Best Road Trip Drives: Million Dollar Highway, Colorado
If breathtaking mountain scenery and heart-stopping hairpin turns are your thing, you need to take a drive along Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway. This approximately 25-mile stretch of U.S. highway 550 connects the towns of Ouray and Silverton through the incredible Uncompahgre Gorge. The steep drops and sharp turns mean this road is not for the faint of heart, but braving this unique stretch of road will reward you with amazing memories that will last you for years.
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Note that due to the treacherousness of the Million Dollar Highway, it’s best to plan your road trip in the summer months. While the road remains open during the winter, harsh weather conditions can make it even more dangerous and can necessitate chains on your tires in order to traverse. Unless you’re used to driving in snow, it’s best to avoid the road in the winter.
According to Colorado.com, the Million Dollar Highway got its name because it reportedly cost $1 million per mile to build. There are also reports that it got its name from a traveler suffering from vertigo along the road that he swore he would never come back, not even for a million dollars. The exact origin of the name isn’t known, however.
The highway was originally constructed in the late 1800s in order to connect multiple mining towns in the San Juan Mountains and Uncompahgre Gorge. Back then, it was built by hand as modern machinery had not yet been invented. When you drive the stretch of road, you’ll find it hard to believe it was even possible to build the road back in the 19th century.
What you’ll see
The landscape along the Million Dollar Highway is remote and desolate. But back in the heyday of mining, there were several small towns along this stretch of the highway. Today, you can see the remains of old towns and abandoned mines. The biggest mine you’ll see if the Longfellow Mine, located midway between Silverton and Ouray.
Driving through the Uncompahgre Gorge, you’ll see steep drops and towering cliff walls. There are no guardrails along the Million Dollar Highway, and if you’re driving south from Ouray to Silverton you’ll be on the outside edge of the gorge with nothing but a steep drop next to you. If you’re a nervous driver or passenger, it’s a good idea to start in Silverton and drive north to Ouray so you’ll be driving on the inside of the road (i.e. further away from the unguarded drop).
Where to stop
There are so many places to stop along the Million Dollar Highway that the 25-ish miles could easily take you all day. Unless you plan on coming back to drive this road often, it’s a good idea to plan multiple stops so you can really experience the splendor and beauty of this breathtaking drive.
A good stopping point is at the top of Red Mountain Pass, where you can look down and see the road unwinding below you into the gorge. This is the highest point along the Million Dollar Highway. The area is known as the “American Alps,” according to Uncover Colorado, so you can expect to see incredible mountain views similar to that of the famous European mountain range.
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The ghost town of Ironton also makes for a good stopping point. The town dates back to 1893 and once housed around 300 buildings and around 1,000 residents. Today, the town is abandoned but you can see the remains of several buildings that give you an idea of how populated this town used to be back when mining was a big industry in the area.
There are also many opportunities for hiking along the Million Dollar Highway. Colorado Hikes and Hops lists several hikes of varying lengths and difficulties that you can check out. Each hike will reward you with breathtaking vistas that you will never forget.
The towns of Silverton and Ouray bookend the Million Dollar Highway, and it’s worth spending some time in each. According to Travel Awaits, Ouray has the nickname “Little Switzerland” due to its location being similar to that of an Alpine town. Many hotels in Ouray offer access to the area’s hot springs, so you can relax and unwind after driving the Million Dollar Highway.
Have you driven along the Million Dollar Highway? Share your highlights in the comments!
Catherine Hiles is a native Brit living and working in Dayton, Ohio. Cat has written about a variety of subjects, including finance, cars, and parenting. She is a frequent contributor to Dayton Mom Collective, The Penny Hoarder, and her own personal blog.
Cat lives with her husband, Ben; and their two kids, Rose and Liam. She counts running, reading, and cooking among her hobbies. See more articles by Cat.