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One of Colorado's Most Scenic Drives

Guide to the Million Dollar Highway


Million Dollar Highway is a 25-mile stretch of U. S. Route 550 that runs through the San Juan Mountains, south from Ouray, Colorado to Silverton, Colorado. It's also part of the 236-mile San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. Million Dollar Highway is considered one of the ten best scenic highways in the United States.

Construction of the Million Dollar Highway began in 1880. It was designed to connect gold and silver mines around Red Mountain to nearby towns. The highway changed hands a couple of times, and in 1924, the Colorado Department of Highways took over.

Traveling from Ouray to Silverton is considered a more, er, uncomfortable route than the drive from Silverton to Ouray. Starting in Ouray puts you in the outside lane for most of the ride, very close to mountains' steep drop offs. The section from Ouray to the Red Mountain Pass summit is a steep climb. Then, the road descends as you head to Silverton. In general, the most challenging part of the drive is from Uncompahgre Gorge to the Red Mountain Pass summit. This section has narrow lanes, hairpin curves, steep cliffs, and no guardrails.

The speed limit is typically between 25 mph and 10 mph (around some turns). Driving time, with no stops, is around 45 minutes. Note that there are no pit stops along Million Dollar Highway: no gas stations, no restrooms, no services. There are, however, fantastic views. Along this stretch of highway, you'll travel over Uncompahgre Gorge and across Red Mountain Pass. And you'll pass by historic sites, such as abandoned mines and ghost towns.

Uncompahgre Gorge


The Million Dollar Highway is the only way through Uncompahgre Gorge. Here, you'll wind through treacherous switchbacks between steep, sharp cliffs and the Uncompahgre Gorge below.

The gorge has several waterfalls, including Bear Creek Falls (about three miles out of Ouray). Note that the ride through Uncompahgre Gorge is dangerous. There are no guard rails, and the consequence of inattention could easily be fatal.

Red Mountain Pass


Thirteen miles out of Ouray is Red Mountain Pass. While it is one of the most dangerous sections of Million Dollar Highway, it is also considered by many to be the highlight of the drive.

At the 11,000-foot summit, you'll be treated to stunning views of the San Juan Mountains. You can also see a number of unique sites near the pass, such as Idarado Mine, Yankee Girl Silver Mine, and other abandoned mining operations. 

Mines


Idarado Mine
Idarado Mine can easily be seen from Million Dollar Highway, just north of Red Mountain Pass. In its heyday, the mine primarily produced lead, zinc, and silver. Production eventually ended in 1979.

Yankee Girl Silver Mine
Like the name implies, Yankee Girl Silver Mine was a rich source of silver. The mine was developed in the late 1800s, and became one of the most profitable silver mines in the United States. In addition, it was one of only three vertical-shaft mines in the area. Yankee Girl Silver Mine is about 11 miles south of Ouray, on County Road 31, just off the Million Dollar Highway.

Ghost Towns


Ironton
Seven miles out of Ouray, you see the remnants of Ironton. Founded in 1893, Ironton was an important stop between Ouray and the Red Mountain area's mining camps. The area still has a few crumbling structures.

Red Mountain Town
Twelve miles from Ouray, you'll pass by the ghost town known as Red Mountain Town. It was founded in the late 1800s, when gold ore was discovered in the area. At one time, Red Mountain Town had as many as 10,000 residents. Today, you can still see a few remaining structures.

Just a Reminder...


While the primary reason to travel the Million Dollar Highway is for the fantastic views, if you're doing the driving, you really have to keep your eyes on the road. It can be a very dangerous drive. And, if you've never driven this section of US 550, it's best not to try it in the winter. While the route is technically open year-round, winter closures are common, and, of course, driving conditions in the winter can be treacherous.