The entire 233-mile San Juan Skyway scenic loop is pretty impressive, but one particular stretch of the winding, mountain road has earned another name that will give you a clue into its spectacular nature. The Million Dollar Highway offers grand views of mountain peaks, and some seemingly impossible curves.
Soon after you’ve left Silverton, the Million Dollar Highway starts providing thrills. The road gains some altitude, and before you know it…
… you’re at this incredible viewpoint, with a range of peaks that include Red Mountain on the right. Straight ahead is the valley that contains Ouray, and on the left are the mountains that separate US 550 from Telluride (which, remarkably, is only a couple of miles away from here, as the crow flies).
For the best pictures, I’d suggest driving this road in early afternoon. I was a little too late in the day. While the mountains were beautifully lit, the road was getting shadowy. And that’s a shame, because directly below this spot, US 550 makes several turns. I’d call them a “U” turn, but they more closely resemble the letter “S”. Heck, they’re practically a figure “8”.
While negotiating the curves, watch for this scenic spot on the east side of the road. Directly under Red Mountain, you’ll find the remnants of the Idarado Mine.
It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the tiny SUV in this picture. If I had known, I would have tried to drive over there. (On a map, it looks like it’s County Road 31, which intersects US 550 just a short distance down the road).
The descent through the Uncompahgre Gorge continues towards Ouray, along this shelf that was cut into the side of the mountain.
By now, you’ve probably realized that this section of road has some million-dollar views, but that’s not why it received its name. There are several legends that explain the origin of the name. Some are boring, such as, it cost a million dollars a mile to build. My favorite, however, is that the fill dirt used to construct the road likely contained a million dollars in gold ore.
If you’re pretty skilled at 4-wheel-driving, you could avoid the Million Dollar Highway altogether, and take Engineer Mountain Road. One end of the dirt road is just outside of Ouray, while the other end is at Animas Forks — the ghost town in the hills above Silverton. Earlier in the day, I briefly considered driving up Engineer Mountain Road, but I quickly discovered that it was far too rough for my abilities.
Even if you’re not going to drive up it, you can stop here and admire the road, as it twists uphill through an aspen-lined canyon.
During my 2014 visit to the area, I spent some time hiking up the road. During the first week of October, the leaves were spectacular (and I also saw some snow at Red Mountain Pass). I heard a lot of people saying that the leaves were late that year, so your best bet for fall color may be the last week of September.
Ouray deserves much more time than I’ve ever spent there. It’s an authentic western mountain town — much like Silverton, although perhaps just a bit more busy, since the main road runs straight through it.
There are places to stay and places to eat in Ouray. Perhaps the town’s biggest draw is the huge Ouray Hot Springs Pool, which ranges from 88 to 106 degrees, and is mostly free from any sulfur smell.
You also might want to check out Box Canyon Falls, where a network of catwalks takes you into a slot canyon, ending at an impressive cascade. It’s not free, though. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children, as of 2013.
I spent much more time in Ouray during my 2014 trip to the area. Be sure to check out some of my suggestions for things to do in Ouray on that page.
Beyond Ouray, you’re not officially on the Million Dollar Highway anymore, but you’re still on the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. The Uncompahgre Gorge eventually widens out into a flat valley, but there are still mountains nearby.
If you’re continuing around the loop, turn left onto Colorado 62 at Ridgway. At this time of the evening, I was driving into the sun, but I stopped frequently to take photos looking back to the east, at a colorful range of mountain peaks.
You’ll also pass some stunning farmland along Route 62.
These were the final pictures of the day for me. I had spent so much time in Animas Forks earlier in the day, that it was nearly dark when I finally arrived in Telluride for the night.
The Bottom Line
The entire San Juan Skyway is fantastic, but the Million Dollar Highway portion is certainly one of its best parts. Plan to spend time in Silverton and Ouray.
The Million Dollar Highway refers specifically to the portion of US Highway 550 between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. It’s only about 25 miles, but you’ll probably need an hour to drive it, thanks to its sharp curves and scenic opportunities.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Silverton to Ouray…
… and Ouray to Ridgway, then on to Telluride (or at least, as much as you can see before it got dark):