A Ride Around The San Juan Parkway Scenic Byway
Over Labor Day weekend Mrs. C. and I took a 4 day ride with our friends Dan, Kathy,
Woody and Scott Pasmore to the Durango, Colorado area. This was
an area that I had heard so much about for the last several years, and just hadn't made the time to ride there.
The accolades that I had gotten about the riding up there were so fantastic that I really didn't believe that the
area could hold up to the great things that I had heard about it. Mrs. C. and I have seen a lot of beautiful riding
country in the last few years, so I'm thinking this is really going to have to be good to compare. After experiencing
Southwest Colorado this year, I am now wondering what took me so long, and owe an apology to all of those
that I had doubted. I wasn't oversold by any means, in fact I don't think that could be possible. This ride exceeded
every expectation that I had.
We left the McKinnon Inn in Munds Park Friday morning with our destination being the Durango Mountain Ski Resort in Purgatory for 3 nights in a condo with our friends Dan and Kathy. Our route took us up Hwy. 89 North of Flagstaff to Hwy. 160 that would take us through the thriving metropolis of Tuba City and Kayenta on our way to another landmark that I had never been to known as "The Four Corners Monument". We stopped at the Four Corners and took the typical photo op of having one limb in each of the 4 States of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. The route across 160 to Cortez is pretty desolate, but it does have some character and wasn't a bad ride at all. After riding into a massive rain storm and waiting it out for a while, we finally reached Durango at about 5:30pm.
Saturday we took what is known as the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway clockwise from our home base at the Durango Mountain Ski Resort. Our first stop was breakfast at the Brickhouse Cafe in Durango and then make our way on the West side of the mountains through Dolores, Rico and to our next destination of Telluride. We just so happened to be in the artsy town of Telluride, home of Tom Cruise, Oprah, and several other Hollywood stars during the Telluride Film Festival. Telluride is a very cool old mining town from the late 1800's stuck back in a box canyon that is now a high priced ski area. It really is a neat place to ride to and visit.
After lunch and an hour of exploring Telluride, we were on our way past Ralph Lauren's 38,000 acre ranch to the other side of the San Juans to connect with Hwy. 550 and visit Ouray, aka "The Switzerland of America", another old mining town full of history. In 1873, the famous Ute Chief, Ouray, reluctantly signed a government treaty releasing the Ute's treasured San Juan Mountains to encroaching settlers. The town was named in his honor. Three years later the town officially began with the stroke of a prospector's pick. Today Ouray is known for its' majestic peaks, cascading waterfalls, natural hot springs, being the North end of the infamous Million Dollar Highway and the reputation for being the Jeep Capital of the World as well as an awesome motorcycle ride. Today, people visit Ouray as much for the beauty and history as those did for the mining years ago. Most of the buildings that were built in the late 1800's have been renovated and are still standing today.
Heading South out of Ouray we were about to embark on the most treacherous stretch of the "Million Dollar Highway" that would take us the 24 miles from Ouray to Silverton. Leaving Ouray you work your way up the side of the mountain with a switchback that will give you your first view of the town of Ouray. Here you can read up on some history of the area. The next several miles through the Uncompahgre gorge will have you making a rapid ascent following a former stagecoach trail through the old Idarado mining area on your way to Red Mountain Pass at over 11,000 feet. This part of the trip will tickle your senses of visual beauty with stunning views around every corner as well awaken your sense of fear as you traverse a series of "S" curves and switchbacks that are often times seemingly hanging on the top of cliffs with several hundred foot drops and no guardrails. This part of the trip was extra exciting for me as I was clicking pictures the entire way. You can see in this photo I am actually on the wrong side of the road. Be sure and look at the photo gallery for all of the photos.
As you round Red Mountain Pass you will cross back into the San Juan National Forest as the highway becomes a little less hectic as it descends through the Chattanooga Valley giving you more reminders of the mining area that you are riding through before you drop into the old mining town of Silverton founded in 1874. We took a ride through the Main St. of Silverton to view the Victorian-style buildings that were erected in its heyday. In a 16 block walking tour you can visit over 50 historic buildings. After soaking up a little history we climbed out of the valley to get a good look at Silverton before making our way to Molas Pass and the beautiful view at 10,900 feet. The air on Molas Pass has earned the distinction of being the cleanest in the entire USA. We then crossed Coal Bank Pass at 10,640 feet on our way back to Purgatory and Durango Ski Resort which is about 25 miles North of Durango, known as the gateway to the San Juan Mountains.
Why is this stretch of asphalt called the Million Dollar Highway? The "Million Dollar" name is clouded in a fair amount of myth. I have read many variations as to the origin of the name, but three variations seem persistent. Some say it was first used after an early traveler, complaining of the vertigo-inducing steepness of the route, said, “I wouldn’t go that way again if you paid me a million dollars.” Others claim that it cost a million dollars a mile to build in the 1920s. But the explanation you hear most often is also the most likely: When the highway was first constructed, the builders used gravel discarded by nearby gold and silver mines, only to find out later that this dirt was actually rich in ore and worth an estimated “million dollars.”
My version of the story is that I had a "Million Dollar Smile" each of the 3 times I rode the Million Dollar Highway that weekend.
As I mentioned above, Mrs. C. and I have been blessed to be able to experience some beautiful riding areas the last 5 years including the West coast of California, Oregon and Washington, The Cascades of Washington, Western Canada and The Canadian Rockies, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Beartooth Pass, Bryce Canyon, the Black Hills and more. Basically a good 15,000+ miles of roads around the Western U.S. and Canada. That being said, I think that pound for pound and mile for mile, the San Juan Parkway Scenic Byway is the best 230 mile loop of riding that I have ever done. I did it once, and it left me wanting to turn right around and do it again the opposite direction. And then again. In fact, I did it 3 times. The sheer cliffs and rugged terrain of the "Million Dollar Highway" boast some of the most dramatic scenery that I have ever seen, particularly the 24 miles from Silverton to Ouray.
I would highly recommend that you put this on the top of your list of rides to take. I give it a rating of 5 spokes plus. From Phoenix it is an easy day ride of 440 miles to Durango with a couple of different routes to take. The San Juan Skyway is a 230 mile loop which will take you the whole day to do, especially if you stop and really experience the towns. If you can only do the loop once, I would highly recommend doing it counterclockwise going North from Durango to Ouray. In my opinion you get some of the best views in this direction. Take a look at this picture I took between Durango and Purgatory. Maybe one of the best pictures that I have taken.
Click Here for the Map.
Click Here for Some Beautiful Photos
Next week I will conclude with Day 2 of our trip and the Curecanti National Recreation Loop as well as the story of my first major mechanical breakdown in the middle of nowhere and how I made it to civilization. Thanks to Dan and Kathy McKinnon for inviting us to stay with them in their condo for the weekend. It was a great home base for the riding.
Here are some useful links about the San Juan Parkway and the area.