“If you should, in your imagination, put together in one small group, perhaps 12 miles square, all the heights and depths, the rugged precipices and polished faces of rock, and all the sharp pinnacles and deeply-indented crests, and twenty times the inaccessible summits that both of us have ever seen, you would not have a picture equal to this . . . “
~W.H. Holmes, U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey, describing the San Juan Mountains, September 7, 1876.
“I forgot how much I liked Colorado,” remarked Chris as we were approaching Ridgway State Park, located on the northern fringes of the San Juan Mountain Range. Just beginning to get a taste of some of the most picturesque and perfect peaks in the Colorado Rockies, we both were enthralled with what lay ahead of us. It was times such as this when words can’t fully describe what we were seeing . . . when all we can do is sit back and bask in the wonders of nature’s creation. And try to keep one’s attention on the driving down the road. Such is the impact of these mountains.
Each of the destinations on this Colorado trip has a special significance to us, has its own attractions. Each place is memorable in its own right, having features worthy of our time to stay awhile. But when it came to the planning of this Colorado itinerary, the first thing that came to my mind, the part of Colorado that must be included, I knew without a doubt, the San Juans would be part of this trip . . . and a big part, at that. Driving south of I-70, we would make a big loop encircling the mountains of southwestern Colorado. Included in that loop would be the towns most prominent in the San Juans, places we would stop, stay several days, and literally soak up as much of the scenery as we could. I saw it as being the highlight of our two-month tour of the state. I intended to savor every minute we spent here.
The San Juan Mountains encompass almost all of the southwestern part of Colorado. This area comprises more than 10,000 square miles of mountains, about an eighth of the state and an area roughly equal in size to the state of Massachusetts. It is said to be the largest mountain system in America. It is a juxtaposition of many distinct ranges, no less than ten which are named, and the additional ones are more blurred in their definition and less distinct. With a mean elevation of 10,000 feet, this range has over 100 peaks topping 13,000 feet, and has 14 of the state’s fifty-four 14,000-foot peaks. Of all the outstanding features of Colorado’s mountains, this range stands out . . . they are the youngest of the Rocky Mountains—at 35 million years old they are positively junvenile in geologic time (nearly half the age of the other Colorado ranges), which means that with less eons of erosion they have a more rugged and breath-taking appearance. They are the most highly mineralized mountains in Colorado, and that is a mixed blessing of sorts. The mineral content adds brilliant colors to the mountain peaks, but it also contains the precious metals that brought the hordes of miners into this area, wreaking devestation upon the land. The San Juans were originally proposed to be the site of Rocky Mountain National Park, but the abundance of private land holdings in the form of old mining claims prevented national park status. Today, the deserted towns and mines have become a part of the character of this area.
To showcase this outstanding mountain range you’ll find the San Juan Skyway takes in the best views along its 336-mile route. Looping around and passing by some of the range’s most prominent peaks, it is simply a dramatic drive from start to finish. Although it is possible to drive the entire loop in a long day’s drive , it really deserves a more leisurely tour. We have driven many segments of it through our years here, eventually taking it all in, but never having done any lengthy stretch at one time. With its sharp switchbacks, steep grades and world-class views, it is a breathtaking drive with Kodak views you’ll want to stop and photograph continuously. No matter the season . . . gushing waterfalls cascade down the slopes in the spring as the mountain peaks retain their snow-covered crowns, wildflowers garnish the alpine forests and rocky alpine tundra in the summer months, the gilded amber, bronze, and gold of the aspens cover the mountainsides in the brief autumn days and glistening snow blankets all of the countryside in the long winter months. A family could easily spend an entire 2-week vacation along its route and never become bored. Not only would you find a wide range of recreational activities to enjoy along the way, but also there are the wonderful mountain towns full of character from their past glory days that can be explored. There is history wrapped up in its route, stories of hardship as well as human ingenuity, helping to add a more meaningful depth to the scenic beauty found along every mile of the roadway’s loop.
