Driving on the San Juan Skyway

Fall Colors in Colorado – A Roadtrip to Silverton

During the years we can’t wait for autumn to arrive to northern Arizona, we like to take a road trip to see the fall colors in Colorado. Specifically in the Juan Mountains, with a longer stop in Silverton.

Autumn in the higher mountains of Arizona arrives a bit later, and we don’t always have patience to wait for it. Besides, we can visit Durango, Silverton, and Ouray in a long weekend. That’s what we did a few years ago, on a long weekend at the end of September. Aspens and other deciduous trees peaked during the last weekend of September in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

A Weekend Trip

On a long weekend in September, when we were able to leave Phoenix on a Friday, we packed up the car and set off on a road trip to see fall leaves in Colorado. We planned for Silverton as our farthest destination, but our first longer stop was in Mesa Verde.

The Mesa Verde Visitor Center
The Visitor Center at Mesa Verde

It wasn’t our first time in Mesa Verde, we’ve visited it often for a while. But since they closed Spruce House, we took a break from this National Park. So, we haven’t seen the new Visitor Center – not so new for most people, but it was for us.

Great exhibits, featuring life-like dioramas made me feel like I was experiencing life in ancient times. It was more impressive than I expected it, and much larger than the old one. We spent time inside, then walked around the premises.

Even here, in the high desert, with few trees, I noticed one standing alone in a field showing off its bright golden colors.

A lone aspen showing off its fall colors in Mesa Verde
A lone tree showing off its fall colors by the Mesa Verde Visitor Center.

Since we planned on visiting the ruins the next day, we didn’t linger much. After getting tickets for next day’s tours, we drove on. We still had a long way to go before reaching Silverton.

Fall Colors in the San Juan Mountains

Driving through the San Juan Mountains was a treat for our senses. The surrounding mountains were showing off their bright autumn colors, prompting us to stop often.

Aspens in the San Juan Mountains
Aspens in the San Juan Mountains

We were driving on the San Juan Skyway, one of America’s most beautiful scenic highways. Designated a National Forest Scenic Byway in 1988, the road traverses some of the most spectacular parts of these mountains. And this time of the year, fall colors gave “scenic” a whole new meaning.

A mix of all shades of yellows, from bright lemon through gold and orange, juxtaposed on the dark green of the surrounding pines made us want to stop at every turn. The leaves seemed to glitter when the sun peeked out from behind the clouds.

Fall colors on the San Juan Skyway
View from a lookout on the San Juan Skyway

During our stops we enjoyed the gorgeous views and the crisp cool air, fitting for the surroundings.

Reaching Silverton

Sitting in a valley surrounded by mountains on all sides, Silverton is one of the most picturesque small towns within driving distance from us. Before descending into town, we stopped on top of the hill to enjoy the view. Within minutes, a crowd gathered in the overlook, photographing the mountains around town and the valley below, and waiting for something.

European tourists mixed with American road-trippers and locals, sharing the experience of fall colors on the surrounding mountains. A Swiss gentleman talked to us, his excitement of being here contagious.

And then we heard the train coming from Durango through the narrow passageway. Watching our fellow travelers get as excited as toddlers at the sound of the train whistle, I realized this was what they were waiting for. They wanted to see the steam train chugging through the valley.

To be fair, it was a great sight.

Silverton in the Valley and the tourist steam train from Durango
Silverton in the Valley and the tourist steam train from Durango

I can never fully understand people’s fascination with trains. They are interesting as a part of history, I get that. Especially for those who grew up without them. For me, steam or electric, a train was a means of transportation growing up. I lived close to a working train depot, where we saw daily old steam-powered locomotives, and new, electric ones. I always preferred the electric ones, faster and less noisy.

But from an aesthetic point of view, in this case, the steam engine and its train were a beautiful sight down in the valley, chugging along surrounded by fall foliage.

Fall Colors in Silverton

Although the town itself, with its kitschy businesses, is far from being my favorite, the fall colors this time of the year made a walk through it an eye-pleasing experience.

The autumn weather was perfect, while we took a stroll through the main street to the edge of town and stopped at the historic Court House.

Silverton, Colorado in autumn
Silverton in autumn

We turned around at the bridge leading out of town, but instead of staying on the main road, turned onto the infamous historic Blair Street. It was the red district of the once-booming mining town.

As interesting as it is from a historical perspective, we weren’t there for that. So instead of staying on the road, we turned onto a dirt path past the train depot.

Walking by the river, its bottom stained orange by the iron it carries, we felt miles away from town. We sat on its shore for a while, enjoying the quiet solitude and the fall colors surrounding us.

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After leaving Silverton, we drove towards Ouray, following the Million Dollar Highway.

Fall colors on the San Juan Skyway Colorado
Fall colors in Colorado
Fall colors in Silverton, Colorado
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