US Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado, often called the “Million Dollar Highway”, is perhaps one of the most breathtaking journeys you can travel by car.
Originally built in 1883 by Otto Mears as a toll way from Ouray to the now abandoned town of Ironton, this two lane highway offers spectacular views of the San Juan Mountain Range, and Uncompaghre Gorge. The road was extended to connect Silverton and Ironton over Red Mountain pass, and operated as a toll road until the early 1920’s when it was rebuilt and became part of the present day US Highway 550. The road from Ouray to Silverton is just a part of the incredibly scenic and historic San Juan Skyway.
Depending on who you ask, the origin of the name “Million Dollar Highway” varies from one extreme to another. One person may tell you that the road cost a million dollars a mile to build, another that the land was purchased for a million dollars. Another legend states that the fill dirt used to build the highway contains over a million dollars worth of gold ore, however, a personal favorite (stated by a poor lady who had no idea what they would be traveling over) was that she wouldn’t drive that road again in the winter for a million dollars. But don’t let that scare you!
Reaching an elevation of over 11,000 feet at the summit of Red Mountain Pass, with steep grades, hairpin curves and no guard rails, this scenic highway is not for the faint of heart, however, it is truly worth every mile. As you round each curve, the scenery will amaze you again and again.
Red Mountain Pass, the actual “Million Dollar Highway” is truly an awesome drive. The most dramatic sections are within 6 miles of Ouray heading south. As you leave Ouray, don’t forget to stop at Lookout Point, take a breath, and take in the entire town of Ouray.
It is picturesque and the photo from this vantage encapsulates this village into the surrounding peaks so eloquently. Continue on along the Uncompaghre Gorge and watch the road rise out of the valley below as you experience tight curves and 25 mile per hour speed limit signs as well as the turnoff to the Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway and Engineer Pass (which are open to four wheel drive vehicles in the summer months). Continuing past Ironton Park, once a booming center of activity, you can glimpse old abandoned buildings, and may even like to stop (again) to absorb the beauty around you. As you near the summit, enjoy the Mining Overlook. There are many interpretive signs that give people a glimpse into the mining era and the late 1800s. The summit is not far now and only 11,018 feet above sea level. Continue down the pass and enjoy the town of Silverton.
Consistently voted as one of the top ten scenic highways in the United States, the Million Dollar Highway is truly a feast for the senses and a trip you will want to experience over and over again.
For additional information and photos of the Million Dollar Highway, visit our blog.