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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

After eight miles, Lime Creek reconnects with U.S. 550 amid the snowy peaks of the San Juans. If a traveler's timing is right, the colors from here to Silverton will make every curve in the road look like a glossy travel magazine cover.

Silverton is an old silver mining town that peaked in the late 1800s with a rowdy population of 5,000. In those days they were removing "silver by the ton" from the hills near here. There's not much profitable mining today, and so Silverton, reduced to a year-round population of 500, has turned to tourism.

There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails and dirt roads in the surrounding mountains, making Silverton a great jumping-off spot for back-road and off-road excursions. Most of these routes require four-wheel drive vehicles or mountain bikes. The town itself looks much like it did in the old days. Almost every building in its downtown, a National Historic District, has some frontier significance. Many along notorious Blair Street, for example, were once brothels and saloons. Today, most of the old Victorians are occupied by gift shops, restaurants and B&Bs.

I recommend that leaf-watchers not look far beyond the historic facades. Park downtown near the train depot, walk around for an hour or so, buy a T-shirt if you're so moved, have a cold drink and get back on the road to Ouray.

Which Way to the Alps?

About halfway from Silverton to Ouray, the skyway traverses Red Mountain Pass, a narrow, tortuously twisted stretch of the imagination that passes for a road. This part of the route is known as the Million-Dollar Highway. There's no agreement on the name's origin. Some believe it's connected to gold-bearing gravel unwittingly used by builders of the original roadway.

You have to go slowly around the tight switchbacks anyway, which is all the better to survey the colors. By the time you reach Ouray, population 700, you'll probably be ready for a soak in the hot springs pool, a huge public affair at the north end of town, on the west side of U.S. 550. It's fed by a natural thermal spring and is highly recommended anytime, even in mid-winter.

Ouray calls itself the Switzerland of America, for its alpine scenery and Swiss chalet-style architecture. And it manages to combine the Tyrol and the Old West. The first building in this one-time mining town was a saloon, opened in 1875. Many of the original buildings have been converted to B&Bs, restaurants or private homes. Others are boarded up, ghosts of the past amid modern, ersatz chalet vacation homes.

Several waterfalls pour out of the vertical cliffs that surround Ouray, nice for a short, warm weather hike, and, when they freeze in winter, a prime destination for ice climbers. Like Silverton, the mountains around Ouray offer hundreds of miles of Jeep trails. Some consider them the most beautiful in the state. The numerous Jeep rental and tour companies here do a big business during the fall color season.

Up to Telluride

Ten miles north of Ouray, the skyway loop turns off U.S. 550 onto Colorado 62 at the tiny town of Ridgway, where both designer Ralph Lauren and actor Dennis Weaver have big spreads. Ridgway has a sort of pre-Telluride funky charm and is beginning to absorb some of the less-affluent overflow from its costly neighbor.

Colorado 62 ends in 23 miles. A turn left on Colorado 145, heading southeast, leads shortly (14 miles) to fabled Telluride, site of Butch Cassidy's first bank robbery in the 1880s.

Originally a roaring mining town named Columbia, Telluride, with a year-round population of 1,400, has long been pummeled by booms and busts. In the last 20 years or so, prosperity has come on skis. The long, steep slopes that fall right to the edge of town provide some of the most challenging ski terrain in the West. When the snow melts, this translates into fine hiking, biking and Jeeping terrain.

Surrounded by high peaks and fall colors, blending old-looking modern properties with truly old Victorian homes, Telluride and its youthful, Patagonia-clad legions look just right together.

It's probably a good idea to get lunch here; there are a number of decent restaurants in town. If you prefer to keep moving, Rose's Victorian Food Market at 700 W. Colorado Ave., next to the visitors center, makes hefty sandwiches to go.

It's trendy and beautiful, and who knows, you might run into local homeowners Christie Brinkley, Tom Cruise or Oprah Winfrey. The nearby development of Mountain Village, south on Colorado 145 on the way out of town, might even be thought of as an alpine Brentwood. Castles, not mere homes, overlook ski slopes and a golf course. Here, the show of colors is appropriately opulent.

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