Nestled in the Southwest corner of Colorado, the San Juan mountains are well worth the long drive from the Denver metro area. Get away from busy highways and find peace and quiet in the small towns, National Parks, and trails of Southwest Colorado.
Whether you’re road tripping around the state or looking for a place to elope, Southwest Colorado has it all. From beautiful vistas to great eats, and all the charm you can hope for from small towns, you’ll find it all on the San Juan Skyway.
The San Juan Skyway is a loop road that traverses the San Juan mountains, from Durango – Silverton – Ouray – Ridgway – Telluride – Rico – Dolores – Mancos – Durango. These towns are all worth stopping at for a bite to eat, a museum, a trail, a campsite, or a place to spend the night.
This blog will focus on most of the towns along the San Juan Skyway, but Telluride is getting its own separate guide. Read on to learn more about the best places to visit on your Southwest Colorado road trip!
How to get to Southwest Colorado
Southwest Colorado is pretty remote. It takes about 7 hours to drive from Denver to Durango, due to all the mountains! Durango is actually closer to Albuquerque (about a 4-hour drive) and Salt Lake City (about a 6-hour drive) than to Denver!
If you’re planning a trip to southern Colorado, you might as well make it a road trip of the whole region. When driving from Denver, you can either head straight south, stop at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Pagosa Springs before heading west to the San Juans, or drive through the mountains, either via I-70 through Grand Junction or US-50 through Gunnison—a great opportunity to stop by Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park!
But if you don’t have that much time, you can fly into Durango, Montrose, or Cortez and rent a car for your San Juan mountains road trip, and skip the long drive across the state.
Durango is also about a 2.5 hour drive from Moab, and it’s easy to link up your Southwest Colorado road trip into a Southeast Utah road trip, if you have the extra time. There’s so much to see, you’re going to wish you had more time no matter what!
When to visit Southwest Colorado
Every season has its ups and downs in Southwest Colorado. Here are some things to consider when planning your road trip through the San Juan Mountains.
Yellow aspen season in Colorado is incredible no matter where you explore, and the San Juan mountains are no different. Drive the Million Dollar Highway between Silverton and Ouray this time of year to get blown away by fall colors. Make sure to allow for extra time to stop at every single pullout!
This is also generally a nice time to visit to assure good weather. September and October are usually sunny and not too hot or too cold. But you’ll still want to bring all the layers, as temperatures can be as low as below freezing and as high as in the 80s.
The San Juan mountains get the most snow in Colorado! While the designation actually applies to Wolf Creek Pass, the whole area is a winter wonderland. But, when it’s not snowing, it is blue skies and sun, so winter can still be a great time to get outside in Southwest Colorado.
If you’re trying to escape the snow, head to Mesa Verde National Park or into the deserts west of Telluride. Or hit the ski resort at Purgatory or Telluride for all day shredding. The Ouray Ice Park is also a unique local winter attraction if you’ve ever wanted to learn how to ice climb.
Ah spring, when the land comes alive again. In Southwest Colorado, spring is unpredictable. It can be 70 and sunny, or it can be dumping snow well into May. This area often gets a lot of wind in the spring as well, which can make the temperature feel a lot colder than the thermometer reads.
Spring can be a great time to visit if you want to avoid other tourists. Come prepared for any weather with layers! Late spring in May and early June is typically a warm and pleasant time of year to visit the San Juan mountains.
Visit the San Juan mountains in the summertime to see wildflowers covering grassy ridges on mountain hikes. It’s the perfect time of year to take refreshing dips in alpine lakes. It can be an idyllic time to visit, but it’s also important to prepare for afternoon thunderstorms—a very common occurrence.
Southwest Colorado, along with much of Colorado, can get a strong monsoon season. It starts in early July and lasts through August. Storms build in the mountains starting around 11am, and you generally want to plan on being back below the treeline before noon. It can go from blue skies to hailing far faster than you’d think! Start your hikes early in the day, and always watch the sky for approaching storms when heading into the mountains in the summer.
Where to stay in the San Juan Mountains
There are so many options for lodging, whether you’re wanting to camp or stay in a luxury resort. While there are other options besides the ones we’ve listed below, here are some things to consider when choosing which towns to stay in while traveling through Southwest Colorado.
If you’re looking for more amenities and a bigger town to serve as a base camp while you explore the San Juans, Durango is the best option. Full of delicious restaurants, a fun downtown, grocery stores, affordable gas (compared to the mountain towns), and more, Durango is a great place to stay.
Lots of chain hotels, locally owned motels, cabins, and home rentals make Durango a pretty easy place to find somewhere to spend the night. My personal favorite is The Rochester Hotel, but the Strater Hotel and The General Palmer are also good options if you like historic hotels. For camping or cabins, check out Lightner Creek Campground, Junction Creek campground, or rv parks in town. Or, head up La Plata canyon to get away from town and find peace and quiet in the La Plata mountains.
