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Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway is one of the most scenic drives in the United States, and one of the most beautiful – though dangerous – mountain passes. On this iconic and harrowing 25-mile drive, there are breathtaking 360-degree San Juan Mountain views, ghost towns, hikes and more to discover from Silverton to Ouray.
The highway was created in the 1880s to transport ore to the Ouray railroad as a toll road by Otto Mears. Much of the road was carved by hand into the mountains, which makes it even more amazing to experience.
Today, this road has been widened with two lanes and made safer, but there are still no guardrails and it’s not for the faint of heart – with one hairpin turn after another, there are steep cliffs without guardrails and places without a shoulder.
Read on to find out all you need to know about this fabulous stretch of road!
Where’s the One Million Dollar Highway?
The Million Dollar Highway is a 25-mile part of US Highway 550, and the San Juan Skyway Colorado Scenic Byway, in Southwest Colorado.
Highway 550 goes all the way from northern New Mexico to southern Colorado. The highway covers the part in Colorado that runs from Silverton to Ouray.
✅ Read my guide to plan an epic Southwest Colorado Road trip
The San Juan Skyway is a route that makes a loop of 232 miles through Highway 550, plus Highways 62, 145 and 160. The Skyway includes the towns of Ouray, Silverton, Durango, Cortez and Telluride.
The San Juan Mountains are a remote range of the Rocky Mountains that are called “the American Alps”, because of the similarity to the Alps in Switzerland in appearance and danger, including avalanches, flooding and other extreme weather.
Traveling distances from the major cities in Colorado:
- From Denver: 6-hour drive
- From Colorado Springs: 7-hour drive
- From Boulder: 6.5-hour drive
- From Aurora: 6-6.5-hour drive
- From Aspen: 4-hour drive
Where does the Million Dollar Highway start and end?
The highway begins and ends in Southwest Colorado, from the town of Silverton to the town of Ouray.
PRO TIP: Beginning the drive in Silverton is better if it’s your first time driving the highway, because you’ll be on the inside lane, however, most people do it from Ouray to Silverton.
Why is it called the Million Dollar Highway?
Where the famous highway got its name is a bit complicated, as there are multiple stories and legends surrounding this question!
- One story is that the highway’s construction cost was one million dollars per mile – or that the land itself cost a million dollars, or that in a 1920s meeting for planning the highway’s rebuilding, a participant commented that it would cost a million dollars.
- Another tale is that an early road-tripper got vertigo and said he wouldn’t travel on this danger-filled pass again even for a million dollars.
- Yet another story is that the gravel used to construct the road came from the nearby gold and silver mines, so that the gravel itself was worth a million dollars from the gold and silver ore.
How many miles is the Million Dollar Highway?
The Million Dollar Highway is 25 miles long, stretching fro Silverton to Ouray, Colorado. It’s part of the much longer US Highway 550.
Best stops along the Million Dollar Highway
A road trip can include multiple stops at places for viewpoints, hiking and more outdoor sports, camping, ghost towns from the Old West and mining days, Native American ruins, hot springs, shopping, dining and lodging!
1. Animas Forks
Animas Forks is a Ghost Town near Silverton, CO that used to be a mining town. It remains one of the highest in elevation in the Western US – it’s 11,200 feet in elevation and a major tourist attraction. It’s been abandoned for over 100 years and is still one of the best-preserved in the US.
Animas Forks is part of the Alpine Loop, a system of unpaved roads that sees over 100,000 tourists per year and is closed during the winter season. Getting from Silverton to Animas Forks on the Alpine Loop is best with a four-wheel drive that’s also high-clearance, like a Jeep.
Animas Forks has old wooden buildings from the late 1800s. The town was abandoned because of fire, followed by the Silver Crash of 1893.
2. Durango Hot Springs
Where to stay in Durango: Holiday Inn Express
Durango is the biggest town located along the highway, and is a historic area with ancient ruins, museums, shopping, dining and nightlife, as well as many historic hotels and plenty of outdoor sports like whitewater rafting and biking.
