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his article was originally published in the December 2002 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser. Approaching the Rocky Mountains from the east can be rather emotional. Especially if you've spent ample time droning across the monotonous Midwestern plains, which is enough to mentally flatline even the most exuberant motorcycle rider. That jagged purple outline reaching up from the otherwise smooth and faceless horizon will quicken the pulse of any motorcyclist and tickle the very roots of his spirit. The feeling is enchantment, awe and anticipation all at once. There is, of course, only one appropriate way to respond to such majesty. And that's to gas it. Hard.

Colorado map
Map the southwest corner of Colorado.Eiko Friedman

A couple of years back, when I rode from the eastern flatlands to Aspen via Colorado's Independence Pass through a bizarrely intense electrical storm that sent wind gusting across the summer snowcap at 60 mph, I thought I'd seen it all. It was wild and scary and beautiful--a full adrenal zing. The Sawatch Range with its 12,095-foot passage on the Continental Divide seemed ominous, and I felt deeply vulnerable being so far up and out on two wheels. I spent half of my ride wondering how pioneers made it over these elevations with only wagon, oxen and the fuel of their will, and the other half wondering if I'd make it. Although I'd explored Colorado on many journeys prior, that ride and the wicked storm came to embody my memory of America's most romanticized mountain range. That is, until I rode the San Juan Skyway last summer.

Telluride
Telluride retains its historic charm.Jamie Elvidge

On my ascent into the Rockies this time, on Highway 50 from Pueblo, I was soothed by the change in temperature and promise of twisty roads. Afternoon thunderheads shrouded the granite spires, and I could feel the charge in the air. I didn't know what to expect from this southwestern approach, but I never imagined it would outdo Aspen's Highway 82 to the north. I'd been up the southern draw of the San Juan portion of the Rockies to visit Durango, and honestly, I was left pretty unimpressed. Route 50, a.k.a. America's Loneliest Highway, proved pleasantly curvy and memorably scenic, though. This legendary road may be lonely and forsaken as it crosses Kansas, Utah and Nevada on its way to California, but it's in the company of God as it crests through Colorado. I drank in the scenery like a lush at an open bar after my long, dry spell riding across the plains. As night fell, I began looking for a place to burrow in for the kind of sleep that comes only with mountainous solitude.

I finally stumbled onto the San Juan Skyway at Ridgway and prayed the rustic, single-stoplight town would have a fresh bed and shower. I followed the blue travelers sign with the bed symbol like a dog sniffing for bunnies. Strangely, it led me into a residential area, and just as I was about to turn around, I spied the subtlely lit Chipeta Sun Lodge and Spa. The mellow air of the place immediately seduced me. Some would call it a B&B; since it serves a hot, gourmet breakfast daily, but I'd say it's more of an oasis for the reclusive adventurer. All the rooms are unique and incredibly private, and some feature personal Jacuzzis on their decks. Mine did. And you know where I spent the next hour.

Colorado towns
Towns snuggle up to some of the most magnificent mountain ranges in the country.Jamie Elvidge

The San Juan Skyway is a 236-mile loop that incorporates the famous Million-Dollar Highway, the most famous portion of which travels from Ouray to Silverton (US 550) over Coal Bank Summit and the Molas Divide. The route includes five passes, countless ghost towns and a smattering of some of the finest mining remnant towns in the West, including the famous adventure destination of Telluride. It also takes you past the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, where you can explore the ancient cliff dwellings, including Cliff Palace, with its 151 rooms and 23 kivas, or meeting places. A short distance from the San Juan Skyway is Monument Valley National Park and the Grand Canyon. So if you're thinking of either as a destination, pencil in this loop as part of the plan.

