No one is sure why it’s called the Million Dollar Highway. I drove the length of it in southwestern Colorado in June and now can vouch for the nickname. The Million Dollar Highway — a 23-mile, high-elevation paved road connecting Ouray and Silverton — provided the most incredible scenery I have ever seen anywhere in the world.
Many people may agree. The website dangerousroads.org calls the Million Dollar Highway “the most beautiful road in America.” The tourism website visitouray.com says: “For those who are up for the challenge, the Million Dollar Highway offers a thrilling and unforgettable driving experience through some of Colorado’s most spectacular scenery.”
“Up to the challenge” is an appropriate warning. Consider what Reader’s Digest wrote in 2021.
The Million Dollar Highway, “nestled high in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, is considered one of the most dangerous roads in America — and one of the most eye-poppingly scenic,” Reader’s Digest said. “It traverses the rugged beauty between Silverton and Ouray on a narrow, twisty road practically guaranteed to elicit gasps of awe, fear or possibly both.”
Falling rocks and ice are always a concern, there are hairpin turns and the road narrows in some sections with no guardrails or shoulders to prevent a vehicle from plunging over a cliff. In March 2019, the highway’s Red Mountain Pass was closed for three months after the pass “was pummeled by at least 21 avalanches,” according to TV news station Denver7.
The Million Dollar Highway is a small segment of U.S. Highway 550, which extends 304 miles from Bernalillo, New Mexico, to Montrose, Colorado. The highway is about a six-hour drive from Denver or five hours from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Silverton, at the southern end of the highway, has an elevation of 9,308 feet. Ouray, which promotes itself as the “Switzerland of America,” sits at the northern end and has an elevation of 7,792 feet. The highway, though, reaches higher altitudes.
Arguably, the most stunning vista of numerous jaw-dropping views is Red Mountain — three peaks of iron-oxide red rocks that might feel at home on Mars and look even more incredible when partially covered by snow. At Red Mountain Pass, the Million Dollar Highway reaches its highest point — 11,018 feet — and ruins of abandoned mining camps are visible. Not visible from the highway is a ghost town called Red Mountain Town, a former mining camp that can be accessed by a nearby dirt road.
“Red Mountain Pass, per mile, has the highest avalanche hazard on the North American continent,” the Durango Herald newspaper reported in 2014. “The narrow two-lane road winds through the mountains like a drunk crazily stumbling, and there’s no guardrail to protect cars attempting hairpin turns from hurtling into the jagged ravines that lie, stunning and ominous, hundreds of feet below.”
The travel guide durango.com offers an interesting theory about the naming of the Million Dollar Highway, which, the website says, was originally created as a toll way in 1883. “One explanation is that an early traveler was so overcome by vertigo on the steep and winding stretch of road that he insisted he would never travel it again, even if he was paid a million dollars.
Reader’s Digest offered three other theories. The area was inhabited by miners, and the gravel used for the road contained gold and silver tailings worth a million dollars. The second explanation is the road provided million-dollar views, and the third theory was someone at a 1921 planning meeting said it would cost a million dollars to rebuild what was then a stagecoach road.
Many people lost their lives on the road during the early days of the highway, which was paved in the 1950’s.
In 2014, the Durango Herald interviewed Duane Smith, a former Fort Lewis College professor and historian, who said that, in the early 19th Century, “wagons, cargo, horses and humans tumbled over (Red Mountain) pass and into the ravine. They were getting swept off in snowslides, rockslides, falling rock, with some surviving but most getting killed.”
Two centuries later, the Colorado Springs Gazette cautioned its readers in 2019 about driving on the Million Dollar Highway.
“If you’re unfamiliar with driving on mountain roads, we recommend avoiding this drive — especially during the winter,” the newspaper wrote. “While the road can be traveled with no issue, there is quite a bit of consequence for a mistake, and the unnerving view of a cliff just inches from your wheelbase can be enough to cause panic in some.”