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Colorado's Million Dollar Highway

Highway Tales - Favorite Drives
Article Date: October 1, 2022


One of our favorite drives is the Million Dollar Highway, which is about a 50 mile portion of US Highway 550 that runs north from Durango to Ouray, Colorado. It's been known as the Million Dollar Highway for many years but no one knows the exact reason why. Some claim it's because it cost a reported million dollars to build while others claim it's due to its million dollar views. Either could be correct.

The highway was built by Otto Mears back in the 1880's as a toll road for miners that transported gold between Silverton and Ouray to load on the trains. The highway begins at Durango as it gradually climbs as it heads north but the real scenery begins in the last half of the road at Silverton. The Silverton to Ouray portion takes you over Molas Pass and Red Mountain Pass as it twists and turns and hugs the steep cliff walls with numerous deep canyons and drop-offs on the other side of the road. There are no guardrails on this highway, which is necessary so that snow plows can plow snow over the edge and into the steep drop-offs below. The highway is open in winter although this area has a high incidence of avalanches and rock slides due to the steep walls and slopes so there are times when the road may be temporarily closed. I wouldn't advise driving a motorhome on this road during winter months due to the possibility of patches of ice in shaded areas that could surprise you. I did mention there are no guardrails, right?

The Million Dollar Highway begins as you leave the Durango area

However, I have driven this road in summer with numerous vehicles including SUVs, gas class A motorhomes and even diesel pushers up to 45' in length with a towed Jeep. I've driven this road with a large motorhome once when it was raining and loose gravel had washed onto the road in a few places with no problems. The biggest concerns are the condition of your RV and your capabilities as a driver. There are numerous grades to climb and descend. With our gas class A motorhome it was slow going uphill but of greater concern was the braking ability downhill. The continuous run of ups and downs will cause the brakes to get pretty warm on a heavy RV so you'll need to pull over frequently to keep them from overheating and fading. I've seen a dually pulling a fifth wheel that was pulled over on the side of the road. You could smell his brakes from quite a distance. Not every vehicle is equipped to handle this kind of driving. With our diesel pushers it was a whole new ball game because the increased torque of the diesel engine made uphill climbs much easier and the engine compression brake made the downhill descents much safer because the brakes weren't used that much. Most curves are gradual enough and there are no super tight hairpins curves. There are 3 fairly tight curves where you may have to cross the center line in the middle of the curve just a bit with a long motorhome but these are not blind curves so you'll be able to see if anyone is coming and anticipate thier arrival and pause if necessary.

Concrete ramps shield key parts of the highway where avalanches and rock slides are prevalent

The second concern is the driver. If you get rattled easily you might not be able to comfortably or safely drive this road. You also need to be realistic about your capabilities. You will need to be able to keep the coach in your lane so if you are one of those drivers that has lost some of the driving skills of their youth this road may not be for you. Lastly - how comfortable are you with driving on mountain roads? Remember, there are no guardrails on this road - just a steep drop-off on one side that may go down hundreds of feet. This is a road that you will have to concentrate on your driving with no time for rubber necking it while viewing the spectacular scenery. It is tempting. Trust me. Save that for your passengers. It also helps to drive this route in a northerly direction where most of the drop-offs while be on the passenger side of the motorhome. This will also make it easier to navigate those three tight hairpin turns.

Waterfalls drop water and pebbles on the road during a light rain

There are a few turnouts where you can pull in to cool off, view the sites or allow other traffic to pass you. Be sure to use them rather than holding everyone up, which can lead to frustrated drivers making some scary passing maneuvers that may result in an accident. You can stop in Silverton and take in the sites, grab a meal or watch the train roll into town. "The Silverton" is a narrow gauge steam engine train that makes a passenger run between Durango and Silverton. It's an interesting and scenic experience as it passes through the canyons on its way to landing right in downtown Silverton. You can take the ride if you want or you can just wait in Silverton for the train to show up, which is usually around lunch time.

The Silverton to Durango train arrives in Silverton at lunch time

The northern end of the highway arrives in Ouray, where a handful of curves drops you down into the town, which is known as the Switzerland of America. This town rests in a bowl surrounded by mountains. A large number of Jeep trails are found here that can take you to abandoned mines and ghost towns. rental Jeeps are available for those who don't1 have one. Famous trails such as Imogene Pass, Black Bear and Yankee Boy Basin are extremely popular in the summer months as Jeep owners comer from far and wide to travel them. US-550 continues northward past Ouray but it's no longer part of the Million Dollar Highway as it heads northward to Grand Junction, Colorado on a milder highway.

The road drops down into Ouray, located in a scenic valley

The road is definitely one of the most scenic roads in America. For those who aren't willing to take the trip in a large RV there is an alternative. You can take the San Juan Scenic Byway, which is Colorado 145. It runs from Delores, which is just outside of Cortez, and takes you over some gradual hills until you reach Ridgeway. Once at Ridgeway you can head south a bit to Ouray on the easy part of US-550. From there you can park your RV at one of the RV parks and take your towed vehicle to travel to Silverton and back on the best part of the Million Dollar Highway. Either way, it's a site not to be missed.

Numerous abandoned mines can be seen from the road as you drive

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