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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
For more info about this glorious drive and the Silverton area, check out these links:
Scenic Roads and Drives:
- Million Dollar Highway – US Route 550, Ouray to Silverton
- Red Mountain Pass on Route 550
- Red Mountain Pass – Current Road Conditions
- San Juan Skyway – Scenic Loop Drive
Silverton Area Attractions:
- Silverton Colorado — things to do
- Iron Horse Bicycle Classic
- Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
- Silverton Colorado RV Parks
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Related posts about Colorado’s spectacular fall color and where to see it:
- Brilliant Fall Foliage + Snow in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado 11/22/16
- Colorado’s San Juan Skyway – An RV Trip in Dazzling Fall Color! 11/18/16
- San Juan Mountains Colorado – And then it Snowed! 11/14/14
- Ouray – Finding the COLOR in Colorado on an RV Trip! 10/26/14
- Colorado GOLD – A Fall Foliage Photography Workshop 10/21/12
- Ridgway, CO – Peak fall foliage on the Dallas Divide – WOW!! 10/19/12
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