Turn, Turn, Turn : To everything there is a season, and autumn is the time to drive southern Colorado’s winding San Juan Skyway

<i> Cohen is a free-lance writer and guidebook author based in Durango</i>

This booming mountain town of about 15,000 was recently acclaimed by a national magazine as one of the most livable small cities in the United States. Until now, residents, including myself, have managed to keep this fact more or less quiet.

Situated far from the nearest big city (Albuquerque is 200 miles away, Denver nearly twice that), Durango is the convenient and increasingly civilized center (there are now a number of places in town to get cappuccino) of a less-than-completely tame, mountainous region popular with nature lovers, hikers and mountain bikers, as well as amateur archeologists and train buffs.

Summer is by far the biggest tourist season here. The show of fall colors, usually occurring between mid-September and mid-October, is still mostly reserved for residents and the cannier traveler. I usually stay close to home in fall to enjoy some of the best color viewing anywhere in the West.

Days generally stay comfortably warm through early October in southern Colorado, but with the fall come crisp, cold nights that force the change in leaf colors. At lower altitudes, reds and oranges prevail. Between 7,500 and 10,000 feet, the high fluttery aspens march through evergreen forests in golden uniforms. Parading down the steep hillsides, they gild thousands of acres with electrifying battalions of color.


Probably the best scenic overview can be found along a dramatic 232-mile highway loop called the San Juan Skyway. Several years ago the route was declared one of America’s most beautiful roads as part of the National Forest Service Scenic Byways program.

In autumn, even jaded locals come out to rubberneck at the gilt-edged forests encircling the San Juan range’s 13,000-foot-plus peaks.

No one can really predict the optimum viewing time. The colors depend on numerous factors, such as the leaves’ moisture content. But after years of leaf-peeping, I would pick the last week in September, give or take a few days, as the best time to see the skyway in its glory.

Some people circle the skyway in around six hours without stopping. Others spend a week or longer exploring the route. Here’s a one-day itinerary:


Durango at Sunrise

Start out early from Durango. For photographers, this means departing before dawn. For travelers not so concerned about light meters, a little later is OK, but it’s a long ride ahead with lots of stops. I often grab a bagel and coffee-to-go from Durango Bagel on Fifth Street. If a more leisurely pace is in order, I head for the Durango Diner on Main Avenue to eat a no-nonsense breakfast and hear the local gossip.

Downtown Durango is a National Historic District of Victorian architecture. It’s alongside the Animas River, beneath vertical red rock cliffs at the base of the 6,500-foot-high Animas Valley.

Not so many years ago kids played stickball in the middle of Main. This summer, it’s been hard to find a parking space there. But tourism slows down after Labor Day, and by mid-September there’s usually much less traffic on the area’s roads. The train station is next to the bagel place. It’s the terminus for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which cores through the heart of the colors. The popular steam train makes the steep 92-mile round-trip from Durango to Silverton in about seven hours (plus a two-hour stop in Silverton), providing views of river-carved gorges and mountain summits. The Animas River roars beside the tracks; the San Juan National Forest crowds the track on both sides.

The aspens, quaking in the wind, are so close in spots that passengers can grab leaves. Sometimes the lumbering rhythm of the slow train can lull a rider into a hypnotic reverie. Then suddenly a stand of trees will issue a brilliant gold wakeup call.

The skyway begins on the main road north out of Durango, U.S. Highway 550, and parallels the train tracks for five miles. As you leave the Animas Valley, the San Juan Mountains become more prominent. Some travelers may want to end their trip just 16 miles north of town at the clubby Tamarron Resort. Golfers can play at the high-rated course, content with the colors lining the fairways. Ten miles farther is the Purgatory-Durango Ski Resort, where adventurous travelers can ride up a chairlift and spin down on rented mountain bikes.

Gold in Silverton

After Purgatory, the skyway quickly climbs, going over two passes of more than 10,000 feet. In about three miles you can turn right on Old Lime Creek Road for a spectacular detour. This dirt road is part of an old stagecoach route. Four-wheel drive is not necessary when it’s dry, though the road is rutted in spots and sometimes wide enough for only one car at a time. The sheer mountain sides, plunging hundreds of feet from the slender roadway, are filled with glowing aspens. It’s a memorable off-road experience.


After eight miles, Lime Creek reconnects with U.S. 550 amid the snowy peaks of the San Juans. If a traveler’s timing is right, the colors from here to Silverton will make every curve in the road look like a glossy travel magazine cover.

Silverton is an old silver mining town that peaked in the late 1800s with a rowdy population of 5,000. In those days they were removing “silver by the ton” from the hills near here. There’s not much profitable mining today, and so Silverton, reduced to a year-round population of 500, has turned to tourism.

