My cousin Charlotte worked summers in Lake City, Colorado, while she was going to college and she’d told us about the Million Dollar Highway! I'd been planning on this for years. George wasn’t so sure...
The San Juan Skyway is a scenic byway in southwestern Colorado that’s a 236 mile loop—Ridgway to Durango on US 550, Durango to Cortez on US 160, Cortez to Placerville on US 145, Placerville to Ridgway on US 62. (Or the other direction works too...you can figure it out from where you are.)
The Million Dollar Highway is the 25 mile long segment between Ouray and Silverton--although some say the name goes with it all the way to Durango. It’s twisty, turny, narrow, steep and winding. That pretty well defines why it’s a scary road for a whole lot of people. When they built the thing in 1881, they apparently didn’t believe in guard rails. I suppose if you’re in a wagon pulled by a horse, it’s not a big deal. But when the edge of the road is truly the edge of the road with a shoulder more like spaghetti straps, I’ve found it’s better to focus on the horizon.
I researched it—they said you would be on the inside lane if you drove south to north. However, I forgot that once we got to Colorado. We were staying in Ridgway, which meant we'd be traveling south with the lack of road was on my side. On the other hand, we weren't making the whole loop so to come back I'd be on the inside.
We started in Ridgway near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, and headed south on US 550. I like the really craggy Colorado mountains.
South of Ridgway we drove along the Uncompahgre River, which is the weirdest color water I’ve ever seen. It’s sort of a funky greenish-yellow from the minerals dissolved in it as it passes through the mine runoffs. Not the rusty color of rivers in Utah and Arizona picking up sandstone particles, but not particularly attractive.
In Ouray, George stopped to wash bugs off the window so I could see which direction I should be leaning.
The whole town of Ouray is a National Historic District—most of the buildings were built between 1880 and 1900.
Most of the roads out of town are gravel or dirt. George didn’t want to get off the pavement, so all I got were pictures of dirt roads from a distance. Sometimes I really wish we'd ordered 4-wheel drive on the truck.
There are tunnels...
...and bridges and waterfalls...
...and lots of curves!
But still no shoulder...
...and they let RV's and semis drive on it! The people in motorhomes are more nervous than the rest of us are so tend to want to add width to their own lane by confiscating the center stripes. The truckers have usually done it before so go faster than the rest of us. George was more comfortable with it than I was, but I was on the edge of the road looking down.
The Red Mountain Creek by the side of the road runs rusty.
The iron-colored Red Mountains are covered with old mines. Historic mine shafts and buildings are everywhere you look. By 1883, nearly 40 mines were sending silver ore to smelters.
Red Mountain Pass is at 11,075’ elevation, then it's downhill to Silverton at 9,318’. This guy was unexpected...and, I must admit, a bit worrisome.
Silverton (established 1874) is also a National Historic Landmark. It’s not very big, and not much was open, but we drove around a little to see the courthouse and Victorian homes.
Tourist season has come and gone. The Durango and Silverton Railroad had just finished their fall schedule. Silverton might as well have had a "See you next year!" note on the city limits sign. We ate lunch at the only place in town still open, then headed back north. Same road, different perspective. I was next to the mountain instead of thin air.Million Dollar Highway