Driving the Million Dollar Highway Colorado
The scenic drive on the Colorado Million Dollar Highway (U.S. Route 550) from Silverton to Ouray is one of the most breathtaking and impressive drives in this state. What are the most exciting highlights on this route? How to prepare for a trip? When to drive? Check our tips for driving the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado to have a fantastic adventure.This article may contain affiliate / compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer here.
What is the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado?
U.S. Route 550 is a branch route of U.S. Highway 50 that runs from Bernalillo, New Mexico, to Montrose, Colorado. The section from Silverton to Ouray is often referred to as the Million Dollar Highway. It is one of the most beautiful routes in Colorado, so be sure to add it to your Colorado road trip itinerary. Colorado is famous for one of the most exciting and beautiful routes in the U.S. We previously described a picturesque route on Pikes Peak Highway.
How long is the Million Dollar Highway?
The Million Dollar Highway extends for approximately 25 miles (40 km) in western Colorado, following the course of U.S. 550 between charming towns Silverton and Ouray. It is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. Between Durango and Silverton, the Skyway roughly parallels the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. It’s 70 miles of one-way driving if you start your trip in Durango. The best idea to enjoy driving the Million Dollar Highway and seeing all its highlights is by downloading this Self-Driving Audio Tour. Thanks to it, you won’t miss the best viewpoints on the route.
Location of Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway
Although the entire 25-mile stretch is known as the Million Dollar Highway, the 12 miles (19 km) south of Ouray through Uncompahgre Gorge to the top of Red Mountain Pass gives the highway its name.
This route through the gorge is challenging and potentially dangerous to drive. It is characterized by steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and the absence of guardrails. The climb to Red Mountain Pass is characterized by a series of hairpin turns designed to gain elevation and, again, narrow lanes for traffic, many of which are carved directly into the rocky sides of the mountains. But in our opinion, Million Dollar Highway is a much easier route than Kahekili Highway on West Maui. With our tips below, you can easily handle this route.
The highway leaves Silverton and heads up Mineral Creek Valley before climbing to Red Mountain Pass. The ruins of the Longfellow Mine can be seen along the way. The highway then climbs a series of steep grades and hairpin turns before reaching Lookout Point, which offers breathtaking views of the town of Ouray, considered by many to be the Switzerland of the US.
Driving the Million Dollar Highway, three high passes are crossed:
- Coal Bank Pass – 10,640 feet
- Molas Pass – 10,970 feet
- Red Mountain Pass – 11,018 feet
Interesting Facts & History of Million Dollar Highway
The origin of the name Million Dollar Highway
The origin of the name Million Dollar Highway has been disputed for years. However, several legends include that it cost a million dollars per mile to build in the 1920s. Others say that the fill dirt used to build the road contains $1 million in gold ore. Still, others claim that the name comes from the million-dollar panoramic vistas, and we agree with this option.
History of Million Dollar Highway
The original portion of the Million Dollar Highway was a toll road built by Otto Mears in 1883 to connect Ouray and Ironton. Another toll road was constructed over Red Mountain Pass from Ironton to Silverton. In the late 1880s, Otto Mears turned to building railroads. They made the Silverton Railroad north from Silverton over Red Mountain Pass to reach the lucrative mining districts around Red Mountain, ending at Albany just eight miles (13 km) south of Ouray. The remaining eight miles (13 km) were considered too rugged and steep for a railroad. A cog railroad was proposed at one point, but it never made it beyond the planning stage.
In the early 1920s, the original toll road was rebuilt at considerable expense and became today’s U.S. 550, and the Million Dollar Highway was completed in 1924. Today, the entire route is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway (235 miles loop). More about history you can read here.
Tips for Driving the Million Dollar Highway Colorado
Download Self-Driving Audio Tour
We sincerely recommend this application because it is simply fantastic. Notably, the price is affordable and will not ruin your holiday budget. You will discover gold rush-era mining towns and fantastic natural scenery at your own pace. What’s more, you will learn about the construction of the highway, its visionary Otto Mears, and the formation of the imposing mountain range. You will see all the highlights along the highway. Finally, with this app, you don’t need the Million Dollar Highway map or guide. The app functions as a guide, an audio tour, and a map all in one.
Check the Weather
Driving the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado is fun, but it can be extremely difficult or even risky in bad weather or when the weather collapses. Therefore, check the weather forecast and conditions on the route carefully before traveling. The road surface can be very slippery in rain and snowfall, so be especially careful. It is better to stop for a more extended stop during sudden showers or storms and wait for the conditions to improve.
Avalanches, heavy snowfalls, and landslides can occur at any time, sometimes blocking some sections of the road, which is extremely dangerous due to the frequent ice patches.
Take your Time
Remember that the Million Dollar Highway is a scenic route. So give yourself time to enjoy the views. Drive carefully and slowly to enjoy Route 550. If you want to stop to take pictures, do it only on the roadside in designated areas. Enjoy this trip. Moreover, drive it during the day.
