The San Juan Scenic Byway and the Million Dollar Highway in South Western Colorado covers a dramatic 236-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains. Without stopping, it’s a 7-hour drive along a number of (slightly scary) switchbacks and incredible mountain views.
This byway is meant to be taken at a slow pace. Enjoy the drive, take your time, and allocate a few days for your trip. The best part of the byway are the historical mountain towns that you’ll pass along the way!
So, read on for a guide on how to plan the perfect San Juan Scenic Byway road trip. In this post, we’ll be covering…
- Practical Info for Your San Juan Scenic Byway Road Trip
- How to Get to the San Juan Scenic Byway
- Where to Sleep and Stay During Your San Juan Scenic Byway Road Trip
- Must-Do Attractions for San Juan Scenic Byway Road Trip
- Additional Tips for Your San Juan Scenic Byway Road Trip
Practical Info for you San Juan Scenic Byway Road Trip
The San Juan Scenic Byway is an incredible drive, but it can be dangerous in poor weather conditions. Be sure to plan your trip around the weather.
Technically, the byway is open year-round, except when snow causes temporary closures. To avoid snow on your drive, the best time to go is late May through late September. The temperatures are mild and perfect for outdoor fun.
Also, in early September, the aspen trees lining the mountains turn a bright yellow and gold. These trees truly transform the experience during the fall, producing vibrant colors on a sunny day!
How to Get to the San Juan Scenic Byway
The San Juan Scenic Byway is essentially one big loop. You can hop on the byway from any of the four corners of the loop, and at the end, you’ll be back where you started.
If you’re coming from the north, you’ll head into Ridgway and follow highway 550 south to Durango.
From Durango, follow 160 west to Cortez. From Cortez, follow 145 north to Placerville, and then at the junction, keep right and hop onto 62 east back to Ridgway.
The byway is pretty straightforward no matter where you start, but having a San Juan Scenic Byway map will be useful. The Colorado Directory website has a very detailed map that shows the route as well as where the biggest attractions are.
Where to Stay and Sleep During your San Juan Scenic Byway Road Trip
There are many mountain towns along the San Juan Scenic Byway, with plenty of places to sleep and eat. Most of these towns offer entertainment and attractions all throughout the year, from skiing to white-water rafting.
Those coming from Montrose on highway 550 South will start their journey in Ridgway. The town is titled “The Gateway to the San Juans,” and it is often overlooked by road trippers.
There are plenty of fantastic places to stay here! For a rejuvenating (and clothing-optional) vacation, try the Orvis Hot Springs Resort.
This is the destination for relaxation in the San Juans, and it was once a place of healing for the Ute tribe. To this day, people come to soak in the warm and therapeutic hot springs- which comes with your stay!
The most stunning place to stay in the “Switzerland of America” is the Box Canyon Lodge. The lodge is located on the outskirts of town, offering incredible balcony views of the Uncompahgre National Forest.
The lodge also has its own hot springs, many of which are perched on balconies so you can soak up panoramic views of the mountains, no matter the time of day.
Silverton is another old mining town with tons of history. The Alma House Inn is the best place to stay to immerse yourself in the town’s deep history.
The rooms have been restored to resemble the inn’s original glory in the late 1800’s. Each beautiful room has its own fireplace, and behind the building is a courtyard and hot tub!
United Campgrounds Durango is located a few miles north of town. The campground offers tent and RV camping with a great view of The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, as it runs right through the park.
Casa Durango is a more luxurious option, offering many different vacation homes perfect for a longer stay. Live like a local in one of these beautiful, hand-crafted rentals and enjoy the many outdoor activities Durango offers.
Mesa Verde National Park
First, Mesa Verde National Park has plenty of camping options offered by the National Park Service. The Morefield Campground is fantastic, and it offers plenty of amenities at Morefield’s Full Service Village.
There’s an all you can eat pancake buffet, showers, a grocery store, and more. Plus, the campground is only 4-miles away from the park entrance, ensuring you can spend your day exploring the park.
Or, stay in luxury at the Far View Lodge, 15-miles into the park. Each room has a terrace to admire the sweeping views of the park.
The hotel also has its own restaurant and two cafes, and they make it easy for visitors to plan tours and Jeep rides. It is the only lodge within the park, and it offers a remarkable experience.
The Dunton Hot Springs Resort offers the most incredible experience in Dolores, and probably one of the best experiences in Southwestern Colorado! It is a small, exclusive resort about an hour outside of Dolores into the mountains.
This former ghost town now thrives as a romantic, rustic resort. Visitors can enjoy the hot springs in the beautiful, 19-century bathhouse, or let the resort help you plan the perfect road trip
Telluride is one of the most popular ski resort towns in Colorado. Those who love to ski or snowboard will love staying at Camel’s Garden Hotel.
This ski-in ski-out hotel is at prime location, so you don’t have to travel far after a long day on the slopes. The hotel also has a spa and restaurant.
