The Ultimate Road-Trip Guide to Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway
This cliff-hugging stretch of U.S Highway 550 is dotted with scenic mountain towns filled with hiking trails, brewpubs, and hot springs
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There are a few theories as to how Colorado’s so-called Million Dollar Highway—the 25-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 550 that connects the high-elevation towns of Silverton and Ouray—got its name. According to an old mining legend, the gravel required to build the narrow mountain roadway contained $1 million worth of gold and silver ore. Or there’s the story of locals who used to say they wouldn’t drive that dangerous road even for a million bucks. (Fun fact, albeit nerve-racking: the pass has no guardrails.)
The most likely story? Back in the early 1920s, when the road was still a wagon route, city planners estimated it would cost that amount to build over the mountain pass. Either way, the nickname has persisted. And the views really are worth a million bucks.
Drive this route in the winter and you’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle and proper snow tires. Blizzard conditions and avalanches are common occurrences, and though it stays open year-round, the pass can close intermittently due to weather. The more popular times to experience it? Summer and fall, when wildflowers or autumn foliage make the backdrop even more striking.
This stretch is part of the stunning 236-mile San Juan Skyway, a scenic route through the Rocky Mountains. For a long-weekend itinerary, we recommend starting in the town of Montrose—five hours west of Denver—and heading south on U.S. Highway 550 to Durango, to cover 107 miles in total. Here’s where to stop along the way.
Mile 17: Ridgway State Park
Stretch your legs on the five-mile round-trip Enchanted Mesa Trail, which starts at a campground within Ridgway State Park, just north of the town of Ridgway, and follows the shoreline of its reservoir. After the hike, grab coffee and an egg sandwich on a house-made English muffin from Provisions Café, located in a former barbershop in town, then hit the road again.
Mile 27: Orvis Hot Springs
Recharge with a soak in the healing mineral waters at Orvis Hot Springs (from $24), which has seven (clothing optional) outdoor and three indoor pools just south of Ridgway, at the mouth of the Uncompahgre Valley. If you want to stay overnight, you can camp near the pools (from $60) or stay in the resort’s bed-and-breakfast-style lodge (from $209).
Mile 36: Ouray
The town of Ouray, coined “the Switzerland of America” due to the spiky peaks that surround it, is worth staying a night or two. There’s a new via ferrata where you can climb European-style cables up vertical rock walls that line the Uncompahgre River. Check into the six-room Imogene Hotel (from $153), which opened in 2020 after a major remodel and has a rooftop bar and a wood-fired sauna. Or wait for the new Western Hotel and Spa, which is opening this summer in a historic building. Dinner is a beet reuben and a pint of San Juan IPA at Ouray Brewing. Breakfast the next morning is coffee and a breakfast burrito at Mojo’s.
Mile 48: Red Mountain Alpine Lodge
This is the section of roadway between Ouray and Silverton that you came here for. Pull over (when it’s safe to do so) to take photos along the way, and be sure to stop near the summit of 11,018-foot Red Mountain Pass for the view. If you want to experience the backcountry of the San Juans and have a few extra days, Red Mountain Alpine Lodge—reached via a ten-minute hike or ski tour, depending on the season—is an off-the-grid, full-service A-frame backcountry lodge (from $235). The word “hut” doesn’t do this place justice. You’ll sleep in bunks or private rooms and enjoy guided hiking or backcountry skiing by day and chef-prepared meals by night.
Mile 59: Silverton
If you made it to the old mining town of Silverton in winter, then you deserve a day of skiing at Silverton Mountain, the no-frills ski area with one lift, guided, backcountry-style terrain, and no easy way down. If it’s summer, go for a hike. The seven-mile round-trip to Ice Lake climbs a whopping 3,000 vertical feet before reaching a picturesque alpine pool. Book a newly opened bunk room at the Wyman Hotel (bunks from $75; rooms from $285). The town’s Avalanche Brewing Company recently moved into a bigger location with more seating.
Mile 80: Purgatory Mountain Resort
You’re not done driving over mountain passes just yet. To get from Silverton to Durango, you’ll traverse over Molas Pass and Coal Bank Pass, with elevations of 10,500-plus feet. It’s yet another beautiful stretch of roadway. Along the way, stop at Purgatory Resort, a ski destination that’s home to the lift-accessed Purgatory Bike Park in summer. You can rent mountain bikes on-site, if needed, at Cycle Works Bike Shop in the village. The Nugget Mountain Bar, a roadside gem just south of town, has sliders and truffle fries, plus tiny-home cabins (from $207) you can book via Airbnb.
Mile 107: Durango
The outdoorsy college town of Durango marks the southern terminus of this road trip. Rafting the Lower Animas River’s Class II and III rapids is a popular summer pursuit. Book a half-day guided outing on this family-friendly stretch of the whitewater with 4 Corners Whitewater (from $265). Afterward, order a scoop of salted caramel from Cream Bean Berry, a local favorite. Spend the night downtown at the 15-room Rochester Hotel (from $259), which has live music in its backyard garden and pet-friendly rooms. End your trip just like you started it: in a hot spring. The newly redesigned Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa (formerly the historic Trimble Hot Springs) is now open with a saltwater swimming pool and sleekly designed soaking tubs.