A view of the Million Dollar Highway — Photo courtesy of Alan Stark / flickr
Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway is not a long road trip – technically only 25 miles long – but those miles are packed with thrills and sights. 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 turns 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 is almost considered a 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 high-dollar name origins of which remain unclear).
Here are 10 things to see on a road trip along Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway, from Silverton to Ouray.
Take a gold mine tour
721 County Road 4A, Silverton
The old-fashioned town of Silverton, Colo. — Photo courtesy of Joel Sowers / flickr
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.
Divert to a ghost town
The ghost town of Animas Forks, Colo. — Photo courtesy of Adam Baker / flickr
If you’re 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
6475 County Road 203, Durango
The Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs opened its natural, healing waters to visitors in the 19th century, but long before that, Ancient Puebloans 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.
Explore the San Juan National Forest
Haviland Lake in San Juan National Forest — Photo courtesy of iStock / KaraGrubis
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.
Stop at Molas Lake
Molas Lake is home to one of the most scenic campgrounds — Photo courtesy of Bettina Woolbright / flickr
Take the highway up Molas Pass, where you’ll 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.
Proceed cautiously up Red Mountain Pass
Ouray and San Juan counties
Red Mountain Pass provides views of the Red Mountains — Photo courtesy of iStock / Missing35mm
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
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. Starting back in the 1870s, this town was thriving and busy. Today, old buildings loom like eerily beautiful ghosts of Colorado’s past.
Take in the beauty of Uncompahgre Gorge
South of Ouray
The dramatic Uncompahgre Gorge — Photo courtesy of Ken Lund / flickr
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.
Gaze at Ouray, before diving in
The hot springs in Ouray — Photo courtesy of trickofthelight / flickr
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
Box Canyon Road, Ouray
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.