“I’ll drive it if they pay me $1 million.”
That’s what legends say was said to give US 550 in the stretch between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado, the name “The Million Dollar Highway.” The 25-mile segment is called one of the most scenic highways in America.
First built as a toll road in the 1920s, many legends have danced around the name and its origin, but people have yet to learn how the road first got that moniker. According to Visit Durango, the highway cost $1 million a mile when expanded and paved. The original route, which you had to pay to drive, had steep switchbacks and curves, crossed avalanche paths and was missing safety features such as guardrails.
The highway originates in the Southwest Colorado town of Durango. The first 29 miles (47km) chase the Animas River upstream into the San Juan National Forest along the beautiful Animas Valley. The following 14 miles (23km) have drivers wheezing up 3,654 feet (1,113 m) to Molas Lake, sitting at over 10,000 feet (*). The next 6 miles (10km) plunge over 3,200 feet (975m) into the little pocket valley and the historic town of Silverton.
If that stretch didn’t have driver knuckles white and passenger nails gnawed, leaving Silverton starts the stretch called The Million Dollar Highway. There are many beautiful places and views to stop between Durango and Silverton, take photographs, take deep breaths, and control your shaking knees. There are even more between Silverton and Ouray, especially for knee shakes.
Before starting on to the actual Million Dollar Highway, be sure there’s plenty of space on your memory card and your phone’s photo album. Close to 100 photos fill my library over that 25 miles. This is 2023, and the highway has been widened, guardrails added, and other safety features, like avalanche roofs, have been added to the modern route. The breathtaking sheer drops off the side of the road are still there, but there’s a rumble strip, a paved shoulder and sturdy guardrails before reaching the precipice.
Cut into the side of the cliff above Mineral Creek, US 550 rises just 1,200 feet (*) from Silverton to the Mill Creek–Mineral Creek confluence. This stretch passes several dramatic waterfalls, their plummeting loads frothing in the creek below. The Colorado Department of Transportation has provided numerous turnouts and overlooks at places where the scenery is too good to pass up.
After a grinding 270° switchback, the next 5 miles, now in the Uncompahgre National Forest, seem like a relatively easy drive cut into the side of the mountain. There is a climb gasping up the high point, Red Mountain Pass, where the road reaches almost the 11,000-foot mark before dropping slightly at Spirit Lake, holding steady across Ironton Park before hitting the last severe switchbacks and starting the long, 3,000-foot descent into America’s Switzerland, Ouray.
Exhausted? You betcha. It’s the longest 25 miles ever driven. Luckily, Ouray has flowing hot springs from Box Canyon and many places to stay. In addition to the town’s multiple hot spring pools, many motels also have indoor ones. The town also boasts microbreweries and a distillery.
US 550 is part of the 236-mile San Juan Skyway National Scenic Byway. The Skyway, slightly over half of which goes through the San Juan Mountains, overlaps portions of the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway. Once in Ouray, take US 550 to Colorado 62 in Ridgway. Heading west, skirt the west side of the mountains along the Dolores River on Colorado 145, meandering all the way down to Dolores. There’s even a place for a sidetrip to the historic town of Telluride. South from there on the way to Cortez is Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. At Cortez, you have arrived in the heart of Mesa Verde Country. Return to Durango via US 160, which passes Mesa Verde National Park at Mancos.
Do I hear, “road trip!”?