OURAY — Snow frosts the high peaks, and the roadways are virtually devoid of tourists. Magnificent mountains without the masses make this an ideal time to sample Colorado’s grandeur by car, and there’s no better place to do that than the San Juan Skyway.
The 233-mile scenic byway loops through the rugged San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. The entire route can be driven in an easy day, but my wife, Dianne, and I seldom do things the easy way. Ours will be a four-day, three-night escape. Motoring south from Ridgway on U.S. 550, our first night comes in Ouray.
In summer, the self-proclaimed Switzerland of America is stuffed with tourists proudly sporting Dallas Cowboys attire. Not this time of year. We’re one of the few guests at the historic St. Elmo Hotel in downtown Ouray. Our room’s Victorian-themed wallpaper and furnishings display more flowers than an FTD catalog.
The next morning, we head south on U.S. 550, the Million Dollar Highway, whose nickname, according to Ouray County Museum curator Don Paulson, came when the old wagon road was upgraded for automobiles at a cost of nearly a million dollars. Numerous photo-worthy pullouts suggest a better 21st century nickname would be the Million Megapixel Highway.
We turn into Silverton, a town with twin personalities. In the summer, with the Durango & Silverton trains in town, the place bustles. Without the trains, the town remains as muffled as a funeral parlor. There are no trains this time of year.
One advantage of offseason travel is that rooms in popular places become readily available, often at discounted prices. With that in mind, we book our second night’s lodging at the elegant General Palmer Hotel in downtown Durango. I love the Keurig in-room coffeemaker. Dianne loves the fresh cookies in the lobby.
From Durango, the Skyway follows U.S. 160 west toward Mancos, where we have a choice of routes. We can continue toward Cortez and turn up Colorado 145 or we can take Colorado 184 and follow the old Rio Grande Southern rail route, joining Colorado 145 near Dolores. We opt for the latter.
Like most railroads of the day, the Rio Grande Southern used steam engines to service local mining communities. When the Depression hit, the railroad held a lucrative postal contract, but it couldn’t afford to fire up coal-gulping steam engines. They solved their dilemma by fabricating a flock of Galloping Geese — car-bodied motorcars driving rail wheels. Number 5 nests outside theRio Grande Southern Railroad Museum in Dolores.
One of the Goose-served towns was Rico, a mining community up the highway that somehow escaped a mini-mansion makeover. Rough and rustic, it reminds me of Telluride back when I first visited four decades ago.
In the mid-’70s, Telluride was a laid-back hippie hangout. Today, it and neighboring Mountain Village may draw the 1 percenters, but downtown Telluride, where we overnight at Hotel Telluride, still maintains a relaxed feel with its aging long-hairs now graying and wealthy.
Heading north in the morning, we pass through Sawpit, which, along with No Name and Silt, stands as one of Colorado’s least realtor-friendly town names. In Placerville, we turn onto Colorado 62 and climb toward the Dallas Divide, arguably the Skyway’s most scenic section. We stop at a roadside viewpoint.
To the south towers a craggy wall of peaks capped by 14,157-foot Mount Sneffels. This sprawling vista typically draws more photographers than Kate and Prince William, and in high season, we’d be sharing the breathtaking panorama with throngs of landscape paparazzi. Today, we enjoy the site quietly by ourselves, which is just how we like it.
Dan Leeth is a travel writer/ photographer; more at LookingForTheWorld.com.
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