San Juan Skyway, Part 2
This is Part 2 of the San Juan Skyway story. Part 1 starts in Ridgway and then continues onto Ouray before heading up the Million Dollar Highway and over Red Mountain Pass. Part 2 picks up the drive as US 550 passes by Silverton, the most rugged, secluded and authentic-feeling historic town along the byway. Mines, trains and even an infamous red light district once made Silverton noteworthy. Today, tourism rocks in this high altitude town with Victorian appeal. You can still ride the rails, too: the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is an authentic steam-powered, coal-fired scenic train that operates in the summer. Silverton lies at 9318 feet and continuing south, the skyway climbs just shy of 11,000 feet before crossing Molas Pass. It’s definitely worth pulling over and admiring the peaks, thinking about the stunning but unforgiving terrain and the countless people of the past – Native Americans, miners, missionaries, hippies, outdoor thrill-seekers – heck, even hookers – who have navigated this stunning corner of the planet. US 550 continues onto Durango but this Wide Open Ride returns to Ouray, passing by Silverton again before rolling across Red Mountain Pass. This part of the San Juan Skyway is worth driving in both directions because each perspective is so different.
Best Time to Visit
Fall colors, snowcapped peaks, summer wildflowers – really any season is perfect to drive the skyway. But as this story shows, the road is narrow and windy in many places and though it’s open in the winter, conditions can be very dangerous and the highway shut down at times.
Route & Map
The San Juans are probably the prettiest of all Colorado mountains. And so it follows that the San Juan Skyway is one of the state’s most impressive scenic roads. The byway makes a loop through Colorado’s southwest. The entire 233 miles is amazing but the 34-mile section from Ouray to Silverton – known as the Million Dollar Highway – and then up Molas Pass is really the pièce de résistance of the entire route.
Length & Time
Together, Part 1 and Part 2 tell the story of the 45 miles from Ridgway to the Molas Pass summit, passing through Ouray and Silverton along the way. I like turning around and retracing the route for a different view on the same scenery and it usually takes at least half a day with picture-taking and pastry-buying stops.
The three historic towns of Silverton, Ouray and Ridgway offer most everything a traveler desires but they are small. Along US 550, Durango lies south of Silverton and to the north, Montrose is just up the road from Ridgway. Both are small cities with numerous options.