San Juan Skyway Part 1:
Million Dollar Highway
Growing up in western Colorado, I was surrounded by beautiful, diverse scenery – with countless picturesque roads to match. Of course, as a kid I really didn’t appreciate the splendor. But subliminally I must have been paying attention because today, while traveling of all kinds is my passion, I have a special affinity for road trips and especially those following scenic routes. These days, I’m rediscovering the highways I grew up exploring with my parents while also driving a few I’ve never been on before. One scenic byway I’ve traveled throughout my life is the San Juan Skyway. It connects several historic Colorado towns. My favorite section is the one in this story. Starting in Ridgway, US 550 heads deep into the San Juan Mountains, perhaps the prettiest range in Colorado and one of the most spectacular in all of North America. Ten miles south, the Skyway reaches Ouray. Encircled by peaks, the town is nicknamed the “Switzerland of America.” It’s actually named after Chief Ouray, a famous Ute Indian. A former mining town, today Ouray is known for its steam and ice: hot springs and ice climbing. It’s also the starting point of the “Million Dollar Highway” – a section of the San Juan Skyway that rises sharply out of Ouray, winds precariously along steep canyon walls, climbs up and over 11,000 foot Red Mountain Pass and then wanders into yet another appealing historic town, Silverton. The distance between Ouray and Silverton is just 24 miles but the scenery is out-of-this-world. So good, in fact, I created a Part 2.
Best Time to Visit
The route is open year-round and stunning in any season. But this is definitely one road you need to be wary of during the winter so monitor conditions closely.
Ridgway, Ouray and Silverton cater specifically to travelers and offer lodging, food and gas. But they are very small towns. To the north on US 550 lies Montrose and to the south, Durango. Both are fairly large with more services including supermarkets, hospitals and regional airports.
Route & Map
The San Juan Skyway is actually a loop route in southwestern Colorado involving several different roads and numerous towns. This particular section runs from Ridgway to Ouray and onto Silverton. The 24-mile part from Ouray to Silverton is called the Million Dollar Highway. The exact reason is disputed but the most common explanation is the cost: a million dollars a mile to build in the 1920s.
Length & Time
It’s just 35 miles and an hour’s drive non-stop from Ridgway to Silverton. But it’s a drive you’ll remember for a lifetime. And you’ll want to pullover from time to time to enjoy the views (and catch your breath!) as well as stop in one or all three of the quaint and fascinating historic towns: Silverton, Ouray and Ridgway.