San Juans » Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway is a stunning scenic drive through the San Juan Mountains. Expect rugged mountains, twisting roads, and the most spectacular gorge you’ve ever seen. It’s considered one of the most beautiful drives in the country, and I have to agree.
Driving the Million Dollar Highway is a bucket list experience for anyone. It’s a fun activity for families, couples, solo road-trippers, and friends. It’s popular for motorcyclists, RVers, and van-lifers. The area has many off-trail routes, making it a go-to destination for OHV and jeep adventurers.
The Million Dollar Highway is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. This longer scenic road is a 236-mile loop that goes through Durango, Telluride, Ouray, and more. The Million Dollar Highway is the 25-mile stretch from Silverton to Ouray. Since many people start the drive from Durango or Ridgeway, we’ll also cover stops from there.
The Best Way to Drive the Million Dollar Highway
The best way to drive the Million Dollar Highway is from Silverton to Ouray. This allows you to drive against the mountains instead of along the cliffs’ edge. This way is safer and will enable you to enjoy the scenery better.
A Word of Caution
Despite being one of the most beautiful drives in the US, the Million Dollar Highway can be dangerous. The steep road winds through a narrow mountain pass with no guardrails. Before making the drive, make sure it’s something you’re comfortable with. I highly recommend taking your car in for a check-up beforehand as well.
The Best Time of the Year to Drive the Million Dollar Highway
The best time to make the drive is in summer and fall when the weather is clear. Winter and Spring are the most challenging times to visit. Snow and ice often cause closures and make the drive much more dangerous. Remember, snow and ice often stick around through Spring in the mountains. Roads may not be clear until late Spring to early summer.
The ABSOLUTE BEST time of year to drive the Million Dollar Highway is in the fall when the Aspen’s are changing color. This varies per year but typically happens in late September. Check out this interactive map to better understand when to see fall colors. Note: The map usually updates yearly in August or September.
Is the Million Dollar Highway dangerous?
The Million Dollar Highway is dangerous to drive during inclement weather or while distracted. Parts of the highway include winding mountain roads with steep drop-offs and no guardrails. The safest way to drive the Million Dollar Highway is on a clear summer or early fall day while driving north. This will keep you hugging the side of the mountain instead of driving alongside the drop-off.
Why is it called the Million Dollar Highway?
No one knows for sure, but there are several theories. The most obvious is the cost of making it. Some people state that the road cost a million dollars to pave in the 1920s, although that has yet to be confirmed. Others say there is a million dollars worth of gold in the roadways. The only theory I CAN confirm is the last one – that the views are worth a million dollars.
How long is the Million Dollar Highway?
The Million Dollar highway is the 25-mile stretch between Ouray and Silverton. It takes about 45 minutes to drive without stopping.
Is the Million Dollar Highway close to Telluride?
The Million Dollar Highway is one hour from Telluride, starting in Ouray. From there, it takes another 45 minutes to drive to Silverton. It can take much longer, depending on how many stops you take. The entire San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway loop takes about 7 hours round-trip.
What is the elevation of the Million Dollar Highway?
The elevation of the Million Dollar Highway ranges from 7,792 feet in Ouray and 11,018 feet in the Red Mountain Pass.
Scenic Stops Along the Million Dollar Highway
This list covers stops from Durango to Ridgeway, in that order. As I mentioned earlier, Silverton to Ouray is the best way to drive the Million Dollar Highway. This way, you’ll drive alongside the mountain walls most of the way instead of the steep cliffs. Although the Million Dollar Highway is technically the stretch from Silverton to Ouray only, I’ve included stops from Durango to Ridgeway since you’ll likely need to drive that route anyways.
So, here are all of the best stops from Durango to Ridgeway.
Durango to Silverton
This section is for you if you’re starting the drive from Durango. Before hitting the road, fill up your gas tank and grab breakfast. It’s best to start the drive early so you have the entire day to explore. Ideally, you would have spent the previous day(s) exploring Durango if that’s on your to-do list.
Pinkerton Hot Springs
Pinkerton is a funky-looking hot spring on the side of the road past Hermosa and Trimble. It’s a large orange and brown fountain with run-off water that forms several pools below. On the ground, you’ll find crystals formed by the hot springs deposits. Although you technically can soak in Pinkerton Hot Springs, most people pass. The pools are small and shallow, and it gets crowded with photo-taking tourists. It’s definitely worth stopping by to check out and take photos. If you’re looking for hot springs to soak in close to Durango, check out Trimble Hot Springs instead.
I wish I had my own photos of Pinkerton Hot Springs buuuut I don’t. However, you can check out photos of it on the Hot Springers blog.
Molas Lake is my favorite roadside lake in the area. Gorgeous mountains surround the 25-acre lake where you can camp, hike, and picnic. I’m obsessed with the view from the west bank. The mountains in the background are spectacular!
Keep in mind swimming is not allowed in Molas Lake (bummer!). If you want to go for a swim, consider the pools at Ouray Hot Springs or hiking to an alpine lake.
After passing Molas Lake, you’ll begin the picturesque descent to downtown Silverton. Like many Colorado mountain towns, Silverton is known for its rich mining history. However, what makes Silverton unique is that it feels like you’re stepping into an old-western Hollywood set. Downtown Silverton consists of a few dirt roads lined with old-timey saloon-like buildings. Don’t let the exterior fool you – the town has fantastic restaurants, stores, and a hotel. You can stop for lunch here, hold off for a picnic at Crystal lake, or eat in Ouray.
