RV Trip on Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway – Ouray to Silverton

Red Mountain Pass near Ouray Colorado

The Million Dollar Highway

October, 2014 – We were loving our stay amid the golden aspen of Ouray, Colorado, where every view we saw in every direction we turned was a true jaw-dropper. Our cameras were going non-stop.

Ouray sits in a valley surrounded by mountains with a narrow ribbon of highway running through it.

This highway, US Route 550, is a part of the San Juan Skyway, a breathtaking scenic loop drive that takes in some of the best mountain views that Colorado has to offer.

 

A fifth wheel RV starts over Red Mountain Pass in Colorado

A fifth wheel takes in the views

Swinging through Telluride, Ridgway, Silverton and Durango, the San Juan Skyway winds all through the mountains, soaring over the peaks and dropping down into the valleys.

A motorcycle drives the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado

This is great motorcycle country!

When it gets to Ouray, drivers headed south are at the starting point of one of the most spectacular 25 miles stretches of road in America.

Nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway, the views are worth every penny (lol)!

The origin of this name is uncertain, but it may have come about because it was thought that a million dollars’ worth of gold dust was in the gravel and dirt that was used to build the road in the late 1800’s. Or, the name may have come from the cost of paving the highway in the 1930’s.

Million Dollar Highway Route 550 near Ouray Colorado

Million Dollar Views on the Million Dollar Highway

If those stories aren’t the real source of the name, there is also a joke that perhaps this gorgeous bit of road got its nickname from an early traveler who, wide-eyed with terror, exclaimed, “I wouldn’t go that way again if you paid me a million dollars!”

Really? Oh yes, indeed!

The views along this road are beyond stunning, but you’ve gotta steel your nerves when you drive it, especially if you are in the passenger seat heading south from Ouray to Silverton.

Nevermind the beauty. This road is one of the most hair raising and dangerous highways in America.

Fall Colors on the Million Dollar Highway near Silverton Colorado

As we approached Silverton the aspens were ablaze!

As we drove it the first time, we both kept saying “WOW” the whole way.

Half of those “wows” were because the scenery was so incredible. But half of them were because of the utterly sheer and totally unprotected drop-offs that fell away from the truck’s right tires, falling hundreds of feet straight down to a chasm below my door!

We stopped a few times at various pullouts and peered over the edge.

OMG. At one spot we saw an upside down car way at the bottom of the gorge below us!

Scary drive on Million Dollar Highway Colorado

Some consider this road among the most dangerous of America’s highways.

Yikes! Lord knows if it was from a fatal crash or if kids had rolled a car off the highway to watch it fall.

Over the decades I’m sure both of those things have happened!

Yet, frightening as this drive can be for first-timers, semi-tractor trailers traverse it all the time, climbing up and over the three mountain passes that lie between Ouray and Durango, Colorado.

I’m not sure that we ever saw any trucks hauling super heavy loads, but Freightliners and their like made up a significant percentage of the traffic on this narrow twisty road.

Colorado Red Mountain Pass in the rain

It’s certainly intimidating when the weather gets ugly!!

This gave us heart, because we were planning, at the end of our stay, to take our fifth wheel over this road.

We ended up driving the Million Dollar Highway and its highest summit, Red Mountain Pass (at 11,000+ feet), many times during our two week stay, because the peak of the fall foliage color was happening all up and down its wild walls.

So we got to know the many twists and turns and scary parts of the road.

When the weather turned nasty for a few days, and the road got soaking wet, the clouds dropped into the canyon and filled it with fog, and the rain fell in blinding torrents on our truck. At least we knew what lay ahead!

Motorcycles riding from Silverton to Ouray Colorado

On a sunny fall day, this is motorcycle heaven!

But on beautiful sunny days this is a drive people come from miles around to enjoy.

We watched lines of touring motorcycles, groups of shiny new Ferraris, and even a caravan of rental RVs out for a scenic drive on this thrilling road.

After crossing over the summit of Red Mountain Pass, the road begins to descend towards Silverton, and the fall colors jumped out at us from all sides.

Then the valley opened up, and Silverton lay before us, a tiny town with a big mining history.

Silverton Colorado

Silverton is one super cute Colorado mountain town.

Durango to Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a fun stream train ride.

Once home to 1,100 people (in the late 1880’s) when the nearby silver and gold mines were flourishing, Silverton houses just 500 or so hardy souls today.

Tourists love it, and it is a great spot to spend an afternoon or a few days.

The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway is one of the biggest attractions, and we saw it in the distance, chugging up into the valley under a thick cloud of black smoke that trailed off behind it.

 

Western Photography in Silverton Colorado

Not only is the town photogenic, but it’s a great place for western-themed portraits.

This railroad was built in 1882, and it carried both mining supplies and tourists right from the get-go.

Today it carries only tourists, and it is a major attraction in the area.

40+ years ago in the early 1970’s, one of the train’s brakemen had a younger brother that was an avid cyclist, and one day they challenged each other to a train/bike race up the mountain from Durango to Silverton.

The cyclist bested his brother on the train, and the Iron Horse Cycling Classic was born.

