The Million Dollar Highway is spectacular, breathtaking and terrifying
OURAY, Colorado – Driving along the Million Dollar Highway just a few miles south of Ouray, I spotted one of the most breathtaking waterfalls I had ever seen. It was cascading down the mountainside to the canyon below and I pointed it out to my wife, Linda, who was sitting in the passenger seat.
“Look at that,” I said. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it.’ She mumbled something under her breath that I couldn’t understand so I repeated my exhilaration.
Again, she muttered something barely audible, so I attempted to point to the waterfall when she screamed at me, “YES, IT'S BEAUTIFUL! JUST KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD!”
My wife loves the mountains, but she doesn’t love driving in the mountains. This is especially true for the two-lane stretch of U.S. 550 in Colorado through the San Juan Mountains between Ouray and Silverton. It is called the Million Dollar Highway and is one of the most scenic stretches of road in the United States, but also one of the most harrowing.
No one is sure why it is called the Million Dollar Highway. The most common theories are it cost that much to build the road or that was the amount of gold ore that remained in the roadway’s fill. The road is characterized by steep cliffs, narrow lanes, hairpin curves and a lack of guard rails. But it provides some of the most amazing views on Earth.
We vacationed in northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado last week, discovering a nice trout lake called Hopewell in New Mexico’s Carson National Forest, spying bighorn sheep grazing seven miles west of Taos, New Mexico, and walked the Animas River trail in Durango, Colorado. But driving the Million Dollar Highway will be the most memorable part of this vacation.
While staying in Durango, we decide to drive to Telluride one day and spend the afternoon at the suggestion of my nephew. He also suggested we park at Mountain Village and catch a ride into Telluride on the gondolas, which take you from the top of the mountain and drops you off into the middle of town. (My wife wasn’t crazy about the gondola ride, either.)
To get to Telluride from Durango, we went west to Mancos then north through Dolores on State Highway 145 and embarked on the San Juan Skyway that includes the Million Dollar Highway. The road from Dolores to Telluride provides dramatic scenery of its own, especially at Lizard Head’s Pass, but it would be nothing like what we would encounter on the way back to Durango along the Million Dollar Highway.
After spending a few hours in Telluride, we decided to go north to Ridgway, the area where the original “True Grit” was filmed. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the movie, so it seemed only fitting to have dinner at the “True Grit Café” in town, where my bill was $122. Twenty-two dollars for the meal and $100 for all the John Wayne merchandise I bought.
From Ridgway, we would head back south to Durango on U.S. 550 through Ouray and Silverton. A couple accompanying us on our gondola ride from Telluride back up the mountain to our car had told us how beautiful and terrifying the drive is between Ouray and Silverton. Words cannot do it justice on either point.
Driving south from Ouray meant we were on the outside edge of the highway instead of the inside lane next to the mountain, something I had not considered when I left Durango. The highway is fine if you drive slowly but Linda almost went into cardiac arrest when I swerved to avoid a rock in the road.
We saw mule deer along the way but it was sunset by the time we arrived in Silverton, so the drive back to Durango had to be in the dark, which may have been a blessing in disguise.
When we finally got back to our hotel room in Durango that night, Linda admitted that she had been scared to death while traveling on the Million Dollar Highway. However, the majestic peaks and breathtaking scenery was worth the terror for my wife the flatlander.
But she vowed never to travel the Million Dollar Highway again.