Million Dollar Highway: US 550 – Silverton to Ouray

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Between Silverton and Ouray, US Rte. 550 is better known as the Million Dollar Highway.  It’s also one of the most breathtaking and awe-inspiring stretches of pavement you’ll ever drive.

There’s some debate over the origin of the “Million Dollar” name.  In Jamie Jensen’s Road Trip USA: California and the Southwest, there are several explanations.  One possibility: it cost about a million dollars to pave the route back in the 1930’s.  Another: an early traveler swore he would never travel the curvy, steep road again, “even if you paid me a million dollars!”.  The third is probably the best: the road was paved with gravel from nearby gold and silver mines.  Later, it was discovered that the rock was still rich in ore, possibly worth a million dollars or more.

Million Dollar Highway

After making a quick climb from Silverton to Red Mountain Pass, you’re in for a quick drop in altitude, thanks to several sharp switchback curves that demand a speed of 15 mph or less.

curvy road, Million Dollar Highway

These curves begin the drop into Ouray.

Red Mountains and Yankee Girl Mine

Stop at a scenic overlook for this view of one of the three Red Mountains (the peaks aren’t named, just numbered 1, 2, and 3).  The turnout also provides a great view of the remnants of the old Yankee Girl Mine.

The Yankee Girl Mine was the site of the first successful strike in the Red Mountain area, back in 1882.  For more on the history of the area, and some great pictures of the nearby mines, visit the Red Mountain Project’s website.

If you think the Million Dollar Highway is beautiful, you should see it in Autumn.  And you can.  Here.

For the final few miles into Ouray, Rte. 550 clings to the steep mountainside, with very little space for error on either side.

snow shed snowshed million dollar highway

  If you travel the road in summer, it’s probably hard to imagine the conditions you would face in the winter.  But there’s one, very clear, illustration of just how much snow falls on the roadway.  When you reach this covered portion of the road (called a snowshed), pull off to the left side.  When you look down into the valley…

melting snow, million dollar highway

… you’ll likely see a huge pile of snow.  Just imagine, enough snow falls here in the winter, that some remains by the middle of August.

farmland near ridgway colorado

After you pass Ouray, the landscape changes from extreme mountains, to gently rolling hills and farmland.

If you enjoy antique shopping, watch for several stores lined up at the side of the road, just south of Ridgway.

At Ridgway, the San Juan Skyway turns off to the left, returning to Placerville to complete its loop.  Our route, however, continues north to Montrose, then turns east on US Rte. 50.

Note: This trip was first published in 2005.

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