US 550: Million Dollar Highway

I couldn’t stop smiling as I drove north that autumn morning on the US 550 from Durango to Ouray, southwestern Colorado.  The scenery was beyond breathtaking, with every summit and every mountain bend in the road revealing further beauty…it could easily reduce one to tears.

South of Silverton
Looking north, descending towards Silverton

The US 550 runs for over 300 miles from Burnalillo, New Mexico in the south to Montrose, Colorado in the north, but by all accounts the 80 mile stretch from Durango to Ouray, through the San Juan Mountains, is the highlight.  I arrived in Durango at night (I stayed at Spanish Trails Inn and Suites, a very comfortable motel room complex made up of separate, small 5-10 room blocks with excellent rates) after spending a few weeks further south, so when I started off the next morning I had completely forgotten it was autumn.  The previous days had been spent on tropical islands and in the Arizona desert so it really was a shock to see such autumnal beauty all of a sudden.  And what beauty!  Yellows, oranges and browns interspersed with coniferous greens and grey mountaintops all underneath a completely perfect bright blue sky.

North from Durango the road slowly climbs its way up the Animas River valley, before taking a diversion over the mountains by way of Coal Bank Pass (10,640ft/3,243m) and Molas Pass (10,910ft/3,325m) before snaking its way downhill to rejoin the river, with the use of many hairpin bends, to the charming little town of Silverton.  Time has stood still here.  The main street (Greene Street – the only road that is paved) runs straight as an arrow through the town centre with colourful, wild-west style shops, saloons and hotels lining both sides.  There’s a steam railway line running to Silverton from Durango and the town’s station is well worth exploring to view the vintage engines and rolling stock, all with a stunning mountain backdrop.  As the name suggests, Silverton was once a mining town, but nowadays relies on tourism and winter sports for its income.  The hardy population of around 650 people endure very harsh winters in this isolated mountain valley location, but I imagine the natural surroundings make for picture-perfect views year-round.

Silverton, Colorado – straight out of a Western

After leaving Silverton (I would recommend spending at least an hour here – an ideal brunch stop) the US 550 steeply climbs its way out of town up the Mineral Creek Valley to Red Mountain Pass (11,018ft/3,358m), the highest point on the road.  From here, the last stretch to Ouray, is perhaps the most challenging drive as the road descends through the very narrow Uncompahgre Gorge – the road clings to the side of steep ravines, with sheer cliffs above and below, leaving little room for error.  If heights aren’t your thing, don’t be tempted to look down to the river!  This stretch is the real Million Dollar Highway, although the reason is not clear.  It’s either because it cost a million dollars to build this part of the road, or because the spoil that was excavated and used as fill in creating the roadway, contains a million dollars worth of gold ore.  Indeed, on the whole stretch that I drove, remains of mines, with their wooden shoots darting out of mountainsides, could be seen frequently.  The town names you pass along the way give clues as to what was mined – Ironton and Silverton, I didn’t notice a Goldton however…

San Jaun Mountains
The San Juan Mountains south of Silverton, CO

As well as being named the Million Dollar Highway, this stretch of road also makes up part of the San Juan Skyway, a 230 mile circular route that takes the driver around this area of the Rocky Mountains.  The scenery is so grand that this road must be a pleasure to drive any time of year, assuming the weather is on your side, but come and drive it in autumn for that extra splash of colour.  All in all, one of the greatest American drives!

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