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Million Dollar Highway: 1940

Million Dollar Highway: 1940

October 1940. "Million Dollar Highway is cut through massive rocks in Ouray County, Colorado." U.S. 550 between Silverton and Ouray. Now a paved modern highway, this is a spectacular mountain route that I've driven many times over the years. View full size. 35mm Kodachrome transparency by Russell Lee.


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Golden Rule

When I was a kid in the 40's, we were taught that the name for the Million Dollar Highway comes from the value of the ore-bearing fill that was used to construct it. As kids, we would gather mill tailings from the road sides in the mountains and take them home to extract gold by crushing and panning. We would alway get a few flakes of gold. I'm sure that there are few or none of these piles of tailings left because the price of gold now makes it profitable to use the very low grade ore.


I have driven this during the summer and even then I wanted to hug the centerline. I can't imagine driving this during the winter.


I remember riding over this highway during WW2 when I was a very small child. It wasn't paved yet and was just barely passable for two vehicles going in opposite directions. The driver always had to honk when approaching a blind curve, and the car on the outside had to move over and stop for the inside vehicle. I was terrified and spent much of the trip huddled down in the back seat with my eyes closed.

We lived in Pagosa Springs at the time, and I am a Colorado native, so mountain roads were nothing new to me. But this one was the worst. I was between 3 and 4 at the time.


The Million Dollar Highway got its start in the 1880s as a 12-mile toll road between Ironton and Ouray, a remarkable feat considering it was before the age of the internal combustion engine and done by men with picks and shovels, working in snow and very low temperatures. Drive thru in the winter to appreciate. I've jeeped this area extensively... see pics at and

Bus ride anyone?

This is truly one of the greatest last frontier drives ever. We used to drive up from New Mexico to play basketball with Ouray and Silverton. This road made bus trips very interesting. Great photo.

Red Mountain Pass

If I am not mistaken this section of road climbs over Red Mountain Pass.

A few years back I rode my bicycle over this pass, with 750 other riders,on the way to Durango. While it is now a "modern paved highway" it still has no guardrails as they would be an impairment to clearing the many feet of snow they get each year. The drop off right next to the edge of the road(first on the right side then the left) made some want to hug the center line, but the car traffic was not conducive to this.

The night before we left for the ride a shop owner in Ouray gave bikers this advice. "For the first 12 miles lean left. For the next 12 miles lean right."

Ouray Activities

The creek you see at the bottom of the photo flows into Ouray and is diverted through perforated pipes set along the canyon rim in the winter. The sheets of ice formed by the water trickling over the rocks create a perfect ice climbing venue, with competitions every January and February. The creek flows into the Uncompaghre River (Native American name meaning "no cell service"). The hot springs in town are a great way to take the chill off your bones after a day on the ice.

[My favorite summer activity: Jeeping the Alpine Loop and exploring the ghost towns along the way. Especially Animas Forks. The Western Hotel in Ouray is a good place to stay. Or the Beaumont if you want fancy. - Dave]

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