The quaint mountain town of Ouray is a beautiful place to stay year-round, although it can be tricky to get to from the south (via the Million Dollar Highway) during the winter. But the town, although small and somewhat remote, has a very cute downtown for exploring and several great dining options.
I always stay at Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs when I’m in Ouray, because, well, they have hot springs, and that’s hard to beat! If you prefer a more classic historic hotel, the Beaumont Hotel & Spa, St. Elmo Hotel, and Hotel Ouray are all good options right in the heart of Ouray. If you’re looking for something more affordable, the Main Street Inn is a hidden gem. Based in a cute old house on Main street, the inn has very unique and comfortable rooms and provides complimentary Bakery Baskets on arrival. If you want to camp, there are several campsites up Camp Bird Road, or check out the Amphitheater Campground overlooking town.
Nestled in the middle of the San Juan mountains, Silverton is a backcountry skier’s paradise. During the winter, the town can get completely shut off due to avalanches on the highways leading out of town. But in the summer, it has great access for anyone looking to hike 14ers like Handies Peak or other top-notch trails nearby. Hang out in the cute downtown area or explore the mountains on foot or by bike.
Silverton has lots of local hotels and vacation rentals to choose from for lodging, but I always stay at The Wyman Hotel. This historic building was recently renovated and turned into one of the most beautiful boutique hotels you’ll find anywhere in Colorado. The Wyman is on the pricey side, but there are lots of other cheaper hotels like Teller House and Kendall Mountain Lodge in town. If you want to camp, check out the beautiful Molas Lake campground on Molas Pass towards Durango. Kendall and Anvil campgrounds are also good options on Mineral Creek road, north of town.
Dolores and Rico
On the other side of the San Juans, Dolores and Rico are tiny towns that feel less touristy than some of the better known mountain towns in the San Juans. If you’re looking for a quieter place to stay, both of these areas are great options. The communities are tight knit and there are great food and beer options. Plus, there is a lot to do in the area, from biking to hiking to Mesa Verde National Park.
If you’re looking for luxury, you can’t get much better than Dunton Hot Springs. This old mining ghost town turned luxury resort is by far the nicest place I have ever stayed, not just in Colorado but anywhere in the world, and absolutely worth the splurge if you’re traveling to Colorado to elope, for your anniversary, or any other special occasion. (Even if the occasion is just “treat yo’self!”)
If you’re looking for the basics, you’ll find great camping around Boggy Draw in Dolores or along the highway between Dolores and Rico. Or opt to stay in a home rental with views out to the La Plata mountains. Check out the Dolores Bike Hostel (coming soon Spring 2023) for an affordable place to stay and connect more with the local community.
Where to eat in Southwest Colorado
Of course, there are endless options for dining in Southwest Colorado. If you’re looking for a few options you can count on for great meals (at least in my experience), check out these restaurants.
Gnar Taco – Ridgway
One of my all-time favorite places to stop while driving around the San Juans, Gnar Taco is a must-try. Their tacos are loaded with unique flavors, which all go together perfectly, even when unexpected. If you eat meat, the Yardcore and the Drippy Mitch are *chefs kiss*.
Ouray Brewery – Ouray
If you’re staying in Ouray, or need something refreshing and filling after a long day hiking or exploring, Ouray Brewery is a must stop. The beer and drinks are delicious, and you can’t beat a burger after a long day outside. We’ve loved their “burger of the moment” in the past, but you can’t go wrong with anything on this menu.
Avalanche Brewing Company – Silverton
Something about breweries and days in the mountains go together. Avalanche Brewing is a local hotspot in Silverton and is always the spot to stop when in town. They make delicious pizzas (love the Mediterranean) and tacos, and their beer and drinks hit the spot.
James Ranch Grill – Durango
Stop at James Ranch Grill, a regenerative “table on the farm” restaurant north of Durango, for one of the best burgers you’ve ever eaten. Most ingredients come from the ranch itself, while others are sourced from local farms in the area. Check out the market for snacks and treats for the rest of your travels.
Absolute Bakery and Cafe – Mancos
ABC is my favorite spot for breakfast when in this corner of the San Juans. Mancos is an artsy western town west of Durango, and the gateway to Mesa Verde National Park. Absolute Bakery is a gem, both as a place to hang out, or to grab breakfast on your way to Mesa Verde or the mountains. Try the Mesa Verde Stack or the VegHead to keep you full aaalllllmost all the way to dinner!
Things to do in SW Colorado
Taking the train from Durango to Silverton is a year-round experience, but it’s especially fun during the winter. For Christmas, the train is all decked out to mimic the Polar Express—a fun activity for kids and adults alike. Taking the train is also a unique way to access certain trails and areas of the Weminuche wilderness without having to hike a lot of extra mileage.
