In southern Colorado, immediately north of the Old West town of Durango, you’ll find the starting point of the San Juan Scenic Skyway, a picture-perfect two-lane road that leaps into the mountains before launching you up beyond 11,000 feet. Along the way, you’ll encounter the mining town of Silverton and the thermal baths of Ouray on a stretch called the Million Dollar Highway.
After reaching the top of the arc, the road boomerangs south to Telluride and then still farther south into the intriguingly mysterious Mesa Verde National Park. All in all, the roughly 200-mile trek delivers plenty of pure Colorado pleasure.
Durango: A New Twist on the Old West
Durango was born out of the Wild West but has grown up to become one of the nation’s most picturesque towns. There’s a good vibe here, perhaps due to the setting amid mountains and rivers.
Its downtown is filled with contemporary independent merchants and restaurateurs, yet it still has plenty of Old West flair, thanks to a famed railroad, the 1887 Strater Hotel, and other historical structures. Are motorcycles welcome? Look along Main Street, and you’ll see that, on most days (and evenings), it looks like a dealer’s showroom.
A True Iron Horse
From Durango, you don’t need your own wheels to hit the heights in the San Juan Mountains. On the rails since the 1880s, the Durango–Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (initially created to carry silver and gold from the hills), now hauls passengers along the imposing Animas River Gorge en route to the one-time frontier town of Silverton.
Even if you don’t feel inclined to ride the train, be sure to watch it wheeze its way out of the station in the morning or chuff its way home in the afternoon.
High Upon the San Juan Skyway
While riding along the Million Dollar Highway, remember that you’re riding along a mountain road that few thought could ever be built. But Otto Mears, born in Russia in 1840 and raised in U.S., proved himself to be an engineering genius, though. The man known as the Pathfinder of the San Juans created railroads and roads in these hills, and his legacy is a blacktop playground that’s supremely popular with riders.
Be sure to practice your best biking behavior since steep leaps, switchback curves, and plummeting descents require the right attitude—especially at a high altitude. Thinking of riding after dark? Don’t. There are far too many sheer drops and animals crossing the road.
You Go Ouray . . .
Having completed the most challenging section of the San Juan Skyway, drop down into Ouray (pronounced you-ray), where thermal baths can ease saddle-sore muscles.
At the north end of Main Street is the Hot Springs Pool, where waters fed by a network of springs range from a warm 78 degrees to a super-heated 104 degrees. (The cost? $12. The experience? Priceless.)
Also, swing by powerful Box Canyon Falls and then the Outlaw Restaurant, where you can try on John Wayne’s Stetson, his gift to the owners after shooting the movie, True Grit.
Some Time in Telluride
Originally a silver-mining boomtown, Telluride boomed yet again when “white gold” (snow) transformed it into a ski resort destination. Although there are only about 1,500 residents year-round, there’s a lot of energy here thanks to the many art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants.
The town’s energy (and population) spike several times a year thanks to ski season and to a calendar that includes the Telluride Blues & Brews festival, the Bluegrass Festival, and the legendary Telluride Film Festival.
The Road That Stretches Out Behind
When riding the San Juan Skyway, sometimes once is not enough. Making a U-turn to return to the road once traveled is highly tempting, considering that the proliferation of high alpine meadows, forests of piñon pines, jagged mountain peaks, and vast valleys will give you enough eye-candy to last until next Halloween.
Mysterious Mesa Verde
Author Willa Cather described Mesa Verde as “a little city of stone, asleep.” It’s a keenly accurate description. The indigenous residents of cliff villages, which had been populated for centuries, abruptly left sometime in the 14th century.
The sites remained untouched and unseen until 1888, when ranchers searching for stray cattle came upon them. Today they’re UNESCO World Heritage Sites in a must-see national park. The long, steep roads that lead into park—scaling mountains and traversing mesas—are particularly exciting for riders.
Along about sundown, visitors begin leaving Mesa Verde National Park, passing an astounding overlook that they might have missed earlier while en route to the park’s far reaches. Beyond the silhouette of a tree that seems to have died of fright is Montezuma Valley, a landscape that stretches to the horizon and embodies the grandeur of Mesa Verde.
If there’s no room inside the park—either at the top-of-the-line Far View Lodge or the more affordable Morefield Campground—about 10 miles west is Cortez, a clean, quiet town with hotels, restaurants, and stores that sell all the provisions you need for your travels.
Editor’s Note: This is the seventh piece in our eight-part series on motorcycle travel by Gary McKechnie, author of Great American Motorcycle Tours, which has just been released in its fifth edition. For more tips and itineraries, see the other articles in this series in Motorcycle Road Trips.