The Million Dollar Highway

Scenic Autumn Landscape
An infamous stretch of U.S. 550, twisting and turning its way through the Rocky Mountains of Southwestern Colorado, the road ascends and descends three of the highest mountain passes in North America. No shoulder in most places and missing guardrails in others brashly makes it very clear that “The Million Dollar Highway” is no ordinary road. Over much of its 25 miles between Silverton and Ouray the road’s speed limit is less than 25-miles per hour. Traveling any faster would not be sensible, perhaps even insane.

This incredible road has to be seen and driven, actually experienced, to be believed. What cannot be seen, however, more than 10,000 mining claims hidden in private ownership tell only part of the tales and legends that make up the road’s fascinating history and mystery. Even the name speaks of legends, one of which is that it cost more than a million dollars to build in the 1880s. Not true, it wasn’t that expensive, but that really doesn’t matter. For its time, construction of the road did cost a phenomenal sum. The notion that the road was paved with gold worth millions extracted from local mines doesn’t do justice to the judgment of pioneers who would never have disposed of valuable tailings in this frivolous way.

Even the actual length of the road raises more controversy. Built in sections at different times, some historians view the six miles between Ouray and Ironton Park or the 12 miles to the top of Red Mountain as the true lengths of “The Million Dollar Highway”. For others it is the 75 miles from Durango to Ouray. Google search even pushes the length of the road all the way south to New Mexico and north to Montrose CO. For good reasons, sometimes the road is called the “Otto Mears Highway” after the extraordinary Russian immigrant who somehow managed to build the toughest part of the highway. The Federal Government hasn’t settled the question of its name but wisely decided to call it part of the 236-mile “San Juan Scenic Skyway”.

The road is built through San Juan Mountains that are so spectacular and awe-inspiring that the area originally was proposed as the location for the Rocky Mountain National Park, but too much private land existed within its boundaries for acquisition by the Federal Government. Why then would a road, and many challenging jeep roads, be built through some of the toughest countryside in North America? Answer: millions of dollars from discoveries of mining riches. No one in the early 1870s envisioned that the roller coaster ride that goes up and down over Molas Pass and then Red Mountains pass would someday lead to a wealth of recreational opportunities.

Million Dollar Highway
The first six and one-half miles of the Million Dollar Highway south of Ouray is one of the most breathtaking mountain roads in the nation. Built on top of Mears’ Ouray to Silverton toll road, the road immediately north of Ironton Park to Engineer Road deserves to be called “Mears’ Miles.” This extremely difficult and treacherous section of the road thwarted Mears’ heroic efforts to extend the Silverton Railroad to the tracks of the D&RG Railroad. Constructing that portion of the Million Dollar Highway, crawling around the sheer cliffs of the Uncompahgre Canyon, cliffs and mountains rising thousands of feet above the Uncompahgre River, cost the lives of at least five men working on it.

A few miles south of Ouray there’s a fenced pullout, the Bear Creek Falls overlook, that is a good place to stop and think about the amazing work of Otto Mears and also to gaze at Ouray. The surrounding mountains rise about 3,000 feet above the town. The monument of Mears at the top of the falls is a reminder of his audacious feat. Where the Skyway today crosses the top of Bear Creek Falls on a concrete bridge, try to visualize a narrow wooden bridge in the same place with a toll gate at one end. Nearby County Road 361 leads to a road to Box Canyon Falls. Box Canyon is just a slit in the rocks, about 20 feet wide,200 feet deep and about 250 feet high, through which the roar of water is impressive. Uncompahgre Gorge near Box Canyon is a favorite for ice climbing. About a mile from the turnoff for Bear Creek Falls, the Skyway passes the mouth of Poughkeepsie Gulch, gateway to the four-wheel drive Alpine Loop.

Further south on the Skyway several monuments commemorate the deadly East Riverside Slide that killed a snowplow driver, and also the West Riverside Slide. A great many avalanche paths exist in the San Juans and some of the most famous are located between Ouray and Silverton. The north end of Ironton is just about a mile south of the East Riverside Slide memorial. Although not its intention, the memorial can be viewed as commemorating the failure of Mears dream to connect Ouray and Silverton by rail. By 1892 at least one of three railroads were running over 245 miles of track between towns along today’s Skyway. Two of these three railroads, with 190 miles of track – the Rio Grande Southern Railroad and the Silverton Railroad – were built and run by Otto Mears to serve mining camps and towns along the routes.

