Driving the Million Dollar Highway in southern Colorado, it’s easy to assume how this world-famous road got its nickname. The million-dollar views don’t let up at a single point along the 23-mile stretch of two-lane highway between Silverton and Ouray.
The truth, though, is more literal. The road needed to be rebuilt in the 1920s and someone on the planning commission commented that the repairs would cost “a million dollars.” That’s peanuts for road construction today, but back then, it was astronomical. The name stuck.
Part of the 235-mile San Juan Skyway, the Million Dollar Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the country. It’s packed with exhilarating hairpin turns and switchbacks as it snakes through the San Juan Mountains. While it’s open year-round and you can drive virtually any vehicle, be aware that much of the road has no guardrails.
Although the Million Dollar Highway isn’t particularly long, the scenery packs a tremendous punch and there’s no shortage of places to stop along the way, including natural hot springs and abandoned ghost towns.
Your journey on the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado begins in Silverton, a once-booming mining town. Silverton was established in 1874 and retains much of its old-school, small-town charm. We do mean small – less than 700 people reside in Silverton!
In spite of its size, Silverton, CO has a ton to offer. Take a tour of the Old Hundred Gold Mine, where you can go ⅓ mile underground and try your luck panning for real gold, or see how gold and silver were processed at the Mayflower Mill, a National Historic Landmark. If you have the time, take the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNG) for a 3.5-hour roundtrip between Silverton and Durango.
Red Mountain Pass
Heading north from Silverton on the Million Dollar Highway, you’ll quickly begin to climb. Abandoned buildings dot the hillsides, the remains of the Red Mountain Mining District. This region was a focal point of the gold and silver rushes in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Red Mountain Pass is the summit of the Million Dollar Highway, sitting at an elevation of over 11,000 feet. From here, the breathtaking views stretch for miles and it’s quite clear how Red Mountain Pass got its name. Take note that the stretch of the Million Dollar Highway ascending up to Red Mountain Pass is the most treacherous. Fortunately, there are several turnouts where you can pull off – either for the views or to soothe your nerves.
As you descend Red Mountain Pass, you get a front-row view of the staggeringly steep Uncompahgre Gorge. The gorge is only accessible via the Million Dollar Highway, so the panoramas surrounding you are truly once-in-a-lifetime sights.
Below is the Uncompahgre River, which formed the gorge’s deep canyons. Several waterfalls also flow into the Uncompahgre Gorge, including Bear Creek Falls. 13,690-foot Bald Mountain sits west of the gorge and Telluride is directly east. You’re just 4 miles from Telluride at one point on the Million Dollar Highway, but there are no direct roads. That 4 miles would translate into an hour-and-a-half drive. Looking up the insanely steep walls, you won’t have any question about why there are no roads.
Just before the Million Dollar Highway delivers you to Ouray, you’ll come to Ouray Overlook, where a prominent sign proclaims its nickname, “Switzerland of America.” As you take in the sweeping views of the valley and town below, you may truly wonder if you’ve somehow gone from southern Colorado to Europe.
Ouray is the definition of “tiny but mighty.” The impossibly-picturesque town doesn’t have a single stoplight and has just one main street – appropriately named Main Street. Yet, it boasts four hot springs, three waterfalls, miles of hiking and off-roading trails, and the renowned Ouray Ice Park.