Updated March 21, 2017.
Driving the Million Dollar Highway is an exhilarating, one-of-a-kind road trip experience!
Not for the faint-hearted, only the fearless tread these horrendous heights on a narrow, winding road perched upon rocky outcroppings and notched into precipitous mountain faces.
The elevation gain alone is breathtaking . . . and I mean literally, “breathtaking” . . . not to mention the spectacular views.
Our point of origin for this leg of our road trip began at the southwestern tip of the San Juan Skyway National Scenic Byway in Cortez, Colorado where we stayed for a few nights while taking in the local sights, including visiting the stunning Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
With so much to see, a week spent on the byway in the San Juan Mountains is just not enough!
Find out how our trip began in The San Juan Mountains Colorado, part 1 of the San Juan Skyway series, and then you can learn more about our trip in Silverton Colorado—Traveling the San Juan Skyway, part 2. We continue our road trip through the San Juan Mountains in Ouray Colorado—Traveling the San Juan Skyway, part 4!
Originally, the Million Dollar Highway was all about transportation to support the mining industry deep in the San Juan Mountains. The initial section was a toll road built in 1883, between Ouray and Ironton (now a ghost town), to transport ore and goods to the miners and their families who resided there.
After failed attempts to widen transportation to the mining districts via various railways, the toll road was rebuilt and extended in the early 1920s at an exorbitant cost to Colorado citizens, later dubbed, “The Million Dollar Highway”.
The moniker stuck.
Today, current U.S. Highway 550, between Ouray and Silverton Colorado, is a part of the San Juan Skyway National Scenic Byway, a major tourist attraction to one of the most scenic high places in America.
When you think of the lyrics from the patriotic song America, the Beautiful written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1913, “Purple mountains majesties”, the San Juan Mountains come to mind, and the Million Dollar Highway is the road to get there to see it all!
The south end of the Million Dollar Highway/US Route 550 begins in Silverton Colorado. We drove from there, winding our way over and through the San Juan Mountains to where this renowned highway ends in Ouray Colorado, at the north end.
It’s about 24 miles (40 minutes on clear summer days) of convoluting blacktop looping the Colorado Rockies at snow-capped elevations only eagles soar.
The first point of interest we encountered was the ghost town, Chattanooga, Colorado.
In the late 1840s, prospectors rushed to Chattanooga to seek their fortune. Because it was located at the south end of the Red Mountain Pass, pack trains and freight wagons stopped here.
Eventually, gold was discovered. Miners staked their claims everywhere and Chattanooga was bursting at the seams . . . until a fire consumed the town.
Chattanooga was never rebuilt and only a few abandoned buildings stand as a testament to the history of this desolate ghost town.
Traveling the Million Dollar Highway is more than an adventure . . .
. . . it’s a journey through the history of the American West . . . from the creation of a geologic wonder and an incredible wilderness, to mountain men and the fur trade, gold rush booms and busts, post-mining era tourism and outdoor sporting venues.
Below is a pictorial display of the remarkable vistas we saw while en route.
One of the most stunning sights along the Million Dollar Highway is the Idarado Mine trestle, a relic of a gold rush past. Not seen from the road is the 5 mile tunnel burrowed beneath a 13,000 foot mountain.
As one of the many gold and silver mines in the Red Mountain-Telluride mining districts started in 1870, the Idarado Mine ceased operation in 1978. Now a superfund site due to environmental concerns, efforts are being made to restore and preserve the history made here.
In January 2014, a major rock slide closed the Million Dollar Highway for a month in Red Mountain Pass between mile markers 87 and 92. Since mid-February 2014, passage was reduced to a single lane.
Rock scaling work commenced late in April 2014 forcing road closures, except for nighttime hours and at workmen’s lunch hour at mid-day.
On our road trip to the San Juan Mountains Colorado in mid-May 2014, we were caught in this road closure, causing us to shorten our visit to Silverton Colorado so we could cross the mountains to reach our next destination point.
Traffic backed up for miles, and we stopped; our place in line was at Crystal Lake.
A cool breeze ruffled Aspen leaves and sights lured curious travelers from their vehicles while we waited for the lead car to show up.
I looked all over for some signage about the history of this stone shed. Obviously, it is very old with indications of re-purposing since its origination.
We struck gold!
Red Mountain Creek ran gold, a phenomenon I’ve never before encountered. The swollen stream made for a wonderful photo.
Where Red Mountain Creek crossed through a viaduct under the highway, I looked back over my shoulder. Euphoric from the mountain air, I was overjoyed by this scene, highlighting a vintage building, now abandoned.
