Southwest Colorado Passes

Southwest Colorado Passes

Durango is nestled in the stunning San Juan Mountains which expands as part of the Rocky Mountains. Throughout Southwest Colorado, there are many mountain passes to conquer whether it’s on foot, on a road trip, or overlanding drive. Below we will review passes in Southwest Colorado you may encounter while traveling in the area.


On the Highway

With Durango being the main hub at the intersection of Highway 160 and Highway 550, whether passing through or your destination, you may have to travel over a nearby mountain pass. The below passes are kept open all year round as they provide major transportation routes for locals, commuters, and tourists. However, they do occasionally close, generally for a day or two, in the winter when weather makes them impassable. It’s important to keep updated on the weather and road conditions when planning on using one of these mountain roads. Whenever stopping on these passes, it’s important to only use designated pullout zones as there is usually not extra space to pass by on.


Coal Bank

The nearest to Durango, the 10,640’ elevation summit of Coal Bank Pass is 34 miles north of town. Also north of Purgatory Resort, this pass doesn’t interfere with mountain access from Durango. The Engineer Mountain trail system is easily accessed from this summit with parking lots and trails visible from the road. The southern accent gives sweeping views of the Animas Valley, Purgatory Resort, Engineer Mountain and all of the other surrounding mountain ranges. On the north side, a whole new valley view is mesmerizing with steep mountainsides and views of the Twilight Peaks. At the lowest point, Lime Creek and East Lime Creek join together.



The second pass on the way from Durango to Silverton on the San Juan Scenic Byway, Molas Pass peaks at 10,910’ and is home to Molas and Little Molas Lakes. The overlook point at the top features unmatched views to the east of Vestal Basin and White Dome. Just 7 miles south of Silverton, Colorado, this is the last pass before descending into the small mountain town. 

Red Mountain

Connecting Silverton and Ouray, Red Mountain Pass via the “Million Dollar Highway”. Aptly named for the red mountains seen from this stretch, the summit is at 11,017’, the highest in the area. Straddling San Juan and Ouray Counties, this pass is known to pose avalanche threats with built in avalanche tunnels and occasional controlled avalanches which closes the pass. There are steep drop-offs and an average of 5% grade so prepare for a slow, but beautiful drive. 

Lizard Head

Located 12 miles southeast of Telluride, this pass is named for the volcanic rock spire, Lizard Head, which resembles a lizard’s head facing the sky. The summit is at 10,222’ and offers sweeping views of the surrounding mountains which are commonly hiked, biked, and even used for sheep grazing. This pass, while still steep, doesn’t have the same cliff side repertoire as Red Mountain Pass. 


Wolf Creek

83 miles from Durango, but just 23 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, Wolf Creek Pass is a commonly traveled pass to access Southwest Colorado from the northeast. The summit reaches 10,856’ with parking, an overlook, and a mile from the infamous Wolf Creek Ski Resort. Sections have a 7%+ grade and hairpins curves making oversized trucks, and all vehicles, take extra precaution. 

When the weather is harsh, there are no passes to enter Durango from the south (Highway 550) from Farmington and Aztec, NM. Depending on where you’re coming from, it may be in your best interest to map a route that avoids some of the above passes to assure a safer trip.


There are many other passes in Colorado including four wheel drive off roading roads that require high clearance vehicles or OHVs. These five being the primary mountain passes that you’ll encounter in Southwest Colorado, it’s good to know the terrain and what to expect. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to The Durango Team at The Wells Group with any questions about the area’s roads and transportation.

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