With its high mountains, deep forests, wide-open spaces, and striking rock formations, Durango and its surroundings showcase some of the most diverse landscapes in the U.S. The area is also home to some of the best-preserved and most impressive cliff dwellings and ancient ruins in the Southwest, so you know it’s a place worth exploring.
Durango offers the perfect base to explore the southwestern corner of Colorado. While spending time here, you can use a day (or two) to explore the best of the surroundings on a round-trip to Telluride, on the San Juan Skyway Scenic Road.
The 235-mile round-trip is one of the most scenic roads in the U.S. You can take it in either direction, you won’t be disappointed. Stop often to enjoy the stunning scenery.
The perfect gateway city to explore southwestern Colorado, Durango is a destination worth exploring. Surrounded by the rugged San Juan Mountains and their gorgeous forests, it offers spectacular views in every direction. The Animas River flows for about 10 miles through town, seen or heard from trails, city sidewalks, and outdoor restaurants.
Given all it offers, Durango merits a day or two to stay just to explore the town and its immediate surroundings. My favorite activity in town is walking on the Animas River Trail. You can walk different stretches of it, as it connects all areas of town. In fact, you can ditch your car while you are in Durango, and you won’t even need to use public transport.
You can get anywhere in town along the Animas River Trail. It passes through parks, crosses the river on several picturesque bridges, and features interpretive signs and several creative sculptures. You can either walk it, bike it, or a combination of both. It offers a lovely way to enjoy the mountain town.
Though it has a definite outdoorsy vibe, the historic downtown preserves Durango’s Wild West roots with 1880s-era buildings, while you can also find some fine dining choices.
In the fertile valley shadowed by Mesa Verde, Cortez is in a perfect location for both agriculture and a strong cultural background. The town’s agricultural traditions are steeped in the ancient history of the Indigenous people of the region, with heirloom and heritage beans and squash grown here for centuries. Besides these basic staples, you’ll find many other farm-to-table meals in restaurants like the Farm’s Bistro in town.
But more than its agricultural background, Cortez is famous for its ancient cultural heritage you can see at the Cortez Cultural Center, and even more so at Mesa Verde National Park just 8 miles from the town.
3. Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is world-famous for its spectacular cliff dwellings, and for good reason. The largest one, Cliff Palace, is an ancient architectural masterpiece built between A.D. 1190 and 1280. It features 115 rooms and 28 kivas (special rooms used for meetings and ceremonies) built in an enormous alcove.
The others — Long House, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, and Step House — might not be as huge, but are just as spectacular, though some of them are hard to reach. And besides cliff dwellings, you’ll find much older sites on the mesa top, including early pit houses, ceremonial kivas, and towers.
Protected since 1906, Mesa Verde was the first archaeological site designated as a national park. It is also a UNESCO Heritage Site for its outstanding universal value.
While you can visit the mesa-top sites and Step House as a self-guided tour, you need to join a ticketed tour for all other cliff dwellings.
Pro Tip: As of May 2022, you need to buy tickets ahead of time. You can do this either online or by calling 877-444-6777. You can buy them 14 days in advance, and since the demand is high, I recommend trying to get them early.
4. Canyons Of The Ancients
With 8,300 recorded sites, the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is home to the largest concentration of known archaeological sites in the U.S. These sites include villages, kivas, cliff dwellings, field houses, and petroglyphs.
While you can’t visit all the sites, the best way to learn about them is to stop at the Canyons of the Ancient Visitor Center and Museum in Dolores. Here, you’ll find all the information about the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the region, hands-on interactive exhibits, artifacts, and records from excavations in the area. You’ll even find a replica pit house here, offering a glimpse into the lives of the early Ancestral Puebloans.
Just outside the museum, you’ll find a half-mile-long paved trail leading up to the Escalante Ruins, an ancient village dating from the 1100s. Kivas and interconnecting rooms sit on top of the hill overlooking the Dolores River and the agricultural lands below. Interpretive signs along the trail talk about the history and geology of the area.
Pro Tip: Drive a few extra miles and visit the ruins of Lowry Pueblo and Hovenweep National Monument if you have more time to spend in the area.
You’ll then drive along the Dolores River in a gorgeous valley surrounded by aspen and pine forests until you reach the turnoff for Telluride.