Silverton is a major adventure hub, especially for off-roading, hiking, and climbing. You could easily spend several days here. Not so much exploring the town but going on the many adventures nearby. It’s also the last stop on the famous Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Oh, and if you need a pick-me-up, Coffee Bear in downtown Silverton is PHENOMENAL.
Silverton to Ouray
This is it. You’ve made it to the most gorgeous stretch of the San Juan Skyway – The Million Dollar Highway. The dry, forested area gives way to dramatic rugged mountain peaks. Gorges, valleys, lakes, and old mining operations dot the landscape.
This is where the roads start to get steep, winding, and dangerous. Luckily, there are LOTS of pull-off points. Utilize these to be able to safely stop and take in the views.
South Mineral Road & The Ice Lake Basin
South Mineral Road is a scenic 30-minute detour outside of Silverton. It offers free campsites, stunning waterfalls, and one of the most gorgeous hikes in Colorado.
If you have the time (and start early!), consider hiking to Ice and Island Lakes. It’s a challenging 7-mile trail with two large alpine lakes and incredible mountain views. You can read the Rocky Mountain Dreaming guide to hiking Ice and Island Lakes here.
For a quick but incredibly scenic stop, visit Clear Creek Falls. It’s a large waterfall that flows into a stunning turquoise pool. You can find it right off the road next to South Mineral Creek Campground.
Red Mountain Pass
When you reach Red Mountain Pass, you will know it. Towering red mountains surround the winding highway. The Red Mountain Pass reaches an elevation of 11,018 feet. Take advantage of the pull-off points here. While driving, you’ll need to focus. The pull-out points allow you to rest and take in the stunning views.
Red Mountain Pass has junctions for two famous OHV routes – Ophir and Black Bear Pass. Black Bear Pass conveniently cuts through the mountains to connect Silverton and Telluride. Ophir Pass cuts through the same mountain area but connects Silverton to Ophir instead.
Idarado Mine is one of the best and most accessible mining ruins in southwest Colorado. It’s right off the highway in Red Mountain Pass. You’ll want to pull over, walk around, and take it all in.
Idarado Mine operated from 1927 to 1978. It was one of the largest and most profitable mines in Colorado at the time. Today, the mine is closed and has been cleaned up by the EPA. Now, it’s a popular stop for tourists to explore and learn about Colorado’s mining history.
Crystal Lake is the prettiest roadside lake you’ll ever see. The red mountains serve as a gorgeous backdrop to this glass-like lake. During fall, golden Aspens cover the surrounding mountains.
Expect to spend around 15 minutes here unless you’re stopping for a meal. Crystal Lake is also home to the Hayden Trailhead. The entire trail leads to Mount Hayden Peak, a difficult 13er. Only prepared mountaineers should attempt the whole hike. The Mears Trail also starts here. It’s an easy, 4-mile trail that would make a perfect detour while driving the Million Dollar Highway.
Get your camera out. The Uncompahgre Gorge is the most photogenic place on the Million Dollar Highway. It’s absolutely breathtaking. Stop at the Bear Creek Falls overlook to get the best view. You’ll be facing straight into the insanely beautiful gorge. A 200 ft tall waterfall will be on your right, with the winding highway to your left. The view of Abrams Mountain poking out in the distance makes the perfect focal point.
Ouray Overlook & The Switzerland of America Sign
As you approach Ouray, stop when you see the “Switzerland of America” sign. It’s iconic, and you have to get a photo with it. After that, walk around the curb to see one of the most fantastic views of Ouray. You’ll be on the mountain overlooking the entire town. This stop is a two-for-one of absolute beauty.
Ouray is a charming Victorian-style town surrounded by tall mountain peaks. It offers a variety of outdoor activities, hot springs, restaurants, and shopping. If you’re looking for a place to stay overnight or even for the day, Ouray is an excellent option.
Interested in exploring Ouray? Check our post on the top 10 things to do in Ouray, Colorado.
Ouray to Ridgeway
Continuing on to Ridgeway? This section is for you.
Orvis Hot Springs
If you’re an adult, not shy, and are looking for something a little more…. natural, Check out Orvis Hot Springs. Instead of the cement, public pool style of Ouray Hot Springs, Orvis has several natural-feeling pools nestled in a relaxing zen garden. Orvis Hot Springs is clothing-optional, and people there aren’t shy.
Ridgeway is a small town right outside of Colorado’s western slope. It serves as the junction between Ouray, Telluride, and Grand Junction. From here, you can find a place to stay, eat, or continue on to your next destination.
Ridgeway offers more affordable hotel options compared to Ouray, Silverton, and Telluride. It’s a nice place to stay for budget travelers not looking to camp or stay at a hostel.
Driving the Million Dollar Highway is a bucket list experience with many gorgeous stops. It can be done in a day or spread over several so that you can further explore the adventure-rich area.
After driving the Million Dollar Highway, consider driving the entire San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway route. In addition to the drive listed above, it takes you to Telluride, Mount Wilson, Cortez, then back to Durango.
Are there other stops along the Million Dollar Highway and the surrounding area that you’d recommend? Please share them in the comments below!