Drive from the South to the North
We recommend driving from the south to the north because the views are better, and it’s easier to stop for photos along the way. Driving from Durango to Ouray is the best idea. If you ride from south (Silverton) to north (Ouray), you will climb up Red Mountain to Red Mountain Pass and begin a long descent through Uncompahgre Gorge down to Ouray. On this descent, you will have the best views.
How long does it take to drive the Million Dollar Highway?
Twenty-five miles from Silverton to Ouray will take you at least 2-3 hours, with stops in both towns. But you can spend even a day or two in Ouray, depending on your needs. Driving from Durango will be 70 miles and about 4-5 hours with stops. Therefore, we recommend driving the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado as a day trip from Durango to enjoy the vistas and relax at the end of the journey in Ouray Hot Springs. If you have more time and can extend your trip two or three days after night in Ouray, take a loop via San Juan Skyway. The loop is 235 miles.
When to drive the Million Dollar Highway?
The Million Dollar Highway is kept open year-round. Summer temperatures can range from highs between 70–90 °F (21–32°C) at the ends of the highway to 50–70 °F (10–21°C) in the mountain passes. Winter is cold. In Ouray, the average high temperature in winter marginally drops, from a cold 34.2°F (1.2°C) in November to a cold 25.3°F (-3.7°C) in December. An average low temperature is 2.8°F (-16.2°C). Ouray averages 134 inches of snow per year. The US average is 28 inches of snow per year. Here you can check the weather for each month.
We did this drive at the beginning of May, and it was still a lot of snow and slippery. Conditions and visibility were not the best. Therefore, June through October is the best month to drive the Million Dollar Highway. The snow season starts in October. Sometimes the road might be closed in winter due to snowfall, so check the current condition. Chains may be required to drive the Million Dollar Highway in winter. Be careful as the road is narrow and with lots of sharp turns. What’s more, plan your trip to drive only during the day. Be sure to pack warm clothes, as the temperature in the mountains can change at any moment and is unpredictable. You can check our Day Hiking Packing List and our Road Trip Packing List Essentials.
What are the most dangerous sections on the Million Dollar Highway?
The Million Dollar Highway features several hairpin curves and narrow lanes cut directly into the sides of the mountains. It winds and twists through the mountains and canyons, holding onto tight curves that offer breathtaking views. Above all, you don’t need to worry about this route if you drive carefully and slowly, respecting the driving regulations. It is a great tour, also for families.
The route through Uncompahgre Gorge is particularly challenging and potentially dangerous to drive and features steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and a lack of guardrails. The climb to Red Mountain Pass is characterized by many S-curves designed to gain elevation and, again, narrow lanes for traffic, many of which are cut directly into the mountainsides.
Red Mountain Pass
The 11,018-foot Red Mountain Pass is particularly dangerous on its north side facing Ouray with its 8% grade, switchbacks, winding curves, minimal shoulders and guardrails, avalanche slide areas, and steep slopes. The pass is the dividing point between the Uncompahgre River and Las Animas River watersheds. The first gold wagons crossed this pass in 1878. Guardrails are not used in many areas because snowplows must push the huge accumulations of snow and ice over the edge of the highway.
Highlights Along the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado
Driving the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado is a fantastic adventure. Along the route, you can enjoy views worth a million dollars. You can admire Uncompahgre Gorge, Idarado Mine, Animas River, San Juan National Forest, Elektra Lake, Twilight Peak, Red Mountain Pass, etc. You will drive through the historic Colorado mining country, so don’t miss the ruins of the past mining.
If you start your trip with the App in Durango, you will have more spots on the way. So follow the map and app and don’t miss some highlights on the way as Pinkerton Hot Springs. Afterward, take the opportunity to visit Baker’s Bridge, where Paul Newman and Robert Redford took their famous leap in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Admire Haviland Lake toward the breathtaking heights of Molas Pass.
Stop in Silverton, Colorado
We love towns where time stopped 100 years ago. You are walking and feel like you have traveled back in time. We love towns with a remarkable history, and Silverton is one of them. The town of Silverton is on the list of National Historic Landmarks. It is home to the Animas Forks and Alpine Loop and is the summer destination for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
With the Weminuche Wilderness nearby, Silverton is a winter paradise for snowmobilers, skiers, sledders, skaters, ice climbers, and ice anglers. Enjoy rafting, fishing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, and camping in the summer. Give yourself at least an hour to walk around this town. Look at the old colored facades of the buildings. Look at the shop windows.
