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Drive the Million Dollar Highway

The Million Dollar Highway in Southwest Colorado is considered one of the most spectacular mountain drives in North America.  It’s a white-knuckle drive where there are no guard rails as the road narrows with a steep drop-off.  It’s better than it used to be, but it’s still sketchy in places.  Frankly, I was glad I was driving and not sitting in the passenger seat look down the steep cliff.

I started on U.S. 550 in Durango after I watched the sun rise over the Animas River Valley.  The whole drive from Durango to Ouray is part of the San Juan Skyway Colorado Scenic Byway.  The drive from Durango to Silverton is stunningly beautiful as you climb up and over Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass. The view as you drive into Silverton is one of my favorites on this road.

The drive from Silverton to Ouray that is called the Million Dollar Highway.  Why it’s called that is a bit of a debate.  Some say it cost a million dollars a mile to build.  Another legend is the fill dirt contains a million dollars in gold ore.

It took me just under an hour to drive Durango to Silverton.  I’ve been to Silverton before and even ridden the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to it.  I still enjoyed a brief stop to walk around and admire the beautiful Victorian style architecture.  The secluded historic mining town was founded in 1874 and sits at 9,318 feet in elevation.  Silverton once had 40 gambling halls, saloons and “sporting houses,” most of which were in the town’s notorious red light district of Blair Street.  I always enjoy seeing the Grand Imperial Hotel.  One of these days, I’m going to stay there!

The stretch from Silverton to Ouray is about 25 miles long, but it will take you about 45 minutes or longer if you make stops along the way.  I stopped just a couple of minutes outside of Silverton to see some mining relics along Mineral Creek. 

The road quickly climbed up the mountain and the road narrowed to where two cars can pass each other, but there’s not much room for error.  It didn’t take long for the iron-colored menagerie of the Red Mountains revealed itself.  I stopped at an overlook to see some wildflowers, a cascading stream and mining relics. 

My next stop was at Treasure Tunnel on the eastern end of the Idarado Mine, one of the largest mines in the San Juan Mountains.  The area is home to more than 100 historic mines.  Miners found gold and silver in the region in the 1870s.  A 17 square mile area produced 4 million ounces of gold, 21 million ounces of silver and 12 million tons of lead zinc and copper.  Treasure Tunnel has almost 100 miles of underground tunnels.  Miners would enter at treasury tunnel and ride underground trams to their workstation.  The western end of the mine is at Pandora, about two miles from Telluride. Idarado Mine produced until the 1980s and reclamation work is currently underway.

You feel as if you are clinging to the canyon wall, as the road winds through the Uncompahgre Gorge. 

As you get closer to Ouray the deep mountain canyon opens up to a stunning vista view. Ouray is known as the “Switzerland of America.”  Most of the buildings were built between 1880 and 1900.  The entire town is a National Historical District.  I stopped again for a few minutes to wander around town.  It took everything I had to get back in my car for the road trip back to Denver.  There’s so much to explore from Durango to Silverton to Ouray and I can’t wait to go back.

Author Jennifer Broome has spent a lot of time in Southwest Colorado, especially on road trips of Summer 2020. Check out her blog on One Night in Ouray for what to do in the historic mining town on the north end of the Million Dollar Highway.

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