The historic railroad town of Ridgway is the northern gateway to the San Juans as well as being a short drive from the popular mountain towns of Ouray, Telluride and Silverton. Ridgway State Park had received accolades for its campground and finally we’d be seeing for ourselves how deserving it was. Pa-Co-Chu-Puk was one of three of the park’s camping areas—the only one with full hookups. It would be our home for the coming 6 days. We set up at a spacious, albeit not very private site, and quickly made ourselves at home. Although no shade was provided, the days were pleasant, the cooling breeze nearly constant, the views outstanding and, if need be, we could switch on our AC. We rarely did.
The attractions at Ridgway State Park are numerous. The park is centered upon Ridgway Reservoir, a 1,000 surface-acre lake, which is stocked with rainbow and brown trout. There are over 2,000 acres of land within the park boundaries. With 300 campsites divided between three different areas, there’s a site for every taste. Elk Ridge and Dakota Terraces are adjacent to the reservoir, while Pa-Co-Chu-Puk campground is adjacent to the Uncompahgre River (good trout fishing) and full hookup sites. There is also a marina where you can dock your own boat or rent a kayak, canoe or paddleboat as well as a fly shop that provides guide services. But the real selling point of this park is location, location, location. It is surrounded by spectacular scenery. Rising to the south are the rugged pinnacles of the Sneffels Range, while to the eat loom Chimney Rock, Courthouse Mountain, and Turret Ridge in the Cimarron Range. To the west, the Uncompahgre Plateau stretches 70 miles toward Grand Junction. People come from all over to this park for camping, fishing hiking, boating and swimming. You can reserve any of the campsites and it is highly advised that you do—at least at the height of the season.
Magnificent mountains rise up as soon as you leave the park’s entrance headed south. We wasted no time heading out to explore and see them in their best light. We weren’t the only ones . . . and I’m certain there was a whole different look to those mountains from waaaaaaay up there!
We were headed to the Dallas Divide which affords an iconic view of the Sneffels Range. Leaving Ridgway, we were headed east, following the northern flanks of the Sneffels Range. A magnificently scenic drive, it was all mine to take in as Chris was keen to stay on the road. We passed by three turnoffs where county roads led in to other spectacularly scenic vistas—ours to take in on the return drive.
People well-acquainted with the mountains of Colorado know Mount Sneffels from calendar photographs taken from Dallas Divide. It ranks as one of the five most-often photographed mountains in the state, which include Pike’s Peak, Long’s Peak, Mt. Evans, and the Maroon Bells. The mountain was named in 1874 by the Hayden Survey for a mountain in Jules Verne’s novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” which was popular at the time. The Hayden team, which included pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran, intensively studied western Colorado from 1873 through 1876. The team climbed, measured, and named the major mountains and ranges, followed the rivers and traversed the high passes, gathered data on climate, plants, animals, and future mining and agricultural possibilities.
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? I think not (at least when it comes to scenery). This view of the Sneffels Range was just the appetizer . . . I was greedy for more. Heading back towards Ridgway, I encouraged Chris to take county roads that would afford me closer, more intimate views. How could I pass them by???
There are three improved dirt roads that head south from the highway heading east out of Ridgway. All three end close to perhaps the most scenic mountains in Colorado, the Sneffels Range. All three wind through hillsides and valleys of aspen and scrub oak, enjoy unsurpassed views of the range, and provide public access to the Uncompahgre National Forest.
I was in Seventh Heaven. And Chris made it all possible. As he maneuvered over the muddy tracks and rough roads, I was hanging out the window looking for the ideal photo ops. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.
And that was just the beginning. Next came Yankee Boy Basin—and the bar was raised a level higher.
Yankee Boy Basin is an alpine basin, more specifically a glacially-carved cirque just south of Ouray’s town limits. Sitting at an elevation between 11,500 and 12,000 feet, the basin contains some of the most prolific stands of wildflowers in the state. Monument plant, paintbrush (of varying colors), columbine, larkspur, chiming bluebells, orange sneezeweed, cow parsnip, and dwarf sunflowers are some of the wildflowers found growing here, just to name a few of the more common ones. The basin itself is surrounded by several breathtaking peaks. Most are 13,500’ or higher, standing high above the green-carpeted valley, the surrounding fields are filled with some of the most amazing flowers. The basin is also home to several waterfalls of varying sizes, the most obvious of them being the famous Twin Falls, running right near the main road into the basin. Access is provided by a dirt 4WD road. And therein lies the catch.
