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Turn, Turn, Turn : To everything there is a season, and autumn is the time to drive southern Colorado's winding San Juan Skyway

August 27, 1995|STEVE COHEN | Cohen is a free-lance writer and guidebook author based in Durango

DURANGO, Colo. — This booming mountain town of about 15,000 was recently acclaimed by a national magazine as one of the most livable small cities in the United States. Until now, residents, including myself, have managed to keep this fact more or less quiet.

Situated far from the nearest big city (Albuquerque is 200 miles away, Denver nearly twice that), Durango is the convenient and increasingly civilized center (there are now a number of places in town to get cappuccino) of a less-than-completely tame, mountainous region popular with nature lovers, hikers and mountain bikers, as well as amateur archeologists and train buffs.

Summer is by far the biggest tourist season here. The show of fall colors, usually occurring between mid-September and mid-October, is still mostly reserved for residents and the cannier traveler. I usually stay close to home in fall to enjoy some of the best color viewing anywhere in the West.

Days generally stay comfortably warm through early October in southern Colorado, but with the fall come crisp, cold nights that force the change in leaf colors. At lower altitudes, reds and oranges prevail. Between 7,500 and 10,000 feet, the high fluttery aspens march through evergreen forests in golden uniforms. Parading down the steep hillsides, they gild thousands of acres with electrifying battalions of color.

Probably the best scenic overview can be found along a dramatic 232-mile highway loop called the San Juan Skyway. Several years ago the route was declared one of America's most beautiful roads as part of the National Forest Service Scenic Byways program.

In autumn, even jaded locals come out to rubberneck at the gilt-edged forests encircling the San Juan range's 13,000-foot-plus peaks.

No one can really predict the optimum viewing time. The colors depend on numerous factors, such as the leaves' moisture content. But after years of leaf-peeping, I would pick the last week in September, give or take a few days, as the best time to see the skyway in its glory.

Some people circle the skyway in around six hours without stopping. Others spend a week or longer exploring the route. Here's a one-day itinerary:

Durango at Sunrise

Start out early from Durango. For photographers, this means departing before dawn. For travelers not so concerned about light meters, a little later is OK, but it's a long ride ahead with lots of stops. I often grab a bagel and coffee-to-go from Durango Bagel on Fifth Street. If a more leisurely pace is in order, I head for the Durango Diner on Main Avenue to eat a no-nonsense breakfast and hear the local gossip.

Downtown Durango is a National Historic District of Victorian architecture. It's alongside the Animas River, beneath vertical red rock cliffs at the base of the 6,500-foot-high Animas Valley.

Not so many years ago kids played stickball in the middle of Main. This summer, it's been hard to find a parking space there. But tourism slows down after Labor Day, and by mid-September there's usually much less traffic on the area's roads. The train station is next to the bagel place. It's the terminus for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which cores through the heart of the colors. The popular steam train makes the steep 92-mile round-trip from Durango to Silverton in about seven hours (plus a two-hour stop in Silverton), providing views of river-carved gorges and mountain summits. The Animas River roars beside the tracks; the San Juan National Forest crowds the track on both sides.

The aspens, quaking in the wind, are so close in spots that passengers can grab leaves. Sometimes the lumbering rhythm of the slow train can lull a rider into a hypnotic reverie. Then suddenly a stand of trees will issue a brilliant gold wakeup call.

The skyway begins on the main road north out of Durango, U.S. Highway 550, and parallels the train tracks for five miles. As you leave the Animas Valley, the San Juan Mountains become more prominent. Some travelers may want to end their trip just 16 miles north of town at the clubby Tamarron Resort. Golfers can play at the high-rated course, content with the colors lining the fairways. Ten miles farther is the Purgatory-Durango Ski Resort, where adventurous travelers can ride up a chairlift and spin down on rented mountain bikes.

Gold in Silverton

After Purgatory, the skyway quickly climbs, going over two passes of more than 10,000 feet. In about three miles you can turn right on Old Lime Creek Road for a spectacular detour. This dirt road is part of an old stagecoach route. Four-wheel drive is not necessary when it's dry, though the road is rutted in spots and sometimes wide enough for only one car at a time. The sheer mountain sides, plunging hundreds of feet from the slender roadway, are filled with glowing aspens. It's a memorable off-road experience.

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