The Million Dollar Highway to Ouray

Trip Start May 21, 2008
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Trip End May 30, 2008


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Flag of United States  , Colorado
Monday, May 26, 2008

We're on the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray.
I thought we'd been driving over unbelievable scenery in this state, but now we're on the "Million" everything else has paled.

This is one of the best-loved roads in the country. A classic stretch of 2 laned blacktop forms a swirling ribbon through the San Juan Mountains, the wildest and ruggeedest peaks in the Colorado Rockies.

The Million is US-550. Otto Mears, a five foot tall Rssian immigrant who was working as a U.S. mail carrier between Silverton and Telluride built this road which was finished in 1882. At that time it was a toll road.

Why is it called the Million Dollar Highway?

No one really knows, BUT, some say it was because an early traveler, complaining of the vertigo-inducing steepnessof the route, said, " I wouldn't go that way again if you paid me a million dollars."

Some say a socialite who traveld the route said, "the view is worth a million dollars."

Others claim that it derives simply from the actual cost of paving the route in the 1930's.

But the favorite explanation is also the most likely. When the highway was first constructed, the builders used gravel discarded by nearby gold and silver mines, only to find out later that this dirt was actually rich in ore and worth an estimated "million dollars."


Very litte has changed since the 1800's except for the addition of avalanche chute and the paving vs. the dirt road.

The thrill is the sheer drop offs, no guardrails and hairpin curve turning into another hair pin curve.

We met a frantic woman and her husband from Florida at the Ouray overview, just out of town. They had driven up from town and were shaking because of the heights, sharp curves and the lack of guardrails.

They asked about the drive further south on the Million. Would it be better? Gary told her it gets worse..but it's an awesome drive.
They went back into town. We met them again at the visitors center. They are heading back north to go south to Durango. Instead of 60 miles it's now going to be 451 miles to get there. Makes you wonder why they came here.

Ouray sits in a picture perfect setting. It's dwarfed by mountains on all sides. We're looking down on the town and eye level with the mountains surrounding it. It's called Little Switzerland, and the setting fits it perfectly.

The entire town is registered as a National Historic District with most of the buildings dating back to the late 19th century. Many of the 1880-1900 buildings are still standing.

Originally Ouray was established by miners chasing silver and gold in the surrounding mountains. At its height, more than 30 mines were active.

The town is named after Ute Chief Ouray, a Tabequache Indian. This nomatic tribe settled here in the summer to hunt and soak in the "sacred mineral waters."

Chief Ouray signed a government treaty giving the Ute's San Juan Mountains to the greedy white men in 1873. I'm guessing Ouray did not happily give up these treasured lands.

Probably because of repeat visitors and no local ski area, the town has little kitsch compared to the many tourist towns.

However, there is so much to do in the summer. Hiking, 4WD expeditions into the San Juan Mountains, old mines and the hotsprings.

Recording artist, and later the town mayor for 6 years, C.W. McCall helped make Black Bear famous in the area. His song "Black Bear Road" borrowed the phrase, "you don't have to be crazy to drive this road, but it helps," from a sign once posted on nearby Engineer Mountain Road.

Ouray is a mix. Add some very friendly storekeepers, outdoorsmen, old hippies, and tour operators and you have a wonderful community. Park your car on the main or side streets and everyone waves or gives you a friendly greeting.

It's not just the mountains that draw you, it's the historic buildings lining the streets. And the descriptive block markers that show you the purpose of each building. Many of the 1880 to 1900's buildings still remain. In 1983, Ouray was declared a National Historic District.

The only paved street in Ouray is Main Street.


We're checking in and heading up to the Box Canyon. There's a waterfall that everyone says we have to check out. So it's back up the hill to the Canyon before dark.

This is the perfect place for a picinic.
First we hike to the bottom, down a path and series of scaffolding steps before we get close to the waterfall. The sound of the wateralls is loud as it crashes into the newly formed river that will continue into Ouray. The mist cools you down quickly and also fogs up your camera lens at just about the same speed.

Then it's up to the top of the mountain for a veiw of the the Ouray valley. Pretty darn impressive here also. All this scenery for only $3 a person.
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