There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails and dirt roads in the surrounding mountains, making Silverton a great jumping-off spot for back-road and off-road excursions. Most of these routes require four-wheel drive vehicles or mountain bikes. The town itself looks much like it did in the old days. Almost every building in its downtown, a National Historic District, has some frontier significance. Many along notorious Blair Street, for example, were once brothels and saloons. Today, most of the old Victorians are occupied by gift shops, restaurants and B&Bs.;

I recommend that leaf-watchers not look far beyond the historic facades. Park downtown near the train depot, walk around for an hour or so, buy a T-shirt if you’re so moved, have a cold drink and get back on the road to Ouray.

Which Way to the Alps?

About halfway from Silverton to Ouray, the skyway traverses Red Mountain Pass, a narrow, tortuously twisted stretch of the imagination that passes for a road. This part of the route is known as the Million-Dollar Highway. There’s no agreement on the name’s origin. Some believe it’s connected to gold-bearing gravel unwittingly used by builders of the original roadway.

You have to go slowly around the tight switchbacks anyway, which is all the better to survey the colors. By the time you reach Ouray, population 700, you’ll probably be ready for a soak in the hot springs pool, a huge public affair at the north end of town, on the west side of U.S. 550. It’s fed by a natural thermal spring and is highly recommended anytime, even in mid-winter.

Ouray calls itself the Switzerland of America, for its alpine scenery and Swiss chalet-style architecture. And it manages to combine the Tyrol and the Old West. The first building in this one-time mining town was a saloon, opened in 1875. Many of the original buildings have been converted to B&Bs;, restaurants or private homes. Others are boarded up, ghosts of the past amid modern, ersatz chalet vacation homes.


Several waterfalls pour out of the vertical cliffs that surround Ouray, nice for a short, warm weather hike, and, when they freeze in winter, a prime destination for ice climbers. Like Silverton, the mountains around Ouray offer hundreds of miles of Jeep trails. Some consider them the most beautiful in the state. The numerous Jeep rental and tour companies here do a big business during the fall color season.

Up to Telluride

Ten miles north of Ouray, the skyway loop turns off U.S. 550 onto Colorado 62 at the tiny town of Ridgway, where both designer Ralph Lauren and actor Dennis Weaver have big spreads. Ridgway has a sort of pre-Telluride funky charm and is beginning to absorb some of the less-affluent overflow from its costly neighbor.

Colorado 62 ends in 23 miles. A turn left on Colorado 145, heading southeast, leads shortly (14 miles) to fabled Telluride, site of Butch Cassidy’s first bank robbery in the 1880s.

Originally a roaring mining town named Columbia, Telluride, with a year-round population of 1,400, has long been pummeled by booms and busts. In the last 20 years or so, prosperity has come on skis. The long, steep slopes that fall right to the edge of town provide some of the most challenging ski terrain in the West. When the snow melts, this translates into fine hiking, biking and Jeeping terrain.

Surrounded by high peaks and fall colors, blending old-looking modern properties with truly old Victorian homes, Telluride and its youthful, Patagonia-clad legions look just right together.

It’s probably a good idea to get lunch here; there are a number of decent restaurants in town. If you prefer to keep moving, Rose’s Victorian Food Market at 700 W. Colorado Ave., next to the visitors center, makes hefty sandwiches to go.

It’s trendy and beautiful, and who knows, you might run into local homeowners Christie Brinkley, Tom Cruise or Oprah Winfrey. The nearby development of Mountain Village, south on Colorado 145 on the way out of town, might even be thought of as an alpine Brentwood. Castles, not mere homes, overlook ski slopes and a golf course. Here, the show of colors is appropriately opulent.

South on 145 the palette begins to deepen with reds as the road descends from 10,250-foot Lizard Head Pass to lower elevations. The colors can be particularly intense around Rico, another upcoming bedroom community for Telluride. Long a virtual ghost town and still with fewer than 200 year-round residents, Rico now brags a couple of inexpensive restaurants and motels.

Beauty Amid the Ruins

The skyway quickly descends from Rico, following the Dolores River. The low-lying cottonwoods found along the watercourse rival the beauty of the aspens, to which they are related. Travelers can compare them as they drive through Dolores (not much to see here) and Cortez (good and bad Indian arts for sale, and the Indian-run Ute Mountain Casino south of town).

At Cortez, turn east on U.S. 160. From there it’s less than eight miles to the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park. It’s a 45-minute drive from the highway to the main cliff dwellings and ruins.

If time permits, it’s worth a ride up to the mesa top for the combination of fall colors and late afternoon shadows falling on the Anasazi cliff dwellings. These multistory adobe and stone buildings--the most extensive in the Southwest--were abandoned 700 years ago by a complex culture that researchers only partly understand.

If time is running short, you can go part way up the entrance road to Park Point. It’s a short hike from the car to the mesa’s edge, which affords the same panoramic view of the entire Four Corners area that one might get from a small plane.


Heading back to Durango, travelers may want to stop for dinner in the small town of Mancos. At the crossroads of U.S. 160 and Main Street is the popular restaurant Millwood Junction, which draws patrons from all over the area. The food ranges from poached salmon to steaks and burgers; it includes a salad bar and blissful desserts.

