Million Dollar Highway
...A Scenic Route Through
Colorado's High Mountain Country
Million Dollar Highway is a breathtaking high-mountain road and a scenic, twisty, exciting motorcycle ride that links the historic Colorado mining towns of Durango, Silverton, Ouray and Ridgeway. Ride with me…
My trip starts in Durango
I love the names of western towns. Living in the Northeast makes it fun to mention places like Laramie, Abilene, Dodge City or Cheyenne when recounting motorcycle trips. For example: “We stopped in Laramie on our way to the Medicine Bow Mountains.”
You don't hear too much of that on Long Island, New York.
So, just for its name alone, I was pumped to be traveling through the West toward Durango, Colorado.
But, the real reason for my excitement was that in Durango I'd connect with one of this country’s premier scenic routes -- the Million Dollar Highway.
Durango’s colorful history as a rough-and-tumble Colorado mining and railroad town includes floods, fires, avalanches and a deadly flu epidemic.
The Denver & Rio Grande Railway built the town in 1880 to service mining camps including Silverton, Telluride and Ouray some 60 to 70 miles north.
Freight trains along the line hauled gold- and silver-laden ore mined from the surrounding San Juan Mountains -- the youngest and most rugged mountains in the Rockies.
Today, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad remains one of the areas greatest attractions.
But what attracted me to Durango was Route 550 -- best known as the Million Dollar Highway.
Similar to the railroad tracks that also head north out of town, Route 550 shadows the Animas River through breathtaking high mountain terrain while linking Durango to Silverton, Ouray and Ridgeway.
During the 1880s, laborers carved the original highway out of the mountains using pickaxes, shovels and dynamite. Today’s route generally follows the old roadbed.
How the Million Dollar Highway got its name
One story says the Million Dollar Highway got its name from the high cost of cutting the road through the treacherous Red Mountain Pass between Ouray and Silverton.
Another says the name comes from the gold and silver deposits still buried beneath the highway.
I departed Durango in the bright morning sun and aimed my BMW R1100RT north toward Silverton.
Because I’d been riding for many days and many miles along flat, straight desert and prairie roads before entering Colorado, I had to shift my mental gears and driving style to manage this very twisty mountain road. And it was tough not to be distracted by the beautiful alpine vistas around every turn.
Soon the exhilaration of the ride and the rhythm of the steep, winding road kicked in.
I was in the “zone.” The 50 miles to Silverton passed quickly. Along the way, I had to remind myself to occasionally pull over, snap a few photos, relax, enjoy the view and smell the wild flowers.
Silverton: a solitary town with a colorful past
Silverton is one of Colorado’s most isolated towns. It sits in a glacial valley surrounded by 13,000-foot high mountains.
At 9,200 feet, the town’s 500 permanent residents tough out cold winters that annually bring at least 300 inches of snow. In the summer, the road brings tourists.
I first saw Silverton far below when the road crested the valley rim then began its long descent.
When I reached the valley floor and drove down Silverton's wide main street, I felt as if I’d rolled onto the set of the old TV show “Northern Exposure.”
Many structures, including the courthouse and jail, a few saloons and the Grand Hotel, were built when this was a booming mining town.
I parked the motorcycle and had breakfast in the Grand Hotel.
My eyes wandered across sepia photos and faded paintings on the dining room walls that depict the town when silver and gold ruled the valley.
I conjured up images of raucous miners with gold in their pockets crowding the hotel, drinking and whooping it up.
I wouldn’t be surprised if at night, after the lights go out and silence abounds, the echoes of honky-tonk piano music still drift faintly from the bar room.
After breakfast, I took a stroll to check out the sights. The town was quiet and I didn’t see many tourists or residents.
After about an hour, I suited up, headed out of the valley and continued north.
The “real” highway goes over Red Mountain Pass
The highway from Silverton to Ouray through Red Mountain Pass is one of the most spectacular roads I’ve ever ridden on.
Many consider this 24-mile-long section the “real” Million Dollar Highway.
When building the highway in the 1880s, workers were often lowered by rope hundreds of feet down the steep canyon walls to carve a roadbed through the most inaccessible sections.
They’d bore dynamite holes then light extra long fuses that gave the crews above enough time to pull up their co-workers before each explosion.
Occasionally, however, some did not make it up in time.
As I neared Red Mountain Pass, the towering peaks reminded me that in the winter this is avalanche country.
At the foot of the pass, I saw the scant remains of Chattanooga, a town wiped out in the 1890s by avalanches that crushed, splintered then scattered homes and buildings more than half a mile across the valley.
As the road began to climb, it swept between black granite peaks.
Higher and higher into the pass, the turns became tighter as the cliffs grew steeper.
Through some sections, the narrow road had been cut into vertical walls that came so close I could almost reach out and touch them.
If a vehicle careened over the outside edge, it would disappear into oblivion hundreds of feet down.
I wanted to stop and take pictures; but I couldn't risk crossing the narrow, curving road to try parking on the small dirt turnouts.
And the turnouts on my side looked too steep and precarious for me to chance leaning my motorcycle onto its kickstand.
At 11,018 feet, I crested the summit of Red Mountain Pass -- the highest point on the Million Dollar Highway.
Avalanches pose a deadly threat
North of the summit lies Riverside Slide, one of Colorado’s most dangerous avalanche areas.
Waves of snow rumbling down these mountains have killed several snowplow drivers and a family that stopped while dad tightened their car’s tire chains.
A protective roof resembling a long covered bridge now shields the road where it passes through the slide area.
As I headed down into Ouray, I saw why this little town is called the Switzerland of America. It sits in a narrow alpine valley surrounded by mountains that make it a popular ski area.
Ouray also started as a boomtown when prospectors discovered gold close by. Today, most of the town’s more permanent structures built between 1880 and 1900 are still standing.
From Ouray, the Million Dollar Highway levels out and ends a few miles north in the green, scenic ranching area of Ridgeway.
If I didn’t have a schedule to keep, I’d have turned around and ridden the 88 miles once again in the opposite direction.
Cruising along this winding ribbon of asphalt through these steep, rugged, forested mountains remains one of my most memorable motorcycle rides and a great destination.
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