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On Walkabout On: The Million Dollar Highway, Colorado

Basic Information

  • What: Million Dollar Highway
  • From: Silverton to Ouray, Colorado
  • Distance: 24 miles
  • Time: 1 hour
  • More Information: Road Trip USA

Narrative

After my buddy and I drove across Engineer Pass and visited the ghost town of Animas Forks we drove south to the small town of Silverton, Colorado:

Picture from Engineer Pass, Colorado

Silverton is one of the terminals for the popular Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad that draws many tourists to this isolated mountain village.  However, something else that draws many tourists to this town is the Million Dollar Highway.  This highway officially known as Highway 550 is considered one of the greatest drives in the country due to its various curves, steep grades, and spectacular scenery.  We planned to drive north 24 miles on the highway from Silverton to the small mountain town of Ouray:


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This section of the Million Dollar Highway between Silverton and Ouray is supposed to be the most scenic.  Soon after driving out of Silverton we could understand why because the highway was surrounded with rugged mountains to include many that had deep red and orange colors:

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

In Colorado the color of these mountains is highly unusual and can only be found in a few isolated areas.  In the San Juan Mountains though these multi-colored mountains are quite common and are easily seen from the Million Dollar Highway:

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

These mountains get there multi-colored appearance due to the past volcanic activity in the region.  The multi-colored mountains were created by supervolcanoes that formed most of the San Juan Mountains.  As the supervolcanoes went extinct, erosion over millions of years along with glaciers from the Ice Age exposed the interior lava rock of these volcanoes.  That is why such vivid colors can be seen today along the Million Dollar Highway:

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

So what gave the Million Dollar Highway its name?  Though the highway has million dollar views it wasn’t this that gave the highway its name; instead it was its rich mining past:

  As you might expect of a road born in a Wild West mining country animated by tales of million-dollar fortunes earned, lost, and hoped-for, the history of the Million Dollar Highway is rife with legend. The route was first blazed by the so-called “Pathfinder of the San Juans,” a five-foot-tall Russian immigrant named Otto Mears who was working as a U.S. mail carrier between Silverton and Telluride. By 1882 Mears had created a lucrative toll road that he parlayed into a sizeable empire of roads and railroads, but his original hand-carved route through the mountains formed the basis of today’s Million Dollar Highway.

Even the origin of the “Million Dollar” name is clouded in myth. Some say it was first used after an early traveler, complaining of the vertigo-inducing steepness of the route, said, “I wouldn’t go that way again if you paid me a million dollars.” Others claim that it derives simply from the actual cost of paving the route in the 1930s. But the favorite explanation is also the most likely: When the highway was first constructed, the builders used gravel discarded by nearby gold and silver mines, only to find out later that this dirt was actually rich in ore and worth an estimated “million dollars.”  [Road Trip USA]

However the road received its name it is definitely a catchy name that fits this incredible stretch of highway in southwestern Colorado:

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

At the end of the Million Dollar Highway is the small village of Ouray:

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

Ouray sits in a stunning valley that is surrounded by steep cliffs and large mountains that the Million Dollar Highway spectacularly descends into:

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

Ouray only has a population of a 1,000 people, but it actually feels like more than that judging by the number of tourists who visit the city.  Most people are passing through on the highway, but there are also plenty more people using the city as a base for four-wheel drive and hiking excursions into the nearby mountains.  Fortunately my buddy and I had a reservation well in advance at a local hotel so we had no problem finding a place to stay despite the crowds.  It was nice to take a shower after our hiking and camping trip in the San Juans that featured climbing up two 14ers.  You can read about those hikes at the below links:

Like other small towns in the region, Ouray has a rich mining past.  This mining past is evident when looking at some of the classic architecture that can be seen downtown:

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

Here is a brief history of the region from the Ouray city website:

Centuries before the white man arrived, the Tabeguache Ute, a nomadic band, traveled to this idyllic setting in the summer months to hunt the abundant forest game and to soak in what they called “sacred miracle waters”. Even then, they knew the springs that simmer beneath much of Ouray were therapeutic. In fact, the town’s original name was “Uncompahgre”, the Ute word for “hot water springs”. The Ute’s served as guides for expeditions seeking passage through the southern Rockies in the 1700s. These Spanish explorers named this rugged range the San Juan Mountains. The Spaniards were not interested in settling such a harsh and unforgiving environment. It was the miners, flooding the region in the late 1800’s in search of silver and gold, who would forever change the face of the San Juans. In fact, many of the high-country roads recreationists enjoy today are access routes that the miners developed over a hundred years ago. The century-old ghost towns of Sneffels, Red Mountain Town, Animas Forks, and Mineral Point, as well as abandoned mines along the way, are undeniable evidence of this area’s roots.  [OurayColorado.com]

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

The name of the town itself comes from the Ute Indian Chief Ouray.  Once again here is a brief history of Chief Ouray from the town’s website:

The legend of Chief Ouray envelops the town that bears his name. He once lived in a small cabin at the foothills of the Ampitheater (now a historic landmark), soaked in the “sacred hot springs,” conducted native rituals and met with the Indian and white officials in Ouray. By and large, Chief Ouray garnered the respect of the Ute Indian Nation, the U.S. Government, and the Indian nations throughout North America because of his intelligence and diplomacy. The town of Ouray proudly aligns itself with his legacy, for there are few people in history who are held in such high regard. Ouray was raised in the Taos valley and was influenced by the Spanish way of life. Ouray joined his parents in Colorado at age 17, already speaking Spanish, Ute, Apache, and some English. At 35, he became the chief of the Uncompahgre Ute Tribe. Ouray believed peace was the best option for his people, otherwise, they would have to deal with the U.S. Government. Gold, silver, and land were at the heart of what the whites wanted, and the Ute Indians were in the way. Negotiations ensued for years, but with each treaty the Utes lost more and more of their land. Naturally, resentment began to arise and Ouray’s life was often in danger. A massacre in the northern reaches of Colorado occurred and the entire Ute nation was threatened by whites. In 1879, a Harper’s Weekly headline read, “The Utes Must Go.” By 1880, the year of Chief Ouray’s death, the Utes had lost their land and way of life in the San Juan Mountains. Ouray died in August in Ignacio, Colorado, of Bright’s disease, with Chipeta, his wife of 21 years, by his side. The Denver Post said, “Ouray was a friend of the white man and protector to the Indians.” Much more about Chief Ouray may be learned at the Ouray County Historical Museum and the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose. [OurayColorado.com]

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

All in all we had a fun time checking out the town that evening before heading back to hotel to get some rest for the drive back to Colorado Springs the following day:

Picture from the Million Dollar Highway

Conclusion

This is definitely an area I plan to return to and spend some more time checking out in the near future.  Both Silverton and Ouray are worthy of each spending at least a full day to check out.  I plan to come back to Ouray next summer to hike up the nearby 14er, Mt. Sneffels.  During that trip I will definitely then stop by Ouray’s famous hot springs to relax.  This trip was just a taste of the great places to see in the San Juan Mountains and I can’t wait to go back.

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