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My Visit to The Million Dollar Highway, Silverton & Ouray, CO


Drove 90 miles in 4-1/2 hours. Sunny, 75.

This is the leg of our trip that I’ve been having nightmares about since Harry said he wanted to go on this road. It’s Route 550, aka, The San Juan Skyway. It’s been named one of the 10 most scenic road trips in the US. The whole Skyway is 232 miles long but the section we’re traveling is only from Durango to Ridgway, about 77 miles. But this is the section known as “The Million Dollar Highway”.

Some people say it’s called that because of the views, some say because of the gold and silver in the hills and some say because somebody once said: “I wouldn’t go on that road for a million dollars”. It goes through the San Juan National Forest. The section from Durango to Silverton is 47 miles long and not bad curve wise. We drove through Purgatory Ski Resort, then no civilization for miles.

We drove up Coal Bank Pass, 10,660’, then Molas Pass, 10899’ where we started to see snow on Mt. Kendall, 13,066’ and Engineer Mountain, 12,968’, then into Silverton which was founded in 1874 and is now a National Historic Landmark. It has a great courthouse, The Grand Imperial Hotel, 136 years old, and beautiful Victorian homes.

Blair St., behind Main St., once had 40 gambling halls, saloons, 24/7 brothels, “sporting houses” and a jail. In the 1800s millions of gold and silver were mined here and most of the jewelry here is silver. Today Main St. is a quaint little western town with souvenir shops, restaurants, candy shops, bakeries, and native crafts.

Some of the storefronts are false and this street has been used as a movie set for westerns. Harry got a beautiful ring made from spiny oyster shells. We found a big parking lot to park the truck and RV and walked around town for a bit, then had lunch in the RV. The restaurants mostly had burgers and I think we’re burger out.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train ends here and we could hear the whistle from the depot. Back on the road for the next 20 miles to Ouray where we went through tunnels and saw some beautiful waterfalls and mines. There was a big avalanche here last winter which closed the road for months, the remains are still evident and there’s still snow on the side of the road. Red Mountain, 11,075’ looms around every corner and the water that flows down from it creates a red river.

I remember somebody telling us that just when you think the road isn’t too bad….watch out! And that’s what happened. Miles of figure 8 turns with no shoulder, rock slides on the other side, and the most magnificent views I’ve ever seen. Harry’s a great driver so neither one of us was ever really worried but there were a few white-knuckled moments when we went around a curve only to go the other way and then the other way and then again and again with traffic coming at us, all with no shoulder and drops of thousands of feet.

It was definitely the most challenging road we've ever been on, slow (some turns were 15 mph), and careful all the way. But it was so well worth the trip. I wish I could describe the smell of the pines trees too, a very sweet smell. And I love how you can hear a waterfall before you see it. So, we made it to Ouray at the bottom of the mountain. Ouray is bigger than Silverton, much more touristy and one long steep hill with souvenir shops, restaurants, etc. etc. on both sides of the street.

Beautiful Victorian homes, too, and more breweries and distilleries in one street than I’ve ever seen. At the other end of Ouray is a hot springs pool, filled with people. We drove through, too touristy for us, and continued to our campground about 25 miles north in Montrose, CO to relax and recoup. I definitely have sensory overload from “The Million Dollar Highway”.

The campground is beautiful, nice and shady with great views of the mountains. Quite small but full, glad we made reservations, there aren't many other campgrounds around here. Very windy.

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