A view of the Million Dollar Highway — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alan Stark
Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway is not a long road trip–technically only 25 miles long–but those miles are packed with thrills and sites to see. Don’t expect this road trip to go quickly, either. This route winds along serious mountain roads that pose the potential for danger, if you’re not comfortable mastering hairpin curves and climbing upward next to RVs.
It’s best to take this trip in the summer, when weather is mild, and let the locals take the streets in the winter, when chains on your wheels may be necessary. One of the coolest (and most daunting in the winter) features of this highway is it crosses three different mountain passes: Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain.
Still, the Million Dollar Highway is a tourist favorite and considered an almost rite of passage for Colorado roadtrippers looking for an amazing day trip. It feels like time-traveling, following roads originally built for stagecoaches and horses.
For a longer journey, take U.S. 550 from Montrose. But it’s the portion of 550 between Silverton to Ouray that earns the big-blinging name (whose origins remain unclear). The Million Dollar Highway is a portion of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway.
Here are 10 things to note on a road trip along Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway, from Silverton north to Ouray.
The old-fashioned town of Silverton, Colo. — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Joel Sowers
Take a gold mine tour in Silverton.
The Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour in Silverton is a great way to start your road trip and get your mind in the right space to journey on this historical mountain route. Take a guided tour, learn about the history and even try your luck at panning for gold.
The ghost town of Animas Forks, Colo. — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Adam Baker
Divert to the ghost town of Animas Forks.
If you are cruising with four-wheel drive or a Jeep, a must-see before hitting the Million Dollar Highway is the ghost town northeast of Silverton. This former mining town boasts a good number of still-standing, rickety, old wooden buildings that juxtapose with pristine views.
Relax in ancient hot springs.
The Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs opened its natural, healing waters to visitors in the 19th century, but long before that, Ancient Puebloans from 1000 to 1200 lived in this region. The spa is named after founder Frank Trimble, who said the springs healed his rheumatism in 1874. He built a hotel on the grounds shortly thereafter to make it easier for others to come experience the healing waters.
The San Juan National Forest in Colorado — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ken Lund
Explore the San Juan National Forest.
The Million Dollar Highway will bring you through the San Juan National Forest, which is worth as long of a stop as you can carve out. This forest stretches across 1.8 million acres of desert, mountain peaks, meadows and canyons. Go camping, hunting, hiking, biking or fishing in the multiple wilderness areas. Don’t miss the beautiful Haviland Lake.
Molas Lake is home to one of the most scenic campgrounds — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Bettina Woolbright
Stop at Molas Lake.
Take the highway up Molas Pass, where you will get a great overlook of the Animas River Gorge and Molas Lake. Veer off and head to the 25-acre lake. Although you can’t go swimming here, the view adjacent to the biggest wilderness area in Colorado is delightful enough. The campground here is considered one of the most scenic in Colorado and provides access to the forest and trails.
Red Mountain Pass provides views of the Red Mountains — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ken Lund
Proceed cautiously up Red Mountain Pass.
This is one of the state’s highest paved passes, and it’s no joke. Some stretches have no guard rail, which can be quite the rush. If you can remove your stomach from your throat, the views are hard to top, with panoramas of the three different brightly colored Red Mountains and ancient mining remnants. Red Mountain Pass is known to close suddenly, due to weather or rock slides, so stay flexible.
See historical remnants near the Idarado Mine.
You can see the abandoned Idarado Mine from the highway. From the Idarado Mine turnoff, head to the Red Mountain Pass and hike toward Red Mountain Town. Back starting in the 1870s, this town was thriving and busy. Today, old buildings loom like eerily beautiful ghosts of Colorado’s past.
The dramatic Uncompahgre Gorge — Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ken Lund
Take in the beauty of the Uncompahgre Gorge.
This deep, steep canyon is one of our favorite points on the Million Dollar Highway. Wind through switchbacks and marvel at the sharp cliffs and river forging below. The rugged peaks here are beyond description; you’ll want your camera handy. Just keep slow, as some stretches don’t have guard rails.
The hot springs in Ouray — Photo courtesy of Flickr user trickofthelight
Gaze at Ouray, before diving in.
When you arrive in Ouray, head to Lookout Point, where you can see the best views of the city. Then head to the unique public pool and slide, which gets its water from a hot spring. If the stink of common hot springs bothers you, you’ll be pleased to know Ouray’s crystal clear springs are sulfur-free.
Take in the Box Canyon waterfall.
One of the most dramatic features in Ouray is the 285-foot Box Canyon Falls, where Canyon Creek ends its mountain journey. It’s a great place to end yours, too. View the falls from below or above, and expect to be joined by plenty of birds.