Mesa Verde National Park
Visit the sites of Ancestral Pueblo homes in this incredible and unique to the area National Park. Take a tour into one of the cliff dwellings or drive the loop road and stop at all the informational sites to learn about the people who inhabited these mesas less than one thousand years ago. Many of their descendants still live in the area today.
Best Hikes in the San Juan Mountains
There are countless spectacular hikes in the San Juan mountains, but here are a few of my favorites. These hikes all have great views, lakes, flowers, and fall colors.
Ice Lake and Island Lake – Near Silverton
One of the most popular hikes in the area, Ice and Island lakes is well worth the four miles uphill (and 4 miles downhill on the way back). High peaks and alpine meadows full of wildflowers surround the turquoise blue lakes. This is a moderate/strenuous hike so make sure to pack enough food, layers, and water for a full day hike.
Lizard Head Loop – Near Rico
One of my favorite areas in the San Juans, Lizard Head Wilderness includes several 14ers and beautiful views out over the San Juans. This 12 mile hike can be shorter if you leave a car at each trailhead. Either way, we recommend starting from the north end of Lizard Head pass and hiking counterclockwise. This hike gives you beautiful views of Mount Wilson, Lizard Head, San Miguel peak, and reaches a summit at twelve thousand feet.
Handies Peak – Near Silverton
If you’re interested in hiking 14ers, Handies is a great one to start on. If you have a high clearance 4×4 vehicle, you will be able to drive to the trailhead in American Basin, making this hike around 5 miles. If not, we’ve hiked the alternate route through Grouse Gulch which is around 12 miles round trip and does not need a 4×4 vehicle to access. Both options are great ways to hike to 14,000 feet!
Shark’s Tooth Pass – Near Mancos
If you’re in Durango, Mancos, or Dolores, the La Platas are a great mountainous area to explore. Shark’s Tooth Pass is a great option for a half day hike. The ~4 mile trail takes you up past a large rock glacier and looks over Hesperus mountain, the Diné (Navajo) sacred Northern mountain.
Winter Activities in SW Colorado
The fun doesn’t stop in Southwest Colorado in the winter! There’s always something to do in the mountains. Or if you’re tired of snow, you can head out to the desert to find blue skies and red rocks to sunbathe on. Here are a few of my favorite winter activities in the San Juans.
Downhill Skiing or Snowboarding
Of course, skiing and snowboarding is a great winter activity. There are several ski resorts in the San Juans: Telluride, Purgatory, Wolf Creek, Silverton Mountain, and Hesperus.
Each resort has its own specialty or reason to go. Telluride has some of the best terrain of any resort we’ve ever skied, Wolf Creek gets the most snow of any resort in Colorado, Hesperus is a small local mountain with one lift, Silverton specializes in guided heli skiing and hike to terrain, and Purgatory is great for learning to ski (as well as just a fun resort!).
If you don’t have your own equipment, it’s easy to rent skis or snowboards in Durango or Telluride before hitting the slopes!
Cross Country Skiing
If you like hiking during the summer, you’ll most likely love cross country skiing! There are lots of groomed cross country ski trails in the San Juans, including the Galloping Goose trail on Lizard Head Pass, the Purgatory Nordic Center, Boggy Draw, and many more. Cross country skiing is a great way to get a workout and experience beautiful trails in the winter.
If you’re feeling adventurous, then ice climbing might be right up your alley. The Ouray Ice Park, a man-made ice climbing park in a canyon right outside of town, is a great place to try out ice climbing. If you’ve never done it before, hire a guide from San Juan Mountain Guides to assure safety and learn more. Many of the local gear shops rent ice climbing gear.
Other attractions near SW Colorado
If you’re tired of the mountains or want to also experience the red rock desert, add a trip to Southeast Utah to your Southwest Colorado road trip. Of course, Moab and the surrounding area is always a big hit, but if you’re looking for fewer crowds and even more wide open space, go further south. Bears Ears National Monument, Comb Ridge, Valley of the Gods, and Grand Staircase Escalante are all incredible places to explore. You could spend a lifetime in this corner of Utah, so we’ll have to write another blog post all about this special area of the country.
And that’s that! There are my tips and recommendations for a Southwest Colorado road trip. Whether you’re looking for things to do before or after your elopement, planning a honeymoon, or dreaming of your next vacation, Southwest Colorado is the perfect destination for adventurous couples!
And if you’ve gotten so inspired that you are ready to plan a Colorado elopement, check out my Colorado Elopement Guide.
About Nina Larsen Reed
Nina Larsen Reed is an elopement photographer based in Boulder. She plans and captures adventure elopements and micro-weddings across Colorado, and has photographed over 220 elopements since 2017.