The Million Dollar Highway is part of U.S. Route 550 (a spur of U.S. Highway 50). It runs from Silverton to Ouray in Colorado and is also part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. The highway more or less parallels the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Drivers looking for a scenic alpine drive with some adrenaline often enjoy driving the Million Dollar Highway.
While it is fun and adventurous to plan a road trip all the way across the United States, some of the most exciting roads are located well off the Interstates. One of the most adventurous roads to experience is the El Camino de la Muerte or 'Death Road' in Bolivia - although the main way to explore the road today is to take a cycling tour down it.
What And Where Is The Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway stretches for around 25 miles (or 40 km) in western Colorado (although at its core, it's actually the 12-mile stretch south of Ouray). It is this section south of Ouray, running through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass, which really earns the highway its name.
- Length: 25 Miles or 40 km
- Route: Silverton to Ouray
- Core Section: 12 Miles From Ouray To the Red Mountain Pass
- Part Of: The San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway
It is famous for being one of the most scenic drives in the United States. The stretch between Silverton and Ouray takes around 42 minutes to drive.
The highway climbs up three very high mountain passes - the Coal Bank Pass, the Molas Pass, and the Red Mountain Pass.
Mountain Passes On The Million Dollar Highway:
- Coal Bank Pass: Elevation 10,640 feet or 3,240 Meters
- Molas Pass: Elevation: 10,970 feet or 3,340 Meters
- Red Mountain Pass: Elevation: 11,018 feet or 3,358 Meters
Driving The Million Dollar Highway & Highlights
The 12-mile stretch south of Ouray runs through a gorge and is challenging and potentially hazardous to drive. The road is characterized by narrow lanes, a lack of guardrails, and steep cliffs. The ascent of Red Mountain Pass has hairpin curves and narrow lanes for traffic. Some sections of the road are cut directly into the side of the mountain. Watch out for the large RVs traveling in both directions of the road.
- Tip: Keep Eyes Peeled For the Remains Of the Idarado Mine
The road is open year-round, and the snow season in the area starts in October (snow can close the road for periods in the winter).
One attraction on the highway north of Durango is Trimble Springs. These hot water springs have been a popular attraction for visitors since the late 19th century.
- Trimble Springs: Hot Springs North Of Durango
The highway also finds its way along the Animas Rivers and under the Hermosa Cliffs. It makes its way into the San Juan National Forest, running past the Haviland and Electra Lakes. It passes through the historic mining town of Silverton that's perched some 9,320 feet or 2,841 meters up in the mountains. The views are amazing, with the peaks Sultan Mountain, Kendall Mountain, and Storm Peak rising above 13,000 feet.
From Silverton, it goes to Mineral Creek Valley and then up Red Mountain Pass.
Name And History Of The Million Dollar Highway
The origin of its name, "The Million Dollar Highway," is a topic of dispute, but one belief is that it cost a million dollars to build the road in the 1920s. In the 1920s, an older toll road was rebuilt at high expense and became the current U.S. Route 550.
- Completed: 1924
- Name: Possibly From Costing A Million Dollars To Build
The road was built to transport ore from Silverton to the railroad in Ouray. It was widened in the 1930s but still remains a dangerous and narrow road. It even boasts North America's highest avalanche hazard per mile, according to Dangerous Roads.
Today, driving the Million Dollar Highway may come as a thrilling (or frightening) challenge to "flatland" drivers - like folks from Kansas or Iowa. Sometimes there are drivers who freeze in the middle of the road, too scared to drive another foot.