/July when mountains are snow-capped, the valleys are green and the wildflowers dot the hillsides! Looking forward to driving it again!
This is a guest post by a good friend of mine, Tina Crowder Bean. She is an amazing woman! Mother of 9 children, and grandmother to 13, she loves to travel and hike. I mean, really LOVES to hike! Tina takes people hiking each week year-round in the Wasatch Mountains and also leads hiking trips throughout the Intermountain West. If interested, you’ll find her at the Facebook Group “Hike the Wasatch”.
This sounds like a real winner, thanks!
Wow, you weren’t kidding about the fall colors! I visited Breckenridge a few years ago in mid-September, and that was my first time seeing golden aspens. I’d love to visit Colorado for another fall trip, and it looks like a scenic drive through the San Juan Mountains should be part of that itinerary.
You know what i love about your posts? They are about real America, not bright lights and big cities, real towns real places. I would love to get out in the country and explore some of these gems. Our family are big fans of a gondola ride /
Thanks so much, Mark! There’s so much out there to enjoy, it would be a shame to focus only on big cities and bright lights!
Wow, so gorgeous I love being in a setting where nature is just so overwhelming. The gondolas loo fun, if not a bit scary lol. I know from experience too loop roads should not be done in a day, never enough time.
Wow! The views are absolutely breathtaking! Looks like a must-do road trip to me. 🙂
Wow, I didn’t realize the skyway is over 200 miles long! I love road trips, this makes me want to go on another one 🙂 So many places to explore in the U.S.
It has been more than 20 years since I made this trip! I miss those beautiful yellow aspens. We had family outside of Silverton – such a great town to visit.
Well, I didn’t know they were part of the Rocky Mountains. Million Dollar Highway sounds like a Bruce Springsteen or Tomy Petty song/CD!
This is a beautiful trip – the mining town definitely does remind me of the Old West! It really let’s you take a step back and get out of the city.
I love it. We’ve done Estes Park but not headed to the southern end of the CO Rockies. I think we’re planning a trip to Telluride in May, but haven’t locked it down. I really hope so though, because this is gorgeous.
I’m so glad I came across this. I’m hoping to get to Colorado next summer and this looks like an absolutely stunning place to explore. Give me wilderness and mountains any day!
I agree! It’s a beautiful little road trip!
The Million Dollar Highway is appropriately named, that is for sure! What a beautiful slice of heaven right there in Colorado. 😉