San Juan Skyway (US Hwy. 550)
From Durango to Silverton, Colorado
After seeing the San Juan Mountains in the distance from Mesa Verde National Park, I decided to make a quick there-and-back drive up to Silverton, one of my favorite western towns.
Take US Hwy. 550 north, from Durango to Silverton. This section of road is part of the San Juan Skyway. It is also widely considered to be part of the Million Dollar Highway, although this title is often applied only to US 550 north of Silverton.
Just a few miles north of Durango, watch for this natural spring on the east side of the road. The Pinkerton Hot Springs fed the pools of water at the Pinkerton-in-the-Pines resort, which was established nearby in the 1870's. The heated water was also bottled and served as a healing beverage.
Nowadays, the resort is gone, and water from the hot springs bubbles up at the side of the road, looking like a forlorn fountain that someone forgot to turn off.
Within a few miles, the road gains elevation. Most of the year, you'll find snow here.
Between Durango and Silverton, US 550 takes you over two high mountain passes. The first is Coal Bank Pass (elevation 10,640 ft.), where in December, I found snow already piled up as high as the road signs (at least 8-10 feet high).
Coming down from Coal Bank Pass, you'll be treated to a view of several mountains, including Twilight Peak, elevation 13,158 ft.
A short distance further, you reach the low point between Coal Bank and Molas Passes. The road heads down one mountainside (on the right in the above picture), then heads around a sweeping 180o curve, and begins its climb to Molas.
This is the view from the middle of the curve, looking the other direction.
Topping out at Molas Pass (elevation 10,910 ft.), you're now nearly 300 feet higher than you were just a few minutes ago, at Coal Bank Pass. If you have a snowmobile, cross-country skis, or just a sled, this is a great place to play in the wintertime.
This was my second trip up the San Juan Skyway, but I had forgotten what came next: the incredible view of tiny Silverton, Colorado in the valley, surrounded by huge mountains in every direction.
There's no doubt that Silverton is just as interested as Durango in making money off tourists. But Silverton is a completely different place. Here, you feel like you're in the old, wild west. The buildings seem authentic, and the entire town lacks that "renovated" feel that you get in Durango.
Greene Street (the main street through town) had been plowed and treated, but that wasn't the case elsewhere in town.
I did a little wandering down some of Silverton's alleys, and found a bathtub next to a mailbox...
... and discovered Silverton's jail, circa 1883, complete with a famous resident peeking out the window: Martha Stewart.
I think the most scenic part of Silverton may be on Empire Street, just a block east of Greene. Here, the road was completely snow-covered, and many old buildings and businesses lined the road. Unlike those on Greene Street, most of these stores were closed for the season.
The old Arcade now sells fudge, just not at this time of year.
After slipping and sliding around town, I decided to once again head towards Animas Forks, an old ghost town in the mountains north of Silverton. I had tried to find it once before, as well, but during that trip I got sidetracked, and ended up on a great 4wd road, that took me over two remote mountain passes (but never led to Animas Forks).
CO Rte. 110 starts at the north end of Silverton, and heads Animas Forks. There's only one problem: it also goes in a different direction, towards the ghost town of Gladstone. I did not know this in 2005, and I still didn't know this during my 2006 visit. So, for the second time, I headed out of town, headed in the opposite direction of Animas Forks.
The key to heading to Animas Forks, I've learned (after staring at one map after another of this area) is to turn right on 18th Street, then left on Blair Street, and drive past the San Juan Hillside Cemetery, just above Silverton. If you don't pass the cemetery, you're headed the wrong way on Rte. 110.
I didn't really expect to make it all the way to Animas Forks in December. I was quite sure that the road would be snow-covered and impassable, but I decided to go as far as I could. Of course, for the second time, I had turned the wrong way on Rte. 110, and once again ended up at Gladstone.
Even though I didn't know where I was going, or have any destination in mind, it was still a nice, wintry drive.
After this, I drove back into Silverton, then returned to Durango. I already had reservations in Farmington, New Mexico, so I spent the rest of the day driving there.
To Farmington, take US 550 south to the town of Aztec, then New Mexico Rte. 516.
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