✅ Check my guide to the best hot springs in Colorado
Durango is well-known for its mineral hot springs, which are completely unique because of their mineral mixture without any sulphur smell! They’re the only natural hot springs in the world that have increased health benefits because they self-purify. You can also find amazing mountain views from the springs.
3. Molas Pass
Molas Pass is located in the San Juan National Forest south of Silverton. It’s one of the highest passes in the state, but not as high as the Red Mountain Pass, so it’s usually open through the winter season.
A stop at Molas Pass includes views of Molas Lake and Animas River Gorge, as well as camping and outdoor sports at Molas Lake and Little Molas Lke, including hiking, biking, winter sports and more.
4. Red Mountain Pass
The Red Mountain Pass is the highest pass along the highway, and the most intimidating at 11,018 feet at its highest point. It includes steep grades, sharp turns and cliffs, and closes when there’s heavy snow. There can be flash floods, falling rocks and avalanches along this pass, and there are sections without a shoulder or guardrails.
✅ Find out how to plan a perfect Colorado Road Trip
Drivers will be rewarded on the Red Mountain Pass by the amazing views of the snow-capped mountains, red rocks, abandoned mining buildings and more.
5. Coal Bank Pass
Coal Bank Pass is a bit lower in elevation than Molas Pass and Red Mountain Pass at 10,640 feet. Located in the San Juan National Forest, this pass is known for its role in the mining industry. It’s close to Engineer Mountain. You can stop off at the trailhead for a day hike and for the mountain views.
6. The Uncompahgre Gorge
The Uncompahgre Gorge is a mountain canyon, formed in part by the Uncompahgre River. It’s located near Telluride Ski Resort on one side, and Bald Mountain on the other.
The Uncompahgre River flows into the box canyon where Ouray Ice Park, a man-made ice-climbing park, is located. There are multiple waterfalls in the canyon such as Bear Creek Falls where you can stop along the way.
There are two bridges that cross the gorge that offer amazing views, plus hiking the Perimeter and Ice Park trails and crossing the gorge with steel rungs and cables on the the Via Ferrata in the summer.
7. San Juan National Forest
The highway has many spots along the way that are part of the San Juan National Forest, which covers 1.8 million acres. It’sthe largest national forest in the US and a perfect spot for hiking, camping, fishing and many more outdoor activities and sites.
For views and photography, the San Juan National Forest is comparable with Rocky Mountain National Park, if not better!
I recommend hiking to Ice Lakes Basin located in the the Columbine Ranger District of San Juan National Forest
✅ Read: Best Colorado seasons
8. Silverton & the Weminuche Wilderness
Where to stay in Silverton: Villa Dallavalle Inn
Silverton, Colorado is a historic and quaint mountain town on one end of the highway, and an amazing place to visit all on its own! It’s a National Historic Landmark with many places to enjoy basically every outdoor sport you can imagine in every season, dining, breweries and shopping, historic sites and lodging.
- You can explore Silverton sites like the colorful buildings, mountain views, and many abandoned mining sites including the old Longfellow Mine and the Old Hundred Gold Mine.
- Mayflower Gold Mill is another historic site worth visiting to learn the history of how miners extracted gold, silver and other metals.
- The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Train Ride is one of the top attractions in Silverton. It’s a historic steam train that takes visitors on a 52-mile scenic, open-air ride through the San Juan Naitonal Forest.
Silverton is near many of Colorado’s tallest Mountains, and is known as a “premier gateway into the Colorado backcountry”. The town also hosts events, including the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run.
Where to stay in Ouray: Timber Ridge Lodge
Ouray, Colorado (pronounced “Yer-ray”) is a quaint mountain town at one end of the Million Dollar Highway, 13 miles north of Red Mountain Pass.
Nicknamed “Little Switzerland of America” because of its views of the alpine mountains from the geographic bowl where it’s settled, and because the town resembles one in the Swiss Alps – including Ouray Ice Park, a world-famous canyon complete with man-made waterfalls where people can ice climb in the winter.