The town is worth a walk through too, with one shop housing a custom cowboy hat-maker and another offering custom-made saddles.

Back in the saddle again, it’s about 25 miles east of Mancos to Durango, darkness finally dimming the luster of the skyway.



On the San Juan Skyway

Getting there: Air service to Durango or Telluride is available on American AMERICA? West through Phoenix, or United Express and Continental Connection through Denver. If you’re renting a car, also consider flying into Farmington, N.M., served by America AMERICAN? Airlines through Dallas, Mesa Airlines through Albuquerque or Denver, America West Airlines through Phoenix or Las Vegas.

Seeing the colors: Towns along the San Juan Skyway sponsor a yearly Rocky Mountain Colorfest. Events are planned from mid-September through late October in the Colorado towns of Cortez, Dolores, Durango, Mancos, Ouray, Silverton, Telluride and Vallecito Lake, as well as in Mesa Verde National Park, Purgatory Ski Area and Farmington, N.M. Festivities include rodeos, hot-air balloon rallies, square dancing, buffalo roasts, kayak races, marathons, trout fishing contests, photo competitions, music festivals, art shows and historic tours.

One way to view the entire Colorfest area is on a flight operated by Durango Air Service Inc. (telephone 970-247-5535). The service offers a number of flights, starting at $29 for a half-hour flight.

The Durango Soaring Club (970-247-9037) operates motorless glider rides ($70 for 25 minutes; $125 for 50 minutes) above the colors.

The Durango-Silverton train runs from early May through October, and again from late November to April. Round-trip summer fares are $42.70 for adults, $21.45 for children under 12. The winter train goes only as far as Cascade Canyon; fare for adults is $36.15, for children 5-11, $18.05. For information or reservations, phone (970-247-2733).

Mancos Valley Stage Lines (800-365-3530), in Mancos, runs three-hour trips in an authentic stagecoach, including lunch or dinner ($65 per person, under 5 free).

Lake Mancos Ranch (800-325-WHOA, or 970-533-7900), five miles northeast of Mancos, is a family-style dude ranch that, after Labor Day, remains open for an adults-only season. Rates are $958 for a week.

Where to stay: The Strater Hotel (699 Main Ave.; tel. 800-247-4431; $105-$165 for two through Oct. 17) is an antique-filled, restored Victorian landmark that will celebrate its 108th anniversary this year. The property includes the Diamond Belle Saloon, complete with garter-clad waitresses and a honky-tonk piano player.

The Leland House and the Rochester Hotel (both on 2nd Avenue; tel. 800-664-1920) are both nicely restored accommodations. The Leland House is a B&B; (rates $85-$135 for two); Rochester Hotel is small and a bit more upscale (rates $125-$185 for two).

Tamarron Resort (18 miles north of Durango; tel. 800-678-1000; rates vary but in fall the range is $110-$334 for two; children 16 and under stay free) is known for stunning mountain terrain, a championship golf course and deluxe accommodations and restaurants.

Purgatory Resort (28 miles north of Durango; tel. 970-247-9000), stays open year-round. There are a variety of accommodations (summer rates until Nov. 22 range from $85 hotel rooms to $325 deluxe multi-bedroom condos), a full program of mountain bike rentals (from $28 per day) and a network of maintained bike trails.

Tall Timber (970-259-4813; $1,900 per week through Sept., $1,600 per week afterward) is an exclusive dude ranch by the train tracks about halfway to Silverton. Guests can take the train or fly in by private helicopter. The closest auto road is five miles away from this Mobil five-star ranch.

The St. Elmo Hotel (in Ouray; tel. 970-325-4951; $88-$98), is a cozy B&B; with a good, moderately priced Italian restaurant, the Bon Ton. The public hot springs pool in town is open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (tel. 970-325-4347; $5.50 adults, $4 for kids under 17).

The Peaks (in Mountain Village right outside Telluride; tel. 800-789-2220, $230-$415), offers spa amenities, including numerous forms of massage and beauty treatments, fully equipped gym, golf course and health-conscious meals.

Where to eat: In Durango: Lola’s Place (721 E. Second St.; tel. 970-385-5880) offers everything from venison to tamales to pasta. Entrees $11.50--$22, a la carte.

Seasons (764 Main Ave.; tel. 970--382--9790) offers moderately priced Italian fare. Entrees $10.50-$21, a la carte.

Durango Bagel (106 E. 5th St.; tel. 970-385-7297).

Durango Diner (957 Main Ave.; tel. (970-247-9889).

In Mancos: Millwood Junction (crossroads of U.S. 160 and Main Street; tel. 970--533--7338), dinner only; a la carte entrees from $5.50-$18.

For more information: Durango Area Chamber Resort Assn., P.O. Box 2587, Durango, CO 81302; (800) 525-8855, (970) 247-0312, fax (970) 385-7884. Telluride Visitor Services, P.O. Box 653, Telluride, CO 81435; (970) 728-3041. For Colorfest information call 970-247-0312.