In the distance we noted a modern mining claim hunkered behind mounds of tailings.
Without fail, wherever we go, we meet someone from our neck of the woods. That’s saying a lot as we hail from a wilderness located in the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest . . . not a highly populated area, by any means!
By the way, Crystal Lake is merely a tiny reservoir, the result of Full Moon Dam, not very picturesque.
In the contiguous U.S., there is no spot more susceptible to avalanches than the stretch of the Million Dollar Highway near here, the Riverside Slide area and Ouray.
The Riverside Slide Snow Shed does more than protect motorists from winter’s most deadly event; it stands as a monument to all the lives that perished here.
The most dangerous job in this part of Colorado is to be a snowplow operator. We are thankful for this life-saving shelter.
We’re on our way to the rock scaling zone. One mile out, the mountains loom large.
As we round the bend, our jaws dropped . . .
. . . Between the summit at Red Mountain Pass and Ouray Colorado, the Million Dollar Highway is a snaky thrill ride, coiling in on itself while clinging to sheer mountain cliffs.
With no guard rails, there’s no room for driver error along this treacherous stretch where road-side shoulders plunge perilously into the fatal depths of the bottomless Uncompahgre Gorge.
Those with vertigo should consider avoiding this section of the San Juan Skyway or travel on the mountain side of the highway, where a small ditch catches run-off and run away vehicles.
My personal recommendation is to never travel this section at night . . .
. . . It’s just too dangerous!
I’ve done it!
Yet, during daylight, a scenic drive along the Million Dollar Highway is a worthy bucket list must-do!
Experience the roller coaster ride we did traveling the 12 mile stretch from Red Mountain Pass to Ouray Co . . . watch the video below:
Nowhere in America is the scenery grander than from the heights of the Million Dollar Highway in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
. . . our adventure continues; see Ouray Colorado—Traveling the San Juan Skyway!
"Located at the foot of Champion Gulch on the Silverton Railroad line, the town [Guston] was formed around the workings of three large mines; the Guston-Robinson, the Yankee Girl and the Genessee-Vanderbilt . . . The English preacher Rev. William Davis succeeded in establishing a church in Guston in 1892 . . . The day the church was dedicated in Guston, a fire in Red Mountain destroyed the town's commercial district. More than one resident of Red Mountain was noted to have questioned the effects of divine intervention . . . Guston declined rapidly after the Silver Panic of 1893. The effects of later sporadic workings and recent environmental cleanup have removed any traces of residences, although the shaft house of the Yankee Girl, and a few remains of the Guston-Robinson mine are still standing."
"Ironton was a major transportation junction between Red Mountain and Ouray in addition to having some of its own mines. Ironton had a peak population of over 1000 and had two trains arriving daily from Silverton. There were many chain stores from the nearby cities of Ouray and Silverton. The town lived into the first part of this century and has slowly faded since then."
"This town came into being in the 1870's due to the gold strikes in the area. The town was moved many times supposedly to accomodate the roads. The population was once estimated to be over 10,000 people. One of the roads nearby was built by Otto mears and had grades in excess of 20%. The town was plagued by fires and even though it was rebuilt each time, there is not a whole lot left today. There was an estimated $30,000,000 in gold taken from the mines here."
"Here was one of the most fabulous towns during the golden years of the San Juans . . . it was Red Mountain Town that became King of the Mountain after absorbing a number of smaller camps. The population during the early boom years has been estimated as high as 10,000. Once settled, Red Mountain Town became one of the most colorful and prosperous towns of its day. Eastern and European investors poured millions into the region and took out millions . . . What is left of Red Mountain Town can be seen about a half mile off the highway north of the summit of Red Mountain Pass."
"Summit was a stage and railroad stop on the road between Silverton and Ouray. Summit is located at the top of Red Mountain Pass right on the side of the road. Summit was known for its saloons that gave people a breather before heading down the mountain to either Ouray or Silverton."
"The Bear Creek Trail is a very spectacular trail just off Highway 550, south of Ouray, Colorado. The Bear Creek Trail now stands as a monument to the determination and perseverance of Colorado's nineteenth century miners. It was originally built in the mid 1870s, and rerouted to its present location 20 years later. The old trail follows an unlikely route up Bear Creek, through a canyon that is so rugged it is often impossible to reach the water without ropes. Miners were forced to dynamite horizontal shelves into the rock in order to traverse the vertical walls. The trail passes by the remains of two hundred year old mining camps along the creek." Summit.org