The “Million Dollar Highway”…with a name like that it’s got to be impressive, right? A portion of U.S. Route 550 that cuts through Colorado mining country, this famous stretch of scenic roadway consists of 25 miles from Silverton to Ouray featuring beautiful mountain views, massive drop offs, and waterfalls.
The Million Dollar Highway was originally built as a narrow wagon road in 1882 by two men, Otto Mears and Fred Walsen. This road cost approximately $10,000 per square mile at the time. That’s approximately $250,000 adjusted for inflation. To make up for this extreme cost, the road initially had a toll – $5 for wagons and $1 per cattle head ($125 & $25 in today’s money). That might seem expensive, but keep in mind that there was a booming mining industry in the area at the time. This road connected Ouray to the mining town of Silverton, allowing a means of transportation that helped make a silver boom from 1882 to 1893 possible. The route was then paved in the 1920s.
The most notable part of the drive is the 12-mile stretch over Red Mountain Pass through Uncompahgre Gorge. This portion features a 8% grade and narrow switchbacks. As you might guess, it can get backed up with traffic from time to time due to slow cars, large trucks, and many RVs that end up on the route.
What adds the “Million Dollar” aspect to this road is frequently debated, though many state that it’s because the road cost one million dollars to pave in the 1920s – a number we were unable to confirm that’s equivalent to $12,500,000 when adjusted for inflation! Other rumors include that “the views are worth a million dollars” and that there’s “a million dollars of gold ore in the pavement.”
If you plan on driving this road, be warned that you’ll probably want to have some mountain driving experience. There’s a notable lack of guardrails (so that plowing can happen in the winters) and there’s quite a bit of risk in the case of an accident. It’s also worth noting that the road can become treacherous in the winter with frequent avalanches and slick conditions. Believe it or not, there are actually 70 different named avalanches paths on this short stretch of road!
If you really want to experience this drive in a unique way, I recommend picking up a Slingshot from Rock Pirates in Silverton. As a Polaris Adventures outfitter, Rock Pirates gets brand new equipment on a seasonal basis, including this two-seated three-wheeler that drives like a street-legal go-kart in the best way possible. They’ve all got a manual transmission and they really hug the road – sure to get your heart pumping on roads like this.