Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway: A Journey Through Untamed Beauty

Tucked away in the state of Colorado lies a hidden gem, a unique highway with a history as fascinating as the views it offers. This route, affectionately known as the Million Dollar Highway, was born in the late 19th century and boasts some of the most breathtaking views in the entire United States. As you navigate the winding paths, you’ll be granted a front-row seat to nature’s grandeur – just make sure it’s your passenger who’s soaking up the sights while you stay focused on the road. After all, standard safety measures like guardrails and shoulders aren’t always in the cards on this adventurous journey.

Part of the illustrious San Juan Skyway, the Million Dollar Highway stretches approximately 25 miles from Silverton to Ouray, nestled in the heart of western Colorado. Despite its relatively short length, traversing this stretch of road is no quick affair, clocking in at around 42 minutes. With large RVs commonly plying this route, you can’t rush this trip – and with the amazing views on offer, why would you want to?

The Million Dollar Highway remains accessible year-round, although winter months can be treacherous due to weather conditions. The road scales three high mountain passes: Coal Bank Pass, Molas Pass, and Red Mountain Pass. These soaring heights coupled with varying temperature ranges and potential snowfall during the winter months could potentially result in closures or restrictions. As if the drive wasn’t daunting enough, torrential rainfalls can also result in nerve-wracking waterfalls alongside the highway.

Does this make the Million Dollar Highway dangerous? Absolutely. It’s not for the faint-hearted. One false move could lead to dire consequences. During your first drive, prepare to be floored by the awe-inspiring landscape, but don’t forget to keep your wits about you. The highway’s most infamous stretch is the 12-mile expanse south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the Red Mountain Pass. Navigating this section requires utmost care due to the steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and the absence of guardrails. The sudden surge in truck accidents here has also highlighted the road’s hazards, although most of these incidents stem from the challenging topographical conditions rather than the road’s age.

So, how daunting is this drive for some? It’s not uncommon to find drivers frozen in fear, unsure whether to move forward or turn back. The road demands your utmost respect and concentration. Those traveling towards Durango from Ouray, in particular, face a treacherous journey, with unforgiving cliffs, sharp turns, narrow lanes, and the glaring absence of guardrails.

San Juan Skyway through the Red Mountain Pass, Colorado

San Juan Skyway through the Red Mountain Pass, Colorado
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As for its name, the Million Dollar Highway’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Folklore suggests that the name came from the alleged costs of construction or the belief that the dirt used to build the road is rich in gold ore. A more humorous tale tells that locals claimed they’d only drive this route if they were paid a million dollars due to its inherent risks.

The Million Dollar Highway, initially hand-carved by Russian immigrant Otto Mears in the 1880s as a toll road for ore transportation, has now evolved into one of America’s most iconic and captivating routes. The highway, which was widened in the 1930s, is not just a journey but an experience, offering unparalleled views of mountains, valleys, and gorges. During spring, the area transforms into a floral paradise, housing wildlife such as elk, mountain goats, black bears, and deer.

Otto Mear's toll road between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado, just below Bear Creek Falls

Otto Mear’s toll road between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado, just below Bear Creek Falls
Photo by Denver library

In this mesmerizing journey, the Uncompahgre Gorge stands out as the crown jewel. Molded by the Uncompahgre River and Red Mountain Creek, it is undeniably the most scenic and thrilling segment of the drive. Despite the inherent risks, the Million Dollar Highway offers an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience – a testament to nature’s untamed and sublime beauty.

Dallas Divide, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado, USA

Dallas Divide, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado, USA
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