Colorado Scenic Drive: San Juan Skyway

Discover history and new heights on Colorado's San Juan Skyway. This scenic drive through the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado follows more than 200 miles of state-maintained highways on a journey from towering mountains and alpine forests to the rolling vistas and ancient ruins of Native American country.

On this byway, you can drive through the heart of five million acres of the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests. The San Juan Skyway takes you over mountain passes and through quaint towns. 

Archaeological Qualities of the San Juan Skyway

Among this byway's many archaeological sites, Mesa Verde (located in Mesa Verde National Park) is arguably the most outstanding site. Mesa Verde (Spanish for "green table") offers an unparalleled opportunity to see and experience a unique cultural and physical landscape.

The culture represented at Mesa Verde reflects more than 700 years of history. From approximately A.D. 600 through A.D. 1300, people lived and flourished in communities throughout the area. They eventually constructed elaborate stone villages, now called cliff dwellings, in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. In the late 1200s and within only one or two generations, they left their homes and moved away.

View Enlarged Image This map of the San Juan Skyway will take you through mountain passes and by cliff dwellings, spring waterfalls, and fall splendor. View Enlarged Image This map of the San Juan Skyway will take you through mountain passes and by cliff dwellings, spring waterfalls, and fall splendor.
View Enlarged Image This map of the San Juan Skyway will take you through mountain passes and by cliff dwellings, spring waterfalls, and fall splendor.

The archaeological sites found in Mesa Verde National Park are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States. Mesa Verde National Park offers visitors a spectacular look into the lives of the ancestral Pueblo.

Scientists study the ancient dwellings of Mesa Verde in part by making comparisons between the ancestral Pueblo and their descendants who live in the Southwest today -- 24 Native American nations in the Southwest have an ancestral affiliation with the sites at Mesa Verde.

Qualities of the San Juan Skyway

The discovery of precious metals led to the exploration and settlement of areas along the San Juan Skyway during the late 19th century. Narrow-gauge railroads played an important role during the mining era and in the history of southwest Colorado as a whole.

With their rails set three feet apart as opposed to the standard gauge of nearly five feet, the narrow-gauge lines made it possible for trains to operate in mountainous country with tight turns and steep grades. Evidence of these defunct, narrow-gauge lines is manifested by the water tanks, bridges, trestles, and sections of railroad bed found along the San Juan Skyway.

One narrow-gauge railroad, the Durango and Silverton, continues to operate as a tourist line. It was constructed from 1881 to 1882 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad to haul ore and provisions, and in 1968 the line was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

As it travels along the Animas River amidst majestic mountains, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers scenic vistas and the experience of riding an authentic coal-fired, steam-powered railroad. It is one of southwest Colorado's major attractions and carries more than 200,000 passengers a year.

Qualities of the San Juan Skyway

The already spectacular San Juan Skyway takes on especially vibrant beauty in the fall. The lush green of deciduous vegetation on the mountainsides is transformed into shades of gold, red, bronze, and purple, with evergreens adding their contrasting blues and greens.

The aspen trees are the first to turn shades of gold and rosy red. With their shimmering leaves, the aspen groves glow when the sun shines through them. The cottonwood trees, located along rivers and creeks, are next to turn gold, and a variety of shrubs complement the scene with their fall hues of red, purple, bronze, and orange.

Autumn is a favorite time for locals and tourists alike to enjoy the warm days, cool and crisp nights, and breathtakingly beautiful scenery of the San Juan Skyway.

Qualities of the San Juan Skyway

Summer activities include hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, four wheeling, hunting, and fishing. Winter activities include snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and skiing.

Durango Mountain Resort at Purgatory offers downhill skiing and a Nordic center with a groomed track. In summer, the lift takes visitors up the mountain for sightseeing and wildflower viewing. The lift is also a way to get to the top of the mountain biking trail system and to the top of the tobogganlike Alpine Slide.

Find more useful information related to Colorado's San Juan Skyway:

  • Colorado Scenic Drives: The San Juan Skyway is just one of the scenic byways in Colorado. Check out the others.
  • Cortez, Durango, Ouray, Silverton, Telluride: Find out what there is to do in these cities along the San Juan Skyway.
  • Mesa Verde National Park: The San Jaun Skyway passes through this National Park. Learn about visiting it.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Colorado? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.