Journey Jotters

Bitten by the travel bug

As I mentioned in the post yesterday, the JJ family took a day trip to Ouray from Telluride. While in Ouray, we drove the Million Dollar Highway towards Silverton and back. This post details our experience on this thrilling drive.

Memorial to Otto Mears
Memorial to Otto Mears, pathfinder of the San Juan

Million Dollar Highway or US Route 550 is a spur of US Hwy 50 that runs from Bernalillo, NM to Montrose, CO. The section of the spur between Silverton and Ouray, a distance of 25 miles, is called the Million Dollar Highway. It forms a part of the San Juan Scenic Byway and the Trail of the Ancients Byway. Ancient Puebloans, Navajos, Utes, and Apaches used these trails at various times in history during their travels.

Transportation pioneer Otto Mears came up with the idea of a road along the ancient trail connecting Ouray with Silverton. Mears, with Fred Walsen, began constructing the first toll road between Ouray and Red Mountain Pass, a distance of 12 miles. The road was carved out of the mountainside overlooking the Uncompahgre Canyon in several places. A difficult engineering feat, men had to be lowered over the side of the canyon rim to position charges to blast the cliffsides. Not only was this endeavor dangerous, but it was expensive as well, costing Mears at least $10,000 per mile. The cost and the dangers are remarkable given that this road was built in 1882-83. Mears charged $5 toll per wagon and $1 per head of cattle.

No one’s exactly sure why how the Million Dollar Highway got its name. Some say that’s how much it cost Mears to build this road. Other tales mention that the road was paved with gold ore. Or that the name came about because of the million-dollar views along this scenic highway. Or that the route is so dangerous that people wouldn’t drive it even if they were paid a million bucks! No matter the moniker’s origin, the name has stuck and lends an air of mystery to the highway.

So what makes this highway so thrilling to drive? For starters, the highway is a two-lane road with steep drops into the Uncompahgre Gorge along the passenger side of the road (traveling South from Ouray) and the unnerving proximity of the cliff face (on the northbound to Ouray). In addition, the lack of guardrails in many sections, the nearly nonexistent shoulders in some places, the numerous hairpin bends, and the elevation gain to access Red Mountain Pass. Ouray is located at about 7700 feet elevation, while Red Mountain Pass is just over 11,000 feet. Some may feel motion sickness while on this roller coaster ride. The Million Dollar Highway would be hard to drive in winter, especially with a high risk of avalanches and water runoffs from heavy rains. Of the 25 miles, the first 12 to 13 miles just south of Ouray are the most difficult (Southbound).

The zigzagging hairpin bends on the map
Zigzagging hairpin bends on the map

We read somewhere that this highway was the most dangerous road to drive worldwide. And yet, we read that it was one of the most scenic as well. While we were nervous, we felt a sense of thrilling anticipation. While I would have preferred to have driven it one way only, we had no choice but to go to and from Silverton since we scheduled our entire day around Ouray. We also wanted to tackle the road during broad daylight while the weather was clear. We checked CDOT for driving conditions and didn’t see any roadblocks.

Driving out of Ouray, we joined the US Route 550 and almost immediately saw the entrance to Box Canon Waterfalls. Just a little past that, we saw the pull-out for the Switzerland of America lookout point that I mentioned yesterday. We stopped to admire the views and take some photos.

View from Switzerland of America Viewpoint
View from Switzerland of America lookout

A short mile and a half ahead were the Bear Creek Falls with the bridge over it and another look-out point. There we saw a memorial to Otto Mears, the man who made transportation across the San Juan Mountains a reality. The lookout was a little high for me, but the views were incomparable. There were information display boards about Otto Mears, the geology of the Bear Creek Falls area, San Juan travel, wildlife to look for in the area. We spent a chunk of time looking through the information, enjoying the peacefulness of the area and the waterfalls.

We noticed how close to the edge of the road we were and the steep drop on the passenger side into the gorge as we drove further. It was undoubtedly nerve-wracking at this point. The speed limit was only 25 miles per hour, dropping further at hairpin bends. We saw a few tunnels that acted as shelters from avalanches. It made us wonder how safe one would feel driving this road on a wintry day! We came across a small waterfall at Engineer Mountain Road, where we saw a 4*4 try to make its way up the off-roading route.

Bear Creek Falls with bridge above
Bear Creek Falls with bridge above

Further along the highway, we saw the ground along the creekbeds and small waterfalls that were orange from waste rock and tailing pipes leftover from the mining days. They contaminate the water with copper, cadmium, lead, and iron. For many years now, there have been efforts to reclaim these tailing pipes and prevent water from coming into contact with them. Soon, we started gaining elevation but also traversing the multiple hairpin bends. Mr. JJ tried to hug the yellow line as much as possible throughout the drive.

As we reached Red Mountain Pass, we were left speechless by the beauty of the alpine tundra at that elevation. Red Mountain was red in places, true to its name, although most of the mountain was covered in snow. We drove on towards Silverton for another few minutes. But once the most thrilling part of the drive was done, we decided to head back.

Million Dollar Highway
Million Dollar Highway

On the way back, we stopped at the Idarado Mine area pull-out across from Red Mountain. Display boards gave good information on the mining history of the area. Around 1883, the Red Mountain Mining District was home to about forty mines extracting silver from columns called pipes. Over a twenty-year period, about thirty million dollars in gold, silver, lead, zinc, and copper were extracted from this area. A bounty worth well over a quarter-million dollars in today’s prices!!

The headframe of the Yankee Girl Mine can also be seen from here. This mine had ores in vertical columns; hence, its shaft was dug vertically down to 1200 feet! The ore from this mine was such high grade that it was sent directly to the smelter instead of the concentration mill! I cannot for the life of me imagine working day after day in a vertical shaft that goes 1200 feet below ground! These miners must have been hardy, fearless folks with no concept of claustrophobia!

Also visible from this area was the Idarado Mine Trestle. This mining company was formed in 1939 by consolidating several mining claims. The Idarado continued to expand its mining operation by extending into the mountains towards Telluride. The Telluride Mining Company did the same from their side. Eventually, the two companies’ operations met under the mountain in a 5.5-mile tunnel! That information blew my mind!

Red Mountain along the Million Dollar Hwy
Red Mountain with the Idarado Mine Trestle in the foreground

While we imagine the day-to-day life of a miner would have been hard, the one thing they would have appreciated was the harsh beauty of the surrounding land. As did we, sitting on the bench and looking straight ahead at Red Mountain: proud, gigantic, unforgiving yet beautiful!

Back in the car, we found the drive back a lot less frightening. We drove the Million Dollar Highway on a clear morning with great weather conditions. Mr. JJ found the drive comfortable. We stuck to the speed limits and paid close attention to the road. Driving in harsh weather or driving a bigger vehicle may be more challenging altogether!

Million Dollar Highway
Scenic Million Dollar Highway

We drove the Million Dollar Highway and enjoyed the thrill of it! I hope we get to drive it once again in the future!

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