Must-Do Attractions on Your San Juan Scenic Byway Road Trip
I recommend spending a week in the San Juans to experience everything the area has to offer. Though, honestly, you’ll never have enough time to do everything!
Even if you don’t stay at the Orvis Hot Springs Resort, visitors can enjoy the springs for $28 a day. Take a nice, relaxing soak in the springs before hopping back on that stressful highway!
On a nice day, enjoy the Dennis Weaver Memorial Park along the Uncompahgre River. The park offers miles of hiking and biking trails that weave along the mountains, as well as plenty of fun water activities like kayaking, rafting, or swimming.
Ouray is best known for its incredible Ice Park. Adventurers and adrenaline junkies alike flock to the park to climb one of the many different ice climbing routes.
Though it sounds terrifying, the experience is exhilarating and the views are out of this world!
Another big attraction in Ouray is the Box Canyon Falls. Take an easy, short hike into the 100-foot-tall canyon walls until you reach stairs leading to the base of the falls.
Don’t be fooled, even in the summer, the water is ice cold!
The Million Dollar Highway
On your way to Silverton, you will be passing through the Million Dollar Highway. This section of the highway is 25-miles long and it passes through some of the most breathtaking views of the San Juans, as well as some of the most terrifying switchbacks!
If you’re short on time, know that this section of the byway offers some of the most incredible views. This article and San Juan Scenic Byway map offers a smaller scale road trip that focuses on the Million Dollar Highway.
Some of the best stops along the highway are the Red Mountain Pass, Columbine Lake, or the Uncompahgre Gorge.
Winter sports enthusiasts will love Silverton! The town is home to the highest and steepest ski area in North America.
Tackling these mountains is no easy task, and it should be left to the advanced skiers and snowboarders. There are plenty of heli-skiing tours that allow enthusiasts to ski down remote, untouched mountains.
The town of Silverton has plenty of interesting gems. The Christ of Mines shrine is a marvelous sight that may remind visitors of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer Statue.
This 16-foot marble statue looks over the town of Silverton. It was originally built to bless the mines of Silverton, which used to be the town’s main source of income.
Also, be sure to explore this Victorian mining town along Historic Blair Street. Once bustling with nightlife, it is now full of restaurants, boutiques, and hotels.
One cannot visit Durango without riding the train from Durango to Silverton and back. The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is one of the most incredible and beautiful train journeys in the US.
Both ways, the ride takes about 7 hours, and you are given a 2 hour layover in Silverton.
This train ride offers a completely different perspective of the San Juans, and not driving allows you to take in the views so much more. The train takes you into the Rockies and through the San Juan forest.
This is the perfect family adventure activity. Riding the train with my family as a kid was such a magical and memorable experience!
Another fun way to check out the San Juan Forest from above is to ride the Durango Adventures zipline! The company also offers White Water Rafting tours along the Animas River.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park protects the mesas and cliff-dwelling communities that the Pueblo people thrived in for over 700 years. Today, it remains as an impressive cultural preserve and World Heritage Site.
There is plenty to do in the park. Take a short hike to the highest point of the park, and enjoy the panoramic views of four different states in front of you!
The Cliff Palace Overlook is another fantastic viewpoint, where you will have the opportunity to view the largest cliff dwelling in North America.
Or, take a cliff dwelling/Cliff Palace tour! Tickets must be reserved online and two weeks in advance. The Cliff Palace is a work of impressive architecture, and the guides are very knowledgeable about the subject.
On your way to Telluride, keep an eye out for Lizard Head Pass! It is another breathtaking section of the San Juan Highway, and there’s plenty of camping here under the stars.
Telluride is another big ski town along the highway. The Telluride Ski Resort is internationally recognized, and they offer a variety of experiences from beginners to pros.
Another fun winter activity is fat biking. The bikes are equipped with fat tires so they can easily sift through snowy mountain trails.
If there is one thing you do in Telluride, it must be taking the free gondola ride!
This 13-minute trip heads over the San Sophia Ridge and into the mountain village. On the way down, you’ll have beautiful views of Telluride!
Finally, the Telluride arts district is a fun place to spend your afternoon exploring. This lively part of town often has live music and pop-up restaurants, and the buildings are decorated with beautiful architecture.
Additional Tips for Your San Juan Scenic Byway Road Trip
As always, be careful driving! The San Juan Scenic Byway is beautiful, but always be sure to pull off in a designated pull-off while sightseeing. There aren’t very many, so keep an eye out.
Riding as a passenger and driving are two different experiences! I quickly learned this on my first time taking on this road. It is difficult to enjoy the views and focus on the road.
If you are traveling solo and want to be sure you don’t miss anything, record your drive on a Go-Pro or dashboard camera.
I hope you enjoyed this guide to planning a San Juan Scenic Byway Road Trip!
Let us know in the comments if there are any more San Juan Scenic Byway Road Trip recommendations we should add to our guide!