Since Mesa Verde National Park and other ancient sites are featured on the Trail of the Ancients, we’re going to leave that story for that Byway and concentrate here on the great story of the Old West you’ll find on the San Juan Skyway. Your journey starts in Durango, which still looks like it dropped out of the old west. Plan to arrive early enough to enjoy lunch and a ride on the Durango and Silverton Railroad, a coal fired steam train that chugs up into the mountains. Explore the art galleries in the historic downtown and visit the Animas Museum to start to learn the story of the Old West in Colorado.
On Day Two, it’s time to head out on the San Juan Skyway toward Silverton. Not much has changed here since it was founded in 1876. Explore the region’s mining culture and how it affected every aspect of life, before visiting the Old Hundred Gold Mine to see for yourself how gold was dug out from deep in the mountainside. After a couple of ghost towns, it’s time to drive the Million Dollar Highway on the way to Ouray, scenic driving that’s as good as it gets! Arriving in Ouray, you’ll discover an entire town on the National Register of Historic Places.
Spend the morning of Day Three visiting the Ouray Historical Society, doing the Historic District Walking Tour and touring the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine. From there, it’s on to the Ouray County Ranch History Museum in Ridgway and after another amazing scenic drive, Telluride. It’s hard to believe this charming town began with hardscrabble mining where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank. On Day Four, you’ll be traveling the rest of the San Juan Skyway on your way back to Durango or another destination.
Riding the train that brought over $300 million in gold and silver down from the San Juan mountains is a must do. You’ll see completely different scenery than you will driving the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. Constructed in 1881, the line parallels the Million Dollar Highway completed in 1887. Hauling of precious metals continued until 1893, when the bottom dropped out of silver prices. After facing various challenges for nearly 40 years, Hollywood discovered Durango and the railroad, showcasing the train in movies including “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
Million Dollar Highway
The portion of the San Juan Skyway that travels between Silverton and Ouray began as a toll road named for the large quantities of silver and gold that moved down the road. Today, the highway, cut from the mountainside delivers jaw-dropping vista after vista of magnificent scenery. Local legend has it the road cost a million dollars a mile to build (think of what that would be in today’s dollars!) and that the fill dirt contains a million dollars in gold ore. Drive with care around the hairpin curves and use caution while enjoying the beautiful views.
Old Hundred Mine Tour
It’s time to suit up in a yellow rain suit and hard hat to travel 1500 feet underground to see how gold was mined. A mine train takes you one-third of a mile into a mountain to where old mining equipment is still in place. Live demonstrations include operating drills, a skip, a slusher, mucker operations and honey wagons, all original equipment from the famous Camp Bird, Idarado and Sunnyside mines in the area. Do your own mining in the sluice boxes outside.
Silverton Historic District Tour
Take a 16 block walking tour through the historic district (pdf included with detailed itinerary) that takes you past the San Juan County Jail, the old hospital, and a selection of the many dens of iniquity that existed during the mining heyday. Besides the town, the Durango and Silverton Railroad and the Mayflower Mill are National Historic Landmarks. The Old Hundred Boarding House is a Colorado Historic Place.
Ouray Historical Society
When the St. Joseph’s Miners Hospital was transformed into the Ouray County Historical Museum, the Smithsonian called it “one of the best little museums in the West.” Three floors with twenty-seven rooms of exhibits include original documents and thousands of photographs of historic Ouray, an impressive mineral collection, Ute Indian displays, Victorian era displays, mine exhibits, railroading and ranching exhibits, hospital operating rooms from the 1890s and the 1940s, and an original patient room. In addition, the museum offers guided tours of Ouray’s Main Street.
Howardsville, Eureka, and Animas Forks. Even though Howardsville now has only a few cabins, the town was the first county seat of LaPlata County. In fact, the 1874 courthouse was briefly the seat of government for the entire of southwestern Colorado. Howardsville went into decline when the railroad bypassed the town and the county seat moved to Silverton. Home of the Sunnyside Mine, Eureka still holds deposits of precious metals today. At one time, the ghost town of Animas Forks had 30 cabins, a hotel, general story, saloon and post office, along with 450 residents and a newspaper.
Ridgeway Movie Locations
When the movie “True Grit” was in the planning, the spectacular scenery around Ridgway caught the eye of director Henry Hathaway, who cast John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper to star in the lead roles. For six weeks, the center of Ridgway was turned into 1880s-style Fort Smith, Arkansas, complete with Hanging Judge Parker’s three-man gallows. The firehouse from the movie became an artist studio, and the livery stable became the post office. The jail wagon, which John Wayne brings back from the Indian Territories, is at the Ouray County Ranch History Museum, housed in the original Rio Grande Southern Railroad Depot. Take the one-hour “True Grit” Movie Walking Tour that departs every Friday from the Visitors Center at 11 AM, or the self-guided tour (pdf included with the detailed itinerary).
Ridgeway Creative District
The Ridgway Creative District weaves together Ridgway’s heritage and culture with arts and creative enterprises which produces sculpture, poetry and art in some unusual places, including alleys, trails, and parks. See where the Grammy awards are produced and wander around the surrounding blocks to discover a variety of studios, shops, and restaurants.
Ouray County Ranch History Museum
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law on May 20, 1862, settlers moved West to get 160 acres of public land for which they paid a small fee and lived on for five years before purchasing the property at $1.25 an acre. Today, Ridgway is surrounded by these farms and ranches, the lifestyle that is featured at the Ouray County Ranch History Museum.
San Juan County Historical Society
The same mining heritage that fueled the development of the beautiful historic towns in the region, also had an impact on San Juan County. You can discover more of the story at the San Juan Historical Society which operates the Mining Heritage Center, the 1902 County Jail Museum, the Mayflower Mill, the Allen Nossaman Memorial Archive, the Silverton Power Station and the Silverton Standard and the Miner Newspaper, (a National Historic Site in Journalism), and the Little Nation Mill in Howardsville. A three-story addition creating the Mining Heritage Center houses exhibit space, a new wood and metal shop, and curation and restoration space for working on the collections.
To experience all that the Relics of The Old West tour has to offer, click below to purchase the complete itinerary! By purchasing this tour itinerary, you'll receive a professionally crafted trip route allowing you to fully experience the incredible story of the byway! Included in your trip planner is a detailed map of the area attractions in geographic order, a suggested day-by-day route plan, as well as traveler-tested recommendations for dining, shopping, and accommodations for each segment of this epic journey. Contact the National Travel Center with any additional questions.