I left Ridgway under an eerie brown haze. To the south and east, Colorado's terrible June fires were in full heat, the smoke creating a sunset effect at noon. I traveled south toward Ouray on Highway 550, a stretch of road the locals call Little Switzerland for its amazing granite towers and dramatic waterfalls. It was quite a perfect way to begin the scenic tour, and Ouray proved a nice breakfast stop with its historic main street proffering more than a dozen restaurants. One of the big draws here is the huge Hot Springs Pool, which is open year-round. I've been told it's a nice place to warm your bum in the winter, since part of the outdoor pool is kept at about 104 degrees. In summer months, people stick to the more moderately heated 120-by-150-foot section.

Colorado
Gunslinging woodcarving in Colorado.Jamie Elvidge

The road climbs sharply out of Ouray, beginning the section of the Skyway known universally as the Million-Dollar Highway, and although theories abound, no one seems sure how it got its name. The road, which crosses Red Mountain Pass at 11,018 feet, seems miraculous, even in this day of heavy earthmoving equipment. It seems impossible when you realize it was the project of a single man, Otto Mears, who originally cut the 22-mile roadbed in 1883. But Mears was an entrepreneur (albeit a handy one), and he saw the need for a passage between the area's thriving mining camps. Once the road was open he set up a tollgate at Bear Falls and charged a hefty $3.75 per vehicle and 75 cents per horse.

storefront colorado
Patriotic storefront.Jamie Elvidge
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The views can derail any attempt you make at window shopping.Jamie Elvidge

This segment remains an intensely rich experience. It's completely paved yet feels delightfully treacherous. The weak of heart should, at the least, avoid looking down. There is no doubt the Million Dollar Highway is the jewel of the San Juan crown, so take your time. There are many, many pullouts, which allow you to enjoy the breathtaking views and explore the old ghost towns and mining facilities.

Colorado shopping
More woodcarvings welcome you into the other stores.Jamie Elvidge

At the end of this heart-wrenching stretch you'll reach Silverton, which I found to be the most inviting of the frontier towns in the area. It's smaller than Ouray and less commercialized, yet it's cupped in a valley nearly as beautiful as the cradle of Telluride. From this stop, the remainder of Highway 550 into Durango is a mix of alpine meadows and barren passes until it finally floats down into the Animas River Valley and Durango. Here you can take a ride on the Durango and SilvertonNarrow Gauge Railroad, a nostalgic locomotive experience enjoyed by more than 200,000 tourists each summer. But then again if you're like me and shy away from the common scene, you'll motor right through sprawling Durango and take your taste of tourist treats at Mesa Verde National Park instead, about 40 miles west on Highway 160.

After pondering the cliff dwellings, you're headed for Telluride on Highway 145. For quite awhile the scenery has that western-slope foothill feel where there's more pinon than pine. But soon enough you rise back into Rocky Mountain grandeur with the approach of Lizard Head Pass at 10,222 feet. Telluride is just on the other side. You need to make the quick detour east to get into the old section, a well-preserved mining town you can't easily see as the heart of the mega resort it's become. Often compared to Aspen and Vail, Telluride retains more charm than either and has managed to separate its historic district from the glam. Interestingly, this area with its impossibly high real estate values was pretty much a ghost town from 1930 until 1971, when the Telluride Ski Area was opened.

Colorado tour
There are times when the crazy Colorado weather can pump up your adrenaline and there are others where sheer bliss takes hold.Jamie Elvidge

After some ice tea and a little window-shopping, I left Telluride for the last leg of the loop by following Highway 145 north until it intersected with 62 west, which took me back to Ridgway and a Swedish massage at the Chipeta Sun Lodge. It takes a full day to enjoy this ride, and I highly recommend Ridgway as a starting/stopping point. I sampled two great restaurants while I was there: True Grit (the John Wayne movie was filmed in Ridgway) and The Adobe Inn, an authentic Mexican eatery.

Colorado's popular Independence Pass is just a flash in the pan compared to the San Juan Skyway. This 236-mile loop is paradise for adventure seekers and a must-ride for all two-wheeled explorers. The perfect way to get high.