It can be difficult to choose where to spend your time in Southwest Colorado. There are many astounding views and places to explore. Having earned the name as the Million Dollar Highway, this gorgeous stretch of road gives way to jaw-dropping views around every corner!
Routinely touted as one of America's most scenic drives, the Million Dollar Highway will not disappoint!
What is the Million Dollar Highway?
The Million Dollar Highway is a breathtaking scenic mountain pass that anyone traveling in Southwest Colorado must-see. This famous section of highway has breathtaking panoramas of steep, jagged mountains. Originally hand carved to transport ore to the railroad in the small town of Ouray, it was later widened and paved. It is said to be one of the most beautiful roads in the USA and is a section of the greater San Juan Skyway, a 233-mile loop through some of the most iconic terrain in Southwest Colorado.
Where is the Million Dollar Highway?
The Million Dollar Highway travels between the small towns of Silverton and Ouray in Southwest Colorado. The highest point is 11,018 feet at the peak of Red Mountain Pass, in the San Juan Mountain Range.
Why is it called the Million Dollar Highway?
There are many theories to the name of the Million Dollar Highway, but the true origin of the name is unknown. Many people may first think of the million-dollar views around every corner. Locals used to joke that they would only drive the section of the road if someone paid them a million dollars because of steep grades, lots of winding turns, often being in avalanche paths, and lack of guard rails. The cost to expand and pave the highway is another way it may have received its name. Allegedly, each mile on the Million Dollar Highway cost a million dollars to build.
How Many Miles is the Million Dollar Highway?
This stretch of highway spans 25 miles on US Highway 550 between the small towns of Silverton and Ouray.
When Was the Million Dollar Highway Built?
The Million Dollar Highway was originally constructed as a toll road by Otto Mears, who oversaw the building of many narrow gauge railroads, in the 1880s. Then, in the 1920s, the road underwent construction again, paving the path to the road as it is today.
What Can You See and Do Off the Million Dollar Highway?
Endless options just off the Million Dollar Highway make choosing just a few activities difficult. Outdoor recreation opportunities are around every corner, during every single season. Hiking, camping, climbing, skiing, snowshoeing, biking, hot springs, and whitewater rafting are plentiful in the area. Rich in mining history, a feel for the historic west, and nearby ancestral ruins - it's hard not to find something stunning or fascinating!
Durango is the largest town near the Million Dollar Highway. The downtown district has plenty of museums, boutiques, restaurants, nightlife, and the historic Strater Hotel. Getting around Durango is easy with a bike path that follows the Animas River, which winds through town, ending in an exciting whitewater park for boaters. With the perfect balance of amenities and access to outdoor recreation, many visitors choose to stay in Durango.
Coal Bank Pass
Winding through the San Juan National Forest, Coal Bank Pass is named after its contribution to mining. Coal Bank Pass tops out at 10,640 feet between Durango and Silverton. It is well known for its close proximity to the trailhead for Engineer Mountain, which is a popular day hike and reaches almost 13,000 feet.
The highest point between Durango and Silverton is Molas Pass, topping out at 10,970 feet. This stunning stretch of highway has views of rolling high country meadows backed by jagged mountains. Molas Pass is also home to Molas and Little Molas lakes which are popular camping and daytime recreation spots in the summer. In the winter, Molas Pass is popular for snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, and a home base for backcountry skiing and snowboarding.
Molas Pass is also known for its trailheads into the high country for hiking and mountain biking and is a common spot for backpackers to catch a ride into Silverton to stock up on groceries while hiking the Colorado Trail.
The epitome of a quaint mountain town, Silverton has all the characteristics of a former western mining town. Nestled in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, Silverton is also an outdoor destination for snowmobiling, helicopter skiing, ATV riding, horseback riding, and many more activities.
Red Mountain Pass
Red Mountain Pass is the highlight of the Million Dollar Highway, characterized by its steep grade, many turns, and deep drops just off the road. This section of highway passes abandoned mining buildings and is aptly named for the red color of rock seen from much of the road.
Surrounded by towering alpine mountains, Ouray (pronounced yur - ay) has earned the title “Switzerland of America.” It is home to the Ouray Ice Park, a world-renowned canyon where artificial waterfalls are farmed into ice during the winter for climbing with specialized ice tools and spikey footwear. As a national historic district, the buildings along Main Street and in town are preserved and protected, and many are locally owned.
Ridgeway was developed during the mining boom as a stop along the Rio Grande Southern Railroad that connected Ouray and Telluride. The town has minimized light pollution to earn a designation as a certified Dark Sky Community. Popular attractions include lakeside campsites at Ridgway State Park and Orvis Hot Springs. Orvis Hot Springs features several clothing-optional pools of different temperatures and provides terrific views of the stars.
Located in a box canyon, the small town is full of Victorian homes and is a National Historic Landmark District. A history rich in music, arts, and mining enriches the high alpine mountain peaks surrounding the canyon. The downtown area is full of museums and gourmet eateries. A gondola sits in the corner of downtown and provides free rides to Telluride Ski Resort. The premier resort is known for its luxurious accommodations and incredible terrain.
Lizard Head Pass, Colorado
Lizard Head Pass is named after the rock spire in the Lizard Head Wilderness resembling the head of a lizard. The pass is the highest point separating the Dolores River and San Miguel River watersheds. Ample hiking and camping opportunities are nearby on forest service roads. Dispersed camping is allowed at several high alpine lakes. There are three mountain peaks reaching above 14,000 ft, including Mt. Wilson. Mt. Wilson requires rock climbing equipment, ropes, and alpine ascent knowledge to safely reach the peak.
The tiny town of Rico became popular for silver mining in the late 1800s. With a population of just 231 people in 2019 and a short drive south from the much busier Telluride. Rico is a quiet spot for hiking, mountain biking, nordic skiing, and plenty of historic buildings to explore without the crowds. The free museum is a great place to learn about the mining boom of the late 1800s.
Dolores has many places to explore both inside and outside. Canyons of the Ancient Museum showcases artifacts from the Native American Pueblo people and from the hunter-gatherer era. The Galloping Goose Historical Society is a must-stop for any train enthusiast interested in narrow gauge railroads.
Wide-open spaces with distant mountain views characterize the many municipal parks in Cortez. The municipal park system has fields for almost every sport and playgrounds for children. Another attraction of Cortez is the Fenceline Cide & Wine which makes wines and grows and harvests apples to make cider.
Mesa Verde National Park is just minutes away from Mancos. Several cliff dwellings, mesa-top village sites, sun circles, and rock carvings can be viewed from a road that follows the edge of the canyon where the Native American people built their homes. The Mancos State Park offers both traditional camping and Yurt camping, perfect for people looking for a unique camping experience.
The Million Dollar Highway and the surrounding areas are filled with opportunities for adventures, historical knowledge, and mountainous views. Whether you are looking for a phenomenal scenic drive or seeking off-road adventures, the Million Dollar Highway is an imperative part of experiencing all that Southwest Colorado has to offer!