➡️ Check my guide to the most beautiful places in Colorado
Ouray is surrounded by mining ghost towns and offers great outdoor opportunities. It has breweries, restaurants and a Main Street with historic buildings and hot springs. It also offers grand views as you descend to Ouray from the Uncompahgre Gorge to the overlook.
10. Idarado Mine & Guston
The Idarado Mine is an old mining site near Guston, a ghost town. You can see the mine remains from a popular overlook along this pass. It’s not recommended to go into the site, as it can be hazardous to human health due to lead remains.
Tips for driving Million Dollar Highway
- Make a gas and restroom stop before driving, and don’t drink too much water or coffee – there are no restrooms, gas stations or shops along the highway.
- Bring water and snacks for outdoor hiking and activities, since there aren’t shops along the way to stop.
- A 4×4 vehicle is highly recommended for driving this road because of the road conditions, unpredictable weather and off-road areas.
- There are spots that are illegal for stops, so pay attention to the signs.
- Watch for wildlife (including black bears, deer, elk and mountain goats), because this is a remote mountain area – but you’ll want to be alert and aware driving this treacherous highway in general, and take things slow (especially the curves and switchbacks).
- Check the weather before you go, and avoid any bad weather as intense conditions can happen unexpectedly and roads can close suddenly.
- Cell service can be spotty – consider brining a paper map.
- You can look up current conditions at the Colorado Department of Transportation.
- In winter you’ll need to be especially cautious and on the lookout for snowplows as well as avalanches, black ice and landslides, which can happen any time.
- Be careful if it’s rainy, because if you’re on a steep or unpaved section of road, things can get slippery.
- Be prepared for your ears to pop with the high altitude, and watch out for altitude sickness. Bring Gatorade or electrolyte packets.
- Make reservations and book in advance for lodging and activities, especially in the Summer and Fall because things get crowded.
- It’s best to bring camera equipment that can be in all types of weather and around water, especially for photos including bodies of water.
Renting a car for driving Million Dollar Highway
To drive safely, you will need a reliable car, preferably 4X4. This is especially true if you want to do some of the best mountain passes in the region.
If you want to do this route, rent a car. I recommend DiscoverCars, one of the best car rental companies that offer a wide inventory of vehicles and flexible rates.
Best time to drive Million Dollar Highway
The best time to drive on this highway is in the summertime, because winter creates unfavorable conditions for this kind of drive and roads can close unexpectedly. Snow season begins in October, and chains are usually a requirement in winter.
How long does it take to drive the Million Dollar Highway?
Driving 25 miles takes about 45 minutes if you drive it without stops. However, stopping at viewpoints and other sites is recommended, as is taking your time. You can even stay in some places overnight, including camping sites.
Planning for at least several hours (or overnight stays for more than a day trip) is best for driving the highway if you’re going to stop along the way.
Million Dollar Highway Winter
Driving the Million Dollar Highway in Winter is difficult even for experienced drivers, not to mention more dangerous than any other season because of the high avalanche risk, heavy snowfall, black ice and more issues.
However, you may want to visit nearby sites in the winter like Silverton and Ouray, which are home to winter sports and activities including skiing, ice climbing, snowmobiling and sledding, ice skating, ice fishing and more.
Where to stay near Million Dollar Highway
Let’s go over some of the lodging options. The two places where you can stay if you want to do this drive are Telluride and Ouray, with Ouray being much closer. Many travelers also end up spending a night in Silverton, Colorado, after doing this drive.
Budget: Timber Ridge Lodge Ouray
- Timber Ridge Lodge is a top-rated Ouray hotel that has a ton of outdoor activities and is just half a mile away from the hot springs! The rooms are all air-conditioned, with coffee makers and BBQs, and some rooms have kitchenettes and more amenities.
Mid-budget: Twin Peaks Lodge & Hot Springs Ouray
- Twin Peaks Lodge & Hot Springs is an Ouray hotel with incredible views. They also have a year-round outdoor and indoor pool, breakfast, restaurant, bar, fitness center, spa and hot springs when they’re open.
Luxury: Mountain Lodge at Telluride
- Mountain Lodge at Telluride is popular for skiing and extremely photo-worthy. They offer 2 bedroom apartments and studios with plenty of space that include fireplaces, kitchen appliances and more amenities. There’s also a heated outdoor pool, hot tub, breakfast, fitness center, on-site seasonal restaurant and ski services.
Camping along Million Dollar Highway
There are multiple campsites and RV parks along the highway, so even in the midst of the remote wilderness you can have access to amenities. Some of the best ones, for multiple budgets, include:
Ouray KOA is a large campsite open from May 1-Oct 31 with multiple camping options and amazing views. Reservations can be made by calling 800-562-8026.
Cost: Varies by reservation type
- Tent sites
- RV sites
- Deluxe Cabins
- Camping Cabins
- Fire pits
- Picnic tables
- Hot Tub/Sauna
- ATM Machine
- Direct TV
- Dog Walk
- Extra Vehicle/Trailer parking
Eureka Campground is located 9 miles from Silverton, in the historic town of the same name. There are nearby ATV and hiking trails. Reservations can be made by calling (970) 618-3913.
Cost: (check the website for more details)
- Dry Camping: $25 per night/rig or tent
- Electric: $45 per night/rig
- Overnight OHV Parking: $5 per vehicle when avaialble
- Additional occupied vehicles (2+ people): additional $4 per night
- Day Use: Free
- Rustic Cabin with electricity: $75 per night, summer only (Winter rate is $15 per person/night)
- 42 campsites, including 12 with electric hookups
- Cabin rentals
- Group sites
- Picnic areas
- Camp store
Silver Summit RV & Jeep Park
Silver Summit RV & Jeep Park is less than a mile from Silverton and have some of the best views and reviews. They’re AAA-approved as well and they’re open from May 15th – October 15th. You can make reservations by calling (970) 387-0240.
Cost: Subject to change, check online
- Full hookup RV Park with 20, 30, and 50 amp electric hookups
- Camp store
- Free WiFi
Red Mountain Motel & RV Park
Red Mountain Motel & RV Park is located less than a mile from Silverton and includes RV sites, cabins and motel rooms. Reservations can be made by calling (970) 387-5512.
Cost: Varies per reservation type
- Over 30 RV sites with water and electric
- 12 full hookup RV sites
- Motel Rooms
- Bathrooms & showers
- Dump Station
Silverton Lakes RV Resort & Silverton Lakes South RV Resort
Silverton Lakes RV Resort and Silverton Lakes South RV Resort are less than one mile from the town of Silverton, in two areas. They’re open from mid-May through early October. Reservations can be made by calling (970) 387-9888.
Cost: Around $50-$85 for 2 adults, depending on type of reservation.
- Full hookup RV Park with 30/50 amp hookups
- Tent camping areas
- Cabin rentals
- Dump station
- Free WiFi at the main building
- Camp store
- Nearby off-road and ATV trails
Kendall Campground is located around 3 miles from Silverton, with many other nearby free campsites without amenities but with room for RVs and trailers. Kendall campground is first come, first serve.
- Over 25 nearby sites
- Vault toilets
- Fire pits
Molas Lake Park & Campground
Molas Lake Park & Campground is located around 6 miles from Silverton and is perfect for camping, fishing, hiking/biking, and the views. It’s also operated by AAA and is open from June through September.
You can make reservations at MolasLake.com.
Cost: $25-$68, Free day use
- Over 50 campsites
- Stocked lake with boat ramp access
- Picnic areas
- Bathrooms & showers
Little Molas Lake
Little Molas Lake is a primitive campsite area near Molas Pass and around 8 miles from Silverton. There are hiking trails nearby and amazing views. No reservations can be made. There are no toilets at the campsite, but there are nearby restrooms on the Colorado Trail.
- 10 free primitive campsites
Lime Creek Campground
Lime Creek Campground is 16 miles from Silverton, and it’s just off the Million Dollar Highway near Potato Lake. There are many hiking trails nearby, as well as wildlife and great views. It’s first-come, first-served.
Cost: $14/night with electricity or $8/night without electricity.
- 7 primitive campsites (dispersed)
South Mineral Campground
South Mineral Campground is located around 7 miles from Silverton. It’s a Forest Service campground, which means it has less amenities and no reservations, but it is located near a trail leading to a waterfall. It’s open from mid-May through September.
- 26 campsites for tents, RVs and trailers
- Picnic areas
- Fire pits
- Vault toilets
- Drinking water
- Trash cans
Amphitheater Campground is located a couple miles from Ouray and is open from June 10 – Oct. 3. Reservations can be made by calling 877-444-6777. There are a few first-come, first-served sites as well. It’s highly rated, but it does get crowded. There are hiking and biking trails nearby, plus a scenic overlook.
Cost: $24 per night/camping unit, $4 per day use/picnic area in campsite; $10 per firewood bundle
- 35 sites
- Tent and RV Camping
- Vault Toilets
- Picnic Area
- Fire pit
- Firewood (for sale)
- Trash cans
- Drinking water
- 2 ADA accessible sites (#s 16&17)
Angel Creek Campground
Angel Creek Campground is a primitive Forest Service campground located near Ouray that requires high-clearance vehicles and does not allow trailer campers. It’s open late May through late Fall season and is first-come, first-served only.
Cost: $10 per unit/night.
- 15 camp sites with tent pads and fire rings/grills
- 2 vault toilets
Anvil Campground is located between on Forest Road 585 near Silverton. It’s a dispersed camping area.
Best restaurants near Million Dollar Highway
Wherever you’re beginning or ending your drive from, knowing the best restaurants to grab a bite is key! Here are the top spots in Telluride, Ouray and Silverton that have options for a variety of dietary needs and preferences!
Telluride: The West End Bistro
The West End Bistro has menu items from salads to burgers to steak, and offers vegan and vegetarian options with an ever-expanding, seasonal menu. They’re open seasonally for breakfast and dinner, and also offer delivery and to go service.
Ouray: BrickHouse 737
Brickhouse 737 is known for its locally-sourced ingredients, travel-inspired dishes and contemporary American cuisine with vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
Silverton: Kendall Mountain Cafe
Kendall Mountain Cafe is a top-rated American restaurant in Silverton with vegetarian options and breakfast, brunch and lunch.
Million Dollar Highway: FAQ’s
Why do they call it the Million Dollar Highway?
There are multiple possibilities for the origin of the Million Dollar Highway’s name:
- Some say it began in a 1920s meeting when someone made a comment that construction would cost a million dollars.
- Others say it’s from someone who drove the road and swore never to do it again, even if someone offered him a million dollars.
- And, others say it’s from the actual materials used to pave the road, which came from the nearby gold and silver mines, making the gravel worth a million dollars.
How long does it take to ride the Million Dollar Highway?
A ride along the 25-mile Million Dollar Highway takes 45 minutes on average, without stops.
Why are there no guardrails on the Million Dollar Highway?
There are no guardrails because of the avalanches, which happen so often that it’s not worth replacing them each time.
Is the Million Dollar Highway worth it?
In short, the drive is worth it if you’re willing to make the drive for the experience. It definitely depends on what you can handle. However, many people drive this road, or make the trip with someone they trust to do the driving, and are rewarded with some of the best views in the US of the “American Alps”, vistas, nature and wildlife.
It’s better to drive from the north, so you can be on the inside, in the summertime – and make sure the weather forecast is clear before you go.
The most challenging and steepest part is the drive from Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge, to the Red Mountain Pass summit.
Million Dollar Highway Colorado: Final word
I hope this guide helps you plan your adventures along the highway! From driving safety, to places to stay and eat, and stops to make along the way, this highway has practically unlimited places to explore and things to do.