Million Dollar Highway#Roadtripouray
Hairpin Turns, Dramatic Cliffs, and Epic Scenery
Length: 24 miles
Location: Between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado
Driving Skill: Yup, You’ll Need Some
Mental Game: Prepare For An Epic
The Million Dollar Highway (U.S. 550) is a 24 mile stretch of road that connects Ouray and Silverton, Colorado, ranked one of the top ten deadliest and scenic drives in the world. Quite a distinction, eh? How did this stretch earn this distinction? A combination of cliffs, narrow shelves, hairpin turns, and stunning scenery. But don’t let that scare you, take it slow, and keep your road eyes sharp, and you will be fine! Although it’s a relatively short drive, U.S. 550 is jammed packed with things to do, and we’ll cover five in this blog post.
The original part of the Million Dollar Highway was a toll road built by Otto Mears in 1883 to connect Ouray and Ironton. Eventually, the connection was made with another toll road built over Red Mountain Pass connecting Ironton to Silverton, making the thruway complete. In the 1920s, the road was rebuilt at considerable cost and became U.S. Highway 550 under the new federal highway system. It took 1 Million Dollars per mile to build; hence, the nickname.
Traveling this road today is almost like a right of passage for travelers to the San Juan Mountains. It can feel like you’re time-traveling following a route initially built for stagecoaches and horses.
The Million Dollar Highway is littered with tight-hairpin turns and scenery that leaves an indelible impression.
Red Mountain Pass
If you have ever driven to Ouray from the south, you have undoubtedly traveled over Red Mountain pass on your journey to Switzerland of America.
At an elevation of 11,018 feet, it’s one of the highest passes in Colorado and is traversed by U.S. 550 (Million Dollar Highway), but do you know the history behind this famous high mountain pass? Read on and learn a few things to remember on your next trip to Ouray.
What’s in a Name?
The pass is named for the nearby Red Mountain Group on the northeast side of the pass. Straddling the divide between Ouray and San Juan counties, the pass also serves as the dividing point between the Uncompahgre and Las Animas watersheds and the Uncompahgre and San Juan National Forests.
The Red Mountain Mining district served as a historic silver boom from 1882-1893, including Yankee Girl, National Belle, and Guston mines that can still be visited today via CR10 on the Ouray side of the pass. These mines produced some of the richest ore in the San Juan Mountains and prompted the development of Ironton Park for families of the miners and prospectors alike.
The Idarado Mine (Treasury Tunnel) is the most recognizable mine due to its proximity to U.S. 550 as you come off Red Mountain Pass towards Ouray. Take a few minutes, stop at the information-overlook, and learn more about this famous mining district.
Famous or Infamous?
The stretch of U.S. 550 between Ouray and Silverton defines The Million Dollar Highway and shares dual recognition as one of the top ten deadliest and prettiest roads in the world. Red Mountain Pass has claimed its share of lives over the years, so don’t let the beauty distract you from the task at hand; driving.
The ascent/descent, depending on which way you are traveling, is marked with hairpin turns to negotiate elevation, narrow lanes cut directly into the sides of the mountains, and a noticeable lack of guard rails. Traveling over this pass takes concentration and focus.
Do you know why there is a lack of guardrails on Red Mountain Pass and the Million Dollar Highway? They impede snow removal. Put that piece of trivia on the back burner for your next visit.
So there you have a bit of background on Red Mountain Pass and even a few things to check out on your next trip to Ouray.
Five Things To Do
1. Gold Mine Tour in Silverton
The Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour is a one-hour guided mine tour that takes you 1/3 mile into the heart of 13,000 foot Galena Mountain where you can follow the vein and see real mining equipment in action! Go underground and experience the secret world of the gold miner!
Located just minutes from the historic town of Silverton, the Mine Tour is easily accessible by car and RV. Outside, at the Gold Mine Tour, the scenery is fantastic, and at the end of the rainbow might be your Pot O’ Gold – in the Old Hundred sluice box!
Pan for real silver, copper, and even gold – and keep what you find! Best of all, panning is FREE with your ticket purchase! So stop on by and explore the underground at the Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour. No reservations are needed.
2. Ghost Towns of Animas Forks
The town’s first log cabin was built in 1873, and by 1876 the community had become a bustling mining town. At that time, the community contained 30 cabins, a hotel, a general store, a saloon, and a post office. By 1883 450 people lived in Animas Forks, and in 1882 a newspaper, the Animas Forks Pioneer, began publication and lasted until October 1886. Every fall, the residents of Animas Forks migrated en masse to the warmer town of Silverton. In 1884 a 23-day blizzard inundated the town with 25 feet of snow; the residents had to dig tunnels to get from building to building. Mining, speculation, and processing mills helped Animas Forks grow.
When mining profits began to decline, investment in Animas Forks was no longer justified. Although mining made a brief rebound in 1904 with the Gold Prince Mill construction, the town’s mining days were nearing an end. A rail line ran through the area and stimulated interest in mining in the community again, but the railroad never reached its expectations. The Gold Prince Mill closed in 1910, and in 1917 most of the mill’s major parts were removed for a new facility in Eureka. The mill’s dismantling signaled the beginning of the end for Animas Forks. A ghost town by the 1920s.
3. Red Mountain Mining District
For a little more than a decade at the end of the nineteenth century, the Red Mountain Mining District in Southwestern Colorado was among the world’s wealthiest and most productive mining areas. The story of Red Mountain is perhaps an amalgam of many of the western boom-and-bust mining cycles, and it took place in one of the highest and most beautiful places on the North American continent.
Even the earliest casual observer felt there must be precious minerals in the three gaudy-colored Red Mountains. The colors came from iron pyrite – fool’s gold – but it was an obvious clue that other more precious metals could be close. Only low-grade discoveries were made in the first few years of mining activity. But in 1882, John Robinson discovered the fabulously wealthy Yankee Girl Mine, and the rush was on to Colorado’s newest mining district. What had fooled the prospectors was that the ore was found in vertical chimneys rather than lode deposits typical of the area. The Red Mountains themselves consisted almost entirely of very low-grade ore except where the rich ore chimneys of some thirty to one hundred feet in width plunged into the earth. Silver in the area contained as much as 1,000 ounces of silver per ton of ore-an unheard-of richness.
4. Ouray Hot Springs
The Ute Indians who settled the Uncompahgre Valley considered the mineral springs sacred healing, and other tribes traveled for days to visit the springs. In the 1870s, prospectors and miners moved into the San Juan Mountains and founded the City of Ouray in 1876. In 1881, after a series of failed treaties, the federal government removed the Ute tribe to a reservation in eastern Utah. With that move, the Utes lost their native lands, including the ceremonial hot springs that they called “Miracle Waters.”
5. Hike Perimeter Loop
If you like hiking but aren’t sure if some of the more significant hikes are too much, give this low lying fruit a go once you land in Ouray. Starting at 7,700 feet and maxing out at 8,500 feet, this is a great introductory trail for the casual tourist. The Perimeter Loop circles Ouray connecting other trails to form a beginner-friendly, very scenic trail that you can bail on at several different locations should you find yourself in inclement weather or simply over your head fitness-wise. With majestic views of the amphitheater, cascade falls and the ice park, this trail is a must if you want to stretch your legs after a long car ride.
The drive in either direction is one to enjoy, take your time, and explore!