Traveling through the San Juan Mountains and making stops at historic mountain towns like Durango, Silverton, and Ouray is considered an essential road trip in America.The San Juan Mountains along the scenic San Juan Skyway are one of the highest mountain ranges in the United States, with many peaks above 14,000 feet.We started our exploration at the town of Durango, once a pioneer mining town, but now a Colorado mountain town drawing tourist year round with all types of outdoor activities such as mountain biking, rafting, horse back riding, skiing, and hiking.Durango is also famous for as the starting point for the Durango to Silverton train traveling through spectacular, breathtaking canyons in the remote wilderness of the San Juan National Forest. The train is the original coal burning, steam-powered locomotive on the same tracks miners, cowboys and settlers of the Old West took over a century ago.
The train is extremely popular and purchasing tickets in advance is required. The train ride to Silverton is three hours long. At Silverton, passengers disembark and spend two hours in Silverton. The return trip then is another three hours back to Durango. The cost of the train journey is $69.We did not have sufficient time for the train journey. Furthermore, we have our car to travel the scenic highway.
Durango is a pretty historic town, established in 1881. We enjoyed walking around the downtown admiring the restored Victorian-styled buildings, and we did the “Sky Steps” to get a great view of the town. Then we obtained a map of the San Juan Highway from the visitor center located right on main street before embarking on what would be a scenic but nerve wrecking drive.The highway was dry and well maintained. It was fairly easy driving at the beginning as we passed a lake, then a small ski resort. But as we reached the first pass, Coal Bank Pass, at 10,660 ft, the driving started to be windy, requiring full concentration. After navigating another mountain pass, the Molas Pass, at 10,899 ft, the twist and turns plus sharp drop offs began to ease off somewhat.Finally, we arrived at Silverton, after ninety minutes on the highway, with stops. This town was a former mining camp. There are many restored saloons, hotels, and other historic building for tourist to visit. It was busy as we walked around the town since the train had just arrived and all the tourist dis-embarked for their visit.We continued on our Skyway drive towards Ouray. This section of the skyway was challenging for the section just after the Silverton Mountain Ski Resort towards the Red Mountain Pass, at 11,075 ft. The section at Box Canyon Falls, just before arriving at Ouray also required full concentration.Ouray is surrounded on all sides by snow-capped peaks and set at the narrow head of a deep valley, which is why the town promoted itself as the “Switzerland of America.” Ouray has kept much of its authentic turn-of-the-century charm. The whole town is registered as a Historic District and includes many buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. Its free Ice Park attracts amateur and professional ice climbers from around the world. There is a nice public hot spring pool just a short distance north of the town.With most of the nail biting driving for the day behind us, we continued onward to our final destination, another pretty historic mountain town called Montrose. This town will be our gateway to the exploration of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado.