San Juan Mountains | Motorcycle Travel

There’s no doubt that there was symbolism in the air. We were at the Handlebars Bar and Saloon in Silverton, Colo., enjoying an authentic western lunch, celebrating the 25th anniversary of our first ride together. Of course, this time, rather than two-up on a 1981 Yamaha 550 Seca in Southern California, we arrived on a Ducati ST3 S ABS and a Moto Guzzi Breva V 1100.

Touring the 236-mile San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway on an unmatched pair of Italian sport touring machines seemed natural to us, despite the fact that every other bike we saw on the trip was either a Honda Gold Wing, a dresser or a bagger. Clearly, there are some people missing out on some outstanding sport riding through the San Juan Mountains in the southwest corner of the Centennial State.

The San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway ranges from narrow canyons to wide-open valleys. Photograph by Ed Stasium. (Click image to enlarge)

Anchored at the north by Telluride and Durango in the south, the loop is actually two distinctive rides. About equal in length, they have quite different attitudes, but they share a love of altitude. With passes exceeding 10,000 feet above sea level on both halves, the fuel injection systems on the bikes were in for a workout.

The two sides of the loop also provided unique challenges for the bikes. The east side, which passes through historic mining towns, is virtually non-stop tight twisties for over 40 miles on US 550 between historic Ouray at the north and the southern terminus of Old Lime Creek Road in the south, with high-speed sweepers the norm extending at both ends.

Famously known as the Million Dollar Highway along much of the technical stretch, the road exposes the advantages and liabilities of each machine. The Breva’s air-cooled, push-rod transverse V-twin 1064cc motor is a torquey beast, effortlessly pulling in any of its deliberately shifted six gears, even with the heavier rider aboard, plus three luggage boxes bursting with content. Aiming for authority rather than excitability, the Breva has a muscular shaft-driven push that is in no particular hurry to get where it most assuredly will arrive. Horsepower peaks at 7,800 rpm, but there’s really no need to take it beyond 6,000 rpm, where maximum torque is developed.

Helmet: Suomy Spec-1R Extreme Flowers
Leathers: Ducati Old Times Lady
Gloves: Ducati Smart
Boots: Sidi Vertigo
Helmet: Shoei X-Eleven Kagayama
Leathers: Olympia Moto Sports Mercury Flex Tech
Gloves: Spidi Tre Composite
Boots: Sidi Strada Evo Te-Por. Photograph by Kellly Callan. (Click image to enlarge)

Conversely, the 90-degree liquid-cooled 992cc L-twin of the ST3 S, with Desmodromic mechanisms controlling three valves per cylinder, likes to spin the crankshaft a bit faster, as you would expect from a Ducati. While the six-speed transmission on the Breva feels almost superfluous, it is welcome on the smooth-shifting ST3 S. With more peak torque and horsepower than the Breva, the ST3 S is a brisk motor that invites an active throttle hand. The engine is also pushing about 50 fewer pounds that are packaged in a more aerodynamic profile, accentuating the sport end of the sport/touring equation.

The lightness of the ST3 S serves it well in tight quarters, as does its 56.3-inch wheelbase, which is two-and-a-half inches more compact than the Breva. The Ducati intuitively slices its way through the countless hairpins and switchbacks—particularly in the Guston area where we encountered bighorn sheep crossing the road, looking at us as the odd curiosities we were. Begging for more as the rider rows the gearbox, the ST3 S, in its heart, is a semi-upright sport bike. Though not clip-ons, the bars on the ST3 S are low and the footpegs high, putting the rider in a competitive position.
Taking the turns as surely as a locomotive, the Breva gives the rider a secure feeling, welcome on a road that features sheer cliffs sans guardrails on one side and solid granite walls on the other, as well as the occasional landslide dropping gravel onto our helmets! Set a line on the Breva and be prepared to stick with it. The Guzzi, especially when fully loaded, is not eager to change position on a whim. Gearshifts are optional, as the motor will work with you in either third or fourth gear, rewarding twists of the right wrist with drama-free speed increases. That is fortunate, as the Guzzi’s clutch has a hair-trigger engagement at the end of the lever travel. You eventually get used to it, but a more gradual engagement would be preferable.

Living history from the turn of the 20th century is abundant in Mancos (top) and Durango. Photography by Don Williams. (Click images to enlarge)

Do note that the Million Dollar Highway portion of the San Juan Skyway is heavily populated with RVs, automobiles, less sporting motorcycles and the Colorado State Patrol. Happily, slower vehicles tend to be well behaved, pulling over quickly to let faster machines overtake. Travel in the off-season is advised for reduced traffic, but it is a relatively narrow window before and after school summer vacation. Cold temperatures are the norm at these high altitudes, and they reign during much of the autumn and spring.

Between Ouray and Placerville, the road opens up quite a bit, as it is high desert rather than Rocky Mountains. Ridgway is an interesting stop at the intersection of US 550 and State Route 62 (the only stoplight in the county), as it is an old railroad settlement with a revitalized downtown. From Ridgway to Telluride, things get a bit tighter and busier again, so relax for those 15 miles, unless it is a quiet traffic day.

At the northern end of the San Juan Skyway, in Mountain Village above Telluride, is a superb touring destination. The inviting Inn at Lost Creek was ostensibly built for skiers—complete with skiing out its back doorstep, as well as ski valet service—but it is also ideal for motor-cyclists. Your machines are parked safely in an underground garage, behind two locked steel doors. You won’t need your bike during your stay, as there is a convenient, spectacular and complementary gondola system that links Mountain Village with the surprisingly charming bohemian-meets-upscale Telluride.

Built for Telluride skiers, but ideal for motorcyclists, the Inn at Lost Creek is a luxury haven nearly two miles above sea level. (Click images to enlarge)

Fine restaurants are abundant in Telluride. Located on a high ridge flanked by Telluride to the north and Mountain Village to the southwest, and accessible only by gondola, is Allred’s, with its well-deserved reputation as the premiere restaurant in the area. Not willing to rest solely on its spectacular view from 1800-feet above Telluride, Allred’s contemporary American menu takes many local ingredients and transforms them into culinary art. Flavorful and not approaching gamey, the red deer was extraordinarily tender. The beef ribs appear sans bones, accented by a honey-based BBQ sauce. Prior to our main course, we partook in a sumptuous cream corn soup.

A non-riding day in Telluride can be spent exploring the stylish shops in town, or on the many hiking and mountain biking trails. However, the many spa services at the Inn at Lost Creek—ranging from hot stone massages to reflexology treatment to gender-specific facials—make it difficult to leave. The Inn’s spacious accommodations are equally inviting for rejuvenating naps, and the rooftop spas stand ready for relaxation under the sun or stars.

Just as the Inn at Lost Creek is a boutique hotel, so too is its intimate 9545 Restaurant and Bar. Named after the altitude of the kitchen, the cuisine is as modern American as its decor. Living up to its reputation as a destination kitchen, the strawberry salad mixes together butter lettuce, sliced strawberries, caramelized walnuts and goat cheese with a strawberry vinaigrette. The result is a beautifully presented salad, with surprisingly delicate flavors. Slices of elk make for a superb main course, as does the buffalo filet mignon—the latter served with a delectable mushroom sauce and garlic cloves. After this splendid dinner, the triple chocolate dessert nearly put us into a coma—fortunately, our room was only steps away.
Back on the road, the westward sweep of the San Juan Skyway is a welcome respite from the touristy east. With few cars to interest the CSP, State Route 145 between Telluride and Dolores is a sport rider’s dream. For most of the route the sweepers are long and fast, making it possible to creep up into triple digits without realizing it. Of course, this is easier on the Ducati, as the rider tucks in behind the fairing and channels Casey Stoner for some MotoGP inspiration. Sitting upright behind a windshield, the Guzzi rider will be more aware of his speed, but the bike still easily exceeds the highway’s speed limit. Without governance from either slow four-wheelers or law enforcement, simply ride at a natural pace. You only need to slow down for the historic mining and fur-trapping town of Rico (Spanish for "rich"), and its 205 inhabitants.

The brakes on both bikes were amply tested in specific areas on this stretch and acquitted themselves nicely. However, we certainly give a nod to the ABS on the ST3 S. In fact, the ABS will be of more use to more riders than the high-end Showa forks and Öhlins shock that earns the trailing S in ST3 S. The stock settings and action is superb, so the wide range of adjustment seems unnecessary for touring—hard-core sport riders may disagree. The Breva is comfortable and never wallows in turns, so, despite being a relatively sober bike, the Breva’s suspension is outstanding for its intended duty.

Photograph by Don Williams.

At the south end of the loop, there’s a detour on State Route 184 that clips off the uninteresting town of Cortez, but also the fascinating Mesa Verde National Park and its ancient cliff dwellings. As this was a riding excursion, we devoured 184 with glee as it linked Dolores and Mancos. Again, we were welcomed by wide-open sweeping turns, and the CSP seemed to be engaged elsewhere. The stretch from Mancos to Durango on US 160 is scenic, but, being a relatively heavily traveled divided four-lane highway for much of its run, it is less interesting on sport touring bikes.

Durango is a college town, which gives it an artistic vibe to go with its plethora of outdoor sports, most notably skiing and mountain biking—and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. While not a first class lodging destination, the Doubletree Hotel is a nice modern stop, with the 130-year-old Strater Hotel handling the historic end.

However, Durango has no shortage of excellent restaurants. Perhaps the most interesting is East By Southwest, an Asian fusion restaurant that serves sushi—750 miles from the nearest ocean. East By Southwest has the raw materials flown in from all over the world via FedEx, then assembled by a highly motivated team. The seven-course chef’s menu was truly extraordinary, featuring perfectly executed Kobe beef, Tasmanian salmon, toro, seared marlin, scallops with fois grois; and that barely scratches the surface of the feast of flavors and textures. Regional favorites included the deep-fried squash blossom, a masterful combination of textures. Bring a hearty appetite to the table if you intend to tackle all seven courses, which can be modified to accommodate vegetarians and those who desire cooked items. This is indulgence at its best.

More traditional in Durango, but not the least bit staid, is Seasons Rotisserie & Grill. Rich and luxurious, the Black Sea Bass fulfilled a craving for cooked fish, while the dense pork chops were a tall structure that probably required a building permit. We also sampled a New York strip steak and mashed potatoes that satisfied any comfort food urges. For starters, we enjoyed scallops wrapped in cucumber, plus duck pâté with pencil-thin breadstick and biscotti.

As much as we pampered ourselves in Durango and Telluride, we stuck to the basics at lunch stops, preferring satisfying meals in environments that are not foreign to a pair of riders in leathers, boots and carrying helmets. On the east half of the loop, that means the Handlebars Bar and Saloon in Silverton where we enjoyed chili and a burger—both made from buffalo—in a room filled with character, motorcycle enthusiasts and impressive displays of taxidermy. In Dolores, the halfway spot on the west curve, the Naked Moose (another stop highlighting locally taken trophies), with its garlic burger and delicious tortilla soup, warmed and filled our stomachs. Most importantly, both stops have a welcoming air that permeates the eateries.

We experienced the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway a little differently—foreign bikes, in more ways than one, in an atmosphere drenched in Americana. Maybe it is time to start planning a ride through the Apennines on a Harley and a Victory, and we will make sure to order spaghetti at least once.