 

Family readies for western photo shoot

A family get ready for a western photo session.

Now the Iron Horse is a huge affair with pro cyclists, recreational riders, volunteers and sponsors of all kinds participating.

Their website gives the annual race results for each group of cyclists that competes, but the one thing I couldn’t figure out was: how did the train do?!

No matter how you get to Silverton, by car, train or bicycle, this town is a great stopover.

It’s very photogenic, with colorful old buildings lining the dirt streets that are set against a vivid mountain backdrop.

Photographers set up western-themed photo shoots for tourists too, and we watched a family getting set up for a fun photo.

 

Old mining houses on the Million Dollar Highway Colorado

There are old mining ruins and old homesteads all over the place.

Two little girls donned big flower hats and long dresses, and a little boy hugged a bottle of whiskey while his brothers brandished rifles. Mom had a pistol, and the baby wore chaps. What a hoot!

Of course, it’s one thing to dress up like old times and have a meal at one of the western themed restaurants in town.

It’s a whole different thing to have lived here in the mining camps 100+ years ago.

An RV descends Red Mountain Pass near Ouray Colorado

The Million Dollar Highway can be negotiated by the biggest rigs on the highway — if you dare!

The ruins of both the mines and the homes are scattered among these mountains, and it is startling to picture that life.

Living at 10,000 feet in remote mountains where snow comes in early October (and sometimes sooner) must have been an unbelievable challenge.

What’s worse, the mining companies didn’t care a lick about safety. Falling down a mine shaft or having the whole mine collapse on your head were accepted risks that were just part of the job.

In 1918, Silverton was brought to its knees by the influenza epidemic. A staggering 10% of the population died in a six week period.

More recently, a rock slide in January, 2014, brought the town to its knees once again. Route 550 was suddenly impassable, and the town was cut off from its main supply route to the north.

A motorhome on the San Juan Skyway in Colorado

Just keep your eyes on the road (hah!)

The few vehicles that made it to Silverton had to drive nearly 500 miles out of their way to get there.

But hardships of remote mountaintop living aside, it was the gold and silver of yesteryear and the majestic scenery of today that put and keeps this area on the map.

For all the grittiness of the mining life in these mountains, I imagine that when the miners found a spare moment to soak in the scenery, it was as precious to them in those days as it is to us today.

Red stone lined stream and Colorado autumn color

The scenery here inspired us for weeks.

Back out on the road heading back to Ouray, we saw lots of big RVs navigating the hairpin turns on the Million Dollar Highway.

I had looked for info on taking an RV on this road in some of the online RV forums, and lots of people had said there was no way they would ever take a big rig on this road.

But many people do it, and we never saw anyone having trouble. Driving it a few times in a smaller vehicle first definitely helps!

 
 

Prior to towing our 14,000 lb. trailer over these passes, we installed an Edge Evolution Diesel Tuner on our truck to give it a little more power, and it worked great! (Our installation of this engine tuner is described here).

Fall color at a lake near Ouray Colorado

Fall color at Crystal Lake near Ouray.

For more info about this glorious drive and the Silverton area, check out these links:

Scenic Roads and Drives:

Silverton Area Attractions:

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6 thoughts on “RV Trip on Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway – Ouray to Silverton

  1. Hi Emily! Now we’re cooking with gas! I’ll bet this “comment” will make it. Thanks for working on variations to posting.
    Actually, I was originally wanting to inquire regarding Crystal Lake. You had posted about it when discussing heading south on 550 from Ouray and the “switchbacks”. Being fairly familiar with that area, I am NOT aware of that lake in that particular area. If it is along that route and I’ve missed it, I’m very interested in its location. It looks very beautiful. And in that area, that’s saying something. I would like to go there when I’m once again in Colorado. I am aware of a Crystal Lake over in the Aspen area. Could that be the one? I’ve not been to that one either.

    Thanks. I very much appreciate your photos. Just gorgeous!

    • Hi Ed. I’m glad this is working out and that you like our pics! Crystal Lake is about 6 miles south of Ouray, on the right hand side (west side) after you climb up the first big switchbacks. Maybe that’s not its real name, but that’s the name that is given on Google Maps!

      • OMG! After looking at Google Maps satellite view, I saw it, AND I’ve been there. Never knew it as Crystal Lake. From your photo, I was thinking it was hidden in some valley, as opposed to being right along 550. Sure looks better in your photo than satellite view. Duh!

        • Very funny! It’s a beautiful place. The water is still in the early morning but the mountains don’t light up until later, so we found it was best around 9:00 or so for mirror photos. Also, some of the best spots are around on the back side of the lake (you an walk all the way around).

  2. We’ll be doing the loop in a couple of weeks. Is it better to travel up the eastern side and then over and down the western side or vice versa? I guess if we went up the western side first, we’d be on the inside lane… We have overnight accomodations booked in Ouray, if that makes a difference. Thanks.

    • It’s gorgeous both ways. We are here now and just drove Ouray-Silverton for lunch in this cute town and will be driving Silverton-Ouray on the way back to our buggy in a few hours. Have a blast — it’s gorgeous!!

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