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On Colorado's San Juan Skyway with one eye on the road, one on the scenery

Elk graze along the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway outside Telluride, Colorado.

BONNIE JO MOUNT/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By BONNIE JO MOUNT | The Washington Post | Published: January 11, 2017

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 specialty 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.

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