Clarification: A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misidentified trees on a hillside. They are aspens, not birches. The story has been updated.


Aspen trees blaze with color along Colorado’s San Juan Skyway between Durango and Silverton. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

All roads lead to a destination. Some roads are the destination. Colorado’s San Juan Skyway, a designated All-American Road, does both. And it’s one I hope to travel again and again.

I started my 236-mile loop in Durango. After loading up on “The Cure” — a local speciality of eggs, potatoes, cheese, green chili and bacon — I double-checked the GPS. The time from Durango to Ouray, where I wanted to soak in the famous hot springs: 1 hour, 45 minutes. But that’s only if I didn’t stop. Five hours and a whopping 1,550 frames later — motor drives! — I arrived. On a road like this one, I’d have to be wearing blinders to arrive any sooner.

In just 70 miles, I’d photographed a neon hot spring, cowgirls on horseback, hillsides blazing with Aspen, abandoned mines, sheer cliffs, harrowing drops, mountains rising more than 13,000 feet and the funky former mining town of Silverton with its namesake railroad.

All of it stunning. And a perfect prelude to a soak. Unfortunately, the public spring was closed for renovation. But another place, maybe an even better place, was just up the highway. Clothing: optional. Temperature: perfect. Ahhh. One hundred and sixty-six more miles to go.

As I was pushing toward Telluride, the 14,000-foot San Juan peaks became draped in darkness. Not wanting to miss more, I booked a room in Placerville and rested for the night.

Everybody knows about Telluride — the skiing, the festivals, the endless recreational opportunities — but I only had time for breakfast. On my way in, I paused for a herd of elk that were oblivious to rush-hour traffic. On my way out, I lingered beneath fresh contrails streaming across a brilliant blue sky. Then I braked again and again as the landscape shifted, and stunning peaks, valleys and evergreens gave way to desert, mesas, canyons and the archaeological wonderland of Mesa Verde National Park.

Here, in a landscape once inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans, I pondered the cliffside dwellings that seemed almost unfathomable to scale and the people who once called this sacred space home.

I wanted to spend the night beneath this vast open sky but I had another hour to Durango, a flight to catch, and a destination that unlike this one, was not about the journey. Sigh.


A switchback avoids an obvious — and beautiful — obstacle on the “Million Dollar Highway,” a stretch between Ouray and Silverton. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

An aspen leaf glistens on the San Juan Skyway in Ouray. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Ouray, surrounded by steep mountain walls, calls itself the “Switzerland of America.” The city is known for its hot springs and off-road touring. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Elk graze along the byway outside Telluride. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Passengers ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad between Durango and Silverton. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s coal-fired steam train is a popular tourist attraction. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Mesa Verde National Park, a destination along the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, preserves hundreds of cliff dwellings constructed by the Pueblos. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

With no guardrails and steep cliffs, the “Million Dollar Highway” is one of the most dramatic roads in the country. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Contrails stretch above Telluride along the San Juan Skyway. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

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