Monday, September 10, 2012

San Juan Skyway

Donna and I got high yesterday, really high. To be precise, we got 10,222 feet high.

The San Juan Skyway is a component of the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway System. The Skyway is 233 miles long. Due to mountain travel, reduced speeds, and numerous stops to see the sites, it can take the better part of a day to travel the entire loop. Donna and I decided to sample about a third of the Skyway, so we went from Cortez to Telluride and back, a round trip of about 150 miles.

The road from Cortez to Dolores is an easy drive with little change in elevation. Cortez sits at almost 6,200 feet while Dolores is just over 6,900 feet. At Dolores, the highway crosses the Dolores River and parallels that river for the next 40 miles or so, leading us deeper and deeper into the mountains, constantly rising in elevation.

The Dolores River, several miles northeast of Dolores
Shortly after leaving Dolores, we entered San Juan National Forest. There are numerous trailheads and  forest roads located just off the highway. Hiking opportunities abound in the area. This part of the road is fairly easy to drive as the highway stays in the river valley for the most part.

At nearly 50 miles, we arrived in Rico, elevation 8,800 feet and home to about 250 hardy souls.

Downtown Rico, Colorado

About 10 miles or so northeast of Rico, we arrived at Lizard Head Pass, the highest point on our journey at 10,222 feet.

Lizard Head Pass at 10,222 feet
The pass sits among a group of mountains with elevations in excess of 13,000 feet: Mount Wilson (14,246 ft), El Diente Peak (14,159 ft.), Wilson Peak (14,017 ft.), Gladstone Peak (13,913 ft.), and Lizard Heak (13,113 ft.) among others.

Lizard Head, for which the pass is named.
Lovely high country meadow near Lizard Head
Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak, both over 14,000 ft.
It was only September 9 when we made this trip, but there was already some color in the high country
The most difficult part of the drive was between Lizard Head Pass and Telluride. There were at least 2 hairpin curves on this stretch, and several stretches of "cliff driving" with steep drop offs on one side. To be honest, I don't like this type of driving, but the roads are well marked and well maintained.

Telluride was our destination for today's journey. Telluride, a historic mining town, sits in the San Miguel River valley at an elevation of 8,750 ft. Actually, from what I could tell, it sits in a box canyon, with only 1 paved road in and out.

Telluride, nestled in its box canyon. This is the only paved road in or out of the isolated village.

Many of the buildings in the business district of Telluride are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are lovely. Donna and I spent a little time roaming the streets. To be honest, though, this type of town holds little interest for us. The touristy shops lining the main road sell over-priced items that we do not want or need. There are numerous trendy eateries in the business district, most priced at 25% or more than we would normally pay, but the variety is great. I was glad we visited, but this is not the kind of place we would make as a destination to spend several days.

Today, Telluride is home to those with more money than Donna and I will ever have; we could not afford to live in a shed in this place. A number of famous folks also reside here, at least for part of the year. The main winter attraction is skiing and other winter sports, while summer offers a great climate and trendy lifestyle. Gasoline, by the way, was $4.16 per gallon in Telluride.

The business district is several blocks long and is nestled against the canyon walls
Donna crossing the main street in downtown Telluride (looking west, away from the canyon)
Telluride, looking into the box canyon
The scenery is beautiful along this route and the driving is not too bad as mountain roads go. The speed limit along the road ranges from a low of 25 mph north of Lizard Head Pass to 60 mph just outside of Dolores. Avalanches are possible in winter along a few northern sections of the route, and rock slides are possible all along the route year round. Gas is available at Dolores, Rico, and Telluride. Gas was $3.69 in Dolores and over $4.00 in both Rico and Telluride.

Happy Trails!

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