The start of the road offers tantalizing glimpses of what is waiting . . .
. . . but first you’ll have some dicey “road” to navigate over. It was as thrilling as it was rough . . . we didn’t quite make it all the way in.
Wildflowers might be the single most outstanding feature of the basin, but when thunder rumbles and afternoon storms threaten, there’s not much time for exploring further. One quick shot was all that was possible, and then I was scurrying back to our truck.
If Ridgway is the northern gateway to the San Juan Byway, the town of Ouray is where things really get interesting. Nestled at the base of the San Juans, this is one picturesque town, often called the Little Switzerland of America. Named after the famous Ute chief, Ouray is an old mining town lined with colorful Victorian homes and surrounded by sheer rock walls.
The awesome but breathtaking Million Dollar Highway (a.k.a.,US-550), begins just south of town. A segment of the San Juan Skyway, this scenic drive (the unsuspecting traveler might call it perilous) that goes through the Uncompahgre Gorge, stretches for about 25 miles heading south. This road winds up a glacial valley past once-thriving mines to the 12,217-foot summit of Red Mountain Pass. Towering peaks, abrupt cliff walls and thick stands of aspen and pine dominate the scenery. A narrow, two-lane road without guardrails—a significant fact—twists and curves around a precipitous mountainside, with drop-offs that are quite severe. It’s enough to give a driver cold feet and sweaty hands . . . especially those with even a slight fear of heights. (Not that I’m naming names).
The original portion of the Million Dollar Highway was a toll road built in 1883 to connect Ouray to the mining town of Ironton. Another toll road was built over Red Mountain Pass from Ironton to Silverton. In the late 1880’s Otto Mears, so-called “Pathfinder of the San Juans,” turned to building railroads and built the Silverton Railroad north from Silverton over Red Mountain Pass to reach the lucrative mining districts around Red Mountain, terminating at Albany just eight miles south of Ouray. The remaining eight miles into Ouray were considered too difficult and steep for a railroad. At one point a cog railroad was proposed, but it never made it beyond the planning stage.
Consequently, the Million Dollar Highway was constructed. The original toll road out of Ouray charged $3.75 per vehicle pulled by two horses, or $.75 if pulled by a single horse. The road operated as a mail, stage, and freight line until the Rainbow Route Railway from Silverton opened.
In the early 1920’s, the original toll road was rebuilt at considerable cost and became the present day Us-550 (see photo below for today’s actual road). The entire route is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. There are many explanations for its name . . . perhaps it comes from the “Million Dollar Views” along the route, or more probable, refers to the cost of improving the original road for automobile use.
Before leaving the gorge, the byway passes through a snow shed under the Riverside Slide avalanche zone. A monument stands near here honoring those who have lost their lives in the many avalanches, including several snowplow operators. The Slide drops 3,200 vertical feet down abrupt chutes, making this highway Colorado’s deadliest crossing. Today a snow shed protects the road from rockslides and avalanches.
After leaving the gorge the road passes through a nice flat valley (stressed-out drivers get a short reprieve). Aspens blanket the mountainside around here and Crystal Lake lies just adjacent to the road. Take the trail that encircles the water for great views of the three peaks of Red Mountains #1, #2 and #3 (yes, that’s their official names). A setting with lots of potential, I knew I’d be back on a better day.
After the short breather, the road begins a serious climb, culminating at 11,000+foot Red Mountain Pass. Spectacular scenery for the passengers, another harrowing road for the driver. You gotta love the view!!
The view from the pass makes up for all the stress some people experience to get here. From here you’ll see the tallest of the Red Mountains—it’s the reddest mountain on our planet. The bright reds, yellows, and oranges that make up the mountain are the result of iron oxides, a mineral widespread in this area.
In the coming days, we’d do much more than take driving tours the area. Seeing the scenery was just one facet of what brought us here. There were trails to take, mountain air to breathe and wildflower meadows to revel in. Spiritual renewal for sure. And, by the way, I did make it back to Crystal Lake . . . under much better photographic conditions.
From the very picturesque San Juan peaks,
Melinda & Chris