Known as a ski resort, the gorgeous mountain town of Telluride lies in a box canyon surrounded by some of the tallest, most rugged peaks of the San Juan Mountains. This means there is no shortage of outdoor activities in town, no matter the season.
While winter brings the perfect skiing conditions, summer offers opportunities to hike, bike, or ride along winding old mining roads and gorgeous meadows. These meadows are often filled with herds of elk and other wildlife.
Built as a mining town, Telluride had an important role in the history of the American West. The center of town, showcasing colorful Victorian-era homes and other historic buildings, was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964.
But probably the best of Telluride is at the end of a free gondola ride. Mountain Village, an extension of Telluride, sits 9,500 feet above the valley floor and offers access to the ski resort and the Uncompahgre National Forest. The tiny European-style village offers some of the best experiences of Telluride, among the aspen and spruce-covered mountains.
On the other side of the mountain, you’ll reach quaint Ouray, nicknamed “the Switzerland of America.” With no ski slopes to make it as popular as Telluride, Ouray kept its small-town charm.
However, its famous hot springs and ice climbing in the winter put it on the map as one of the top mountain destinations in Colorado. Open year-round, the hot springs attract visitors from all over the country. The largest and most popular ones are on the town’s main street and offer something for all ages: diving platforms, lap lanes, and waterfalls for the younger crowd, and several adults-only soaking pools.
But my favorite things about Ouray are the walking trails along the Uncompahgre River and the hiking trails in and around town that lead to gorgeous waterfalls and secluded forested areas.
The town’s main street merits some attention, too. Lined with original Victorian-era buildings, hotels, private residences, the courthouse, and the city hall, it is registered as a National Historic District.
7. At Least One Stop Along The Million Dollar Highway
Between Ouray and Silverton, you will drive along a stretch of the Scenic San Juan Skyway known as the Million Dollar Highway.
You’ll find many stories about how the highway got its name, but once you drive it, you’ll always think it was for its million-dollar views.
This short section of the highway is the most scenic — and scariest — stretch of this road. You’ll find plenty of places to stop and enjoy these stunning views; I have several favorites.
We always stop at the overlook above Ouray for a final view of my favorite town in this part of Colorado. Enjoy the views while the road descends into the Uncompahgre Gorge, then climbs out of it.
In the gorge, some of our favorite stops include Crystal Lake, with gorgeous views of Red Mountain, and Ironton, for its trail in the aspen forest.
But the most spectacular stop, one you can not miss, is on top of Red Mountain Pass, with stunning views in every direction.
At the other end of the Million Dollar Highway, you’ll reach tiny Silverton, the picturesque town that seems forgotten here from centuries ago. Established as a mining settlement in the 1870s, the entire town is a National Historic Landmark.
Its Victorian-era buildings house hotels and restaurants on Main Street in the valley on the shores of the Animas River. A picturesque old mining town, Silverton, is also the destination of the scenic railway coming in from Durango.
Strolling along Main Street, you might feel you landed in a different era. Dine at the saloon of the historic Grand Imperial Hotel, housed in a building dating from 1883, while taking in the old-world ambiance. Stroll over to the train depot and farther to take a walk along the Animas River, and visit the San Juan Mining Center near the historic city hall.
Return To Durango
From Silverton, take the San Juan Scenic Byway back to Durango. Enjoy the views along the way and make sure you stop at several scenic view sites.
Stop right above Silverton for a gorgeous view of the town nestled in the valley below. Another stop you can’t miss for the unbelievable views all around is the summit of Molas Pass.
You’ll also find several lakes along the way, offering perfect opportunities to stop and enjoy the fresh alpine air, and maybe take a hike around them.
Before getting back to Durango, stop at Honeyville if it’s open, watch the bees work, sample some honey products, and buy some pure, Rocky Mountain honey.
Depending on the season and the weather, you can also drive this road in the opposite direction for the best views along several stretches. Over the years, we’ve driven this stretch in either direction and enjoyed it both ways.
For me, it works better to start the way I suggested in this article. The elevation gain is more gradual this way, which helps with my elevation sickness. But if you have no problems with it, starting in the opposite direction offers more dramatic views in some areas.