Visit Ouray the Switzerland of America
The mountain town of Ouray is known as the Switzerland of America because it is located in a river valley at nearly 8,000 feet, surrounded by the snow-capped San Juan Mountains. But Ouray is also known as the outdoor recreation capital of Colorado. The area is the perfect base camp for exploring southwest Colorado. The town has retained much of its turn-of-the-century charm and is registered as a Historic District. You’ll find beautiful architecture, great bars and restaurants, and a hot springs complex here. It’s one of the best stops while driving the Million Dollar Highway.
Soak in Ouray Hot Springs
Finally, one of the best ideas for relaxing after driving the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado is to immerse yourself in the Ouray Hot Springs. The complex perfectly adapts to an all-year rest with beautiful mountains in the background. These geothermal pools have been used for hundreds of years, including by the Ute, a Native American tribe. These springs are nestled in a valley surrounded by snow-capped 13,000-foot peaks.
Moreover, the Ouray Hot Springs Pool and Fitness Center has five pools, three geothermally heated. The water contains various minerals, including iron, manganese, zinc, fluoride, and potassium. You will notice that our pools are odorless. This is because water contains no sulfur. Temperatures range from 75 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, the price is affordable, so it’s a perfect time a relax for the family.
Consider San Juan Skyway National Scenic Byway
The greater San Juan Skyway National Scenic Byway that includes the Million Dollar Highway is 235 miles and takes 6-7 hours (with no stopping) to complete a whole circle. So, it’s worth considering this longer loop if you have more than one day. Therefore, after a night in Ouray, you can continue your adventure and visit other Old West towns like Ridgway, Telluride, Rico, Dolores, and Cortez.
I don’t know much about Colorado, but the Million Dollar Highway is an incredible drive. I can see why they call it the Switzerland of the USA too. A self-drive audio tour sounds wonderful as does a soak in the Ouray springs.
We really need to plan a long visit to Colorado. With so many great outdoor spots, it was interesting to read that the scenic drive on the Colorado Million Dollar Highway was one of the most breathtaking routes. We will certainly make sure this is on our plan. Those mountain roads are always so much fun with narrow lanes and steel cliffs. How great to know there is a self driving audio tour for the route. We will definitely head north and take advantage of the spots to stop along the way.
Driving the Millon Dollar Highway must have been a truly amazing experience. It looks so scenic. The history of the project is also very interesting. Good to know that there is a self-guided app for download available.
This looks like a really gorgeous drive – even if you might be “white-knuckling” it at times. And I love the idea of relaxing in the hot springs after the drive. The app serving as a map, guide and audio tour would really come in handy, too. Thanks for putting The Million Dollar Highway on my radar!
This is the second time I have read about the Million Dollar Highway, I think it’s a sign that a road trip is in order! I love the cute towns and having a self guided audio tour is a bonus. Great tip to drive south to the north and check the weather forecast before starting out
Driving through the Million Dollar Highway would be a dream! I’ve never experienced this part of the world but Colorado is top of my list. The passes are adventurous, would love to drive through them in person.
Reading your post brought back memories of when we drove the Million Dollar Highway 2 summers ago. I love this scenic byway and all the stops along the road. I always suggested people to drive it and drive from south to north. I think the opposite way looks scarier, especially when you just leave Bear Creek Falls.
The Million dollar highway is a great scenic drive route in Colorado with snowcapped mountains and I love to hear about the town of Silverto which takes us back in time with some adventurous winter sledding and skiing activities.The self guided audio tour is a wonderful way to explore the Million dollar highway. And the town of Ouray is picture perfect!And the Ouray hotsprings looks like a great idea to unwind.
I think it would be a great experience to go on this trip. Thank you for sharing these tips. Very helpful for first-timers like us. Will be extra careful when driving. Appreciate learning a bit more about its history too.
I’ve been on the Million Dollar Highway many times…I never drive either! But it is one of the most spectacular, scenic drives anywhere..we usually stay overnight somewhere so we have time to enjoy each of the towns enroute..and we love to stop for lunch at the restaurant..think it’s the only one..in Rico..
I loved driving in Colorado on our last trip (far too long ago) so am making notes about the Million Dollar Highway. Even though I’m scared of heights I love the sound of the hairpin bends and steep cliffs in the 12 mile stretch south of Ouray, and lots of charming little towns to stop in on the way! I think perhaps we should look to drive the whole of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway that you mention.
We are just a few weeks away from a Colorado road trip. Perhaps we should extend our adventure to include this route. It looks awesome!!
I love this area of Colorado. As a kid we lived up there for several years and drive this route often. You did a great job outlining exactly how to drive it and provided some great tips!
One more road trip to add to my bucket list. I’m terrified driving through mountains, but I still do it for the views. I agree with you, that it was likely named the Million Dollar Highway because of the incredible views, but I also believe that it cost a million dollars per mile back in those days. Great post!
I’ve only ever driven through Colorado a handful of time, so I don’t know much. The Million Dollar Highway is an incredible drive. I can see why they call it the Switzerland of the USA. An audio tour sounds super interesting and I love soaking in hot springs!