Beautiful Autumn Landscape
Where the Million Dollar Highway begins its final climb around hairpin turns toward the summit of Red Mountain Pass, mining structures can be seen across the canyon on the slopes of Red Mountain. These are the remains of the mining camps Gaston, the Yankee Girl, and many others. Had you visited the summit, say 130 years ago, you would have been standing in a railroad yard next to Mears’ toll road. Several thousand people were living just a mile or two from this spot. Besides the train, ore wagons and mule trains would be passing constantly. In the quiet of today’s Red Mountain Summit experience, try to imagine what was going on in this mining district that led to building the Million Dollar Highway.

Mining towns were springing up all over the Red Mountain area in the early 1880s. Torrents of prospectors were flooding the mining district that seemed to be just one huge mountain of silver. In recent years a great deal of public and private funding has been invested in preserving the “Red Mountain District”. The flat area at the top of Red Mountain Pass is the location of “Summit”. This was a place where the Silverton Railroad had a switching track and a shelter for locomotives. The story of “Summit” and development of the Red Mountain District are really interesting and fun for history buffs. Spurred by the numbers of mines in the area, over time as many as five “towns” (stretching the term) were located within a mile of each other near the top of the pass. In addition to precious ore, residents of the Red Mountain District knew that they were living in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Tourists knew it, too, and thronged to the see the area and for its recreation opportunities, long before construction of the Million Dollar Highway

Heading back to the Million Dollar Highway and west of Red Mountain Pass is the challenging and spectacular four-wheel drive Black Bear Road to Telluride. Traversing Ingram Pass (12,840 feet), the road then passes Black Bear Mine before moving through a series of steep and sharp switchbacks. A sign once posted on the Million Dollar Highway at the start of this dangerous road said: “You don’t have to be crazy to drive this road, but it helps.” Two-way from the summit of Red Mountain to the summit of Black Bear Pass, it has only one-way very steep way down.

Black Bear Road is only one of the many four-wheel drive excursions that extend from the Million Dollar Highway between Silverton and Ouray, revealing breathtaking mountain, valley and gorge views and the wildest and most rugged peaks in the Rockies. Every part of the route and its sideroads deliver jaw-dropping vista after vista, especially as the drive climbs up 3 high mountain passes: Coal Bank Pass (10,640 ft), Molas Pass (10,970 ft), and Red Mountain Pass (11,018 ft). The twelve miles south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass deserves its reputation, not least of all the ascent of Red Mountain Pass marked by hairpin “S” curves used to gain elevation and narrow lanes for traffic cut directly into the sides of mountains.

Like the Million Dollar Highway itself, the weather is unpredictable. It doesn’t take much time for bright sunshine to change to moderate and then heavy snowfall. Snow season starts in October and snow will often close the road (temporarily) in winter. Chains may be required to drive and, of course, avalanche paths to be avoided. Even maps can be deceiving. At one point on the Million Dollar Highway you’re only a few miles from Telluride as the crow flies but, as previously described, to drive there on Black Bear Road (with four-wheel drive!) would take more than an hour and a half on the notorious jeep road trail.

Fully paved and maintained year-round, the San Juan Skyway and its Million Dollar Highway have become part of the most- used north-south route in southwestern Colorado. Drivers planning a trip should know that those driving from north to south (Ouray towards Silverton and Durango) will be on the cliffside of the road, without guardrails and with extreme drop-offs. Simply take it slow, enjoy the scenery but don’t drive and try to look at the stunning scenery at the same time. Be especially careful in winter when there might be snow and ice, already on the ground or maybe coming soon. Watch for electronic highway signs that warn of bad conditions or road closures. Be especially alert during avalanche danger season (February to early April). Avalanche paths are clearly marked. Don’t stop near them in winter. And as a final word of caution – be extremely careful driving any of the many difficult four-wheel drive roads branching off of the Million Dollar Highway. Four-wheel drive tours from Ouray or Silverton, especially during summertime, are the best way to return safely. With all of these warnings and cautions, know that the Million Dollar Highway generally is safe for traveling and certainly provides the experience of a lifetime.

Red Mountain District