Jeep Roads and the Million Dollar Highway

Ridgway, CO

One day during our visit here we drove south on US 550 through the little town of Ouray and up and over the San Juan Mountains for 23 miles to the town of Silverton.  One of the main objectives of this trip was to drive the Million Dollar Highway, which is what the section of US 550 from Ouray to Silverton is frequently called.

The road was originally built as a toll way in 1883 and operated as such until the 1920s, when it was rebuilt.  No one is certain of why this highway has its name.  One explanation is that an early traveler was so overcome by vertigo on the steep and winding stretch of road that he insisted he would never travel it again, even if he was paid a million dollars.

Another explanation is that the construction of the road in the 1930’s cost one million dollars per mile, or that the land cost a total of a million.  Also, some people think that the name has to do with the fact that builders used gravel from the nearby silver and gold mines and that the dirt was so rich in ore, it was worth a million.  Who knows what the reason, we just know that the views are worth a million of something!

A snow shed over the highway

This journey takes you winding and weaving through the mountains, clinging to tight curves with breath-taking views. It climbs up three very steep high mountain passes: Red Mountain Pass (at an elevation of over 11,000 feet), Molas Pass and Coal Bank Pass.

High mountain meadow

Looking south from a high pass

Another view to the south

After crossing over the mountains we arrived at the little town of Silverton (pop. 630).  Silverton was founded in 1874 to support the numerous mining operations active in the area.  Silverton no longer has active mining, but subsists by tourism, maintenance of US 550 , mine pollution remediation, and retirees.  Most or all of the town is now included in a federally designated National Historic Landmark District called the Silverton Historic District.

Silverton is the northern terminus of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a three foot narrow-gauge heritage railroad that operates 45.2 miles of track and offers tourists a tour through the mountains between Durango and Silverton.

The train pulling into the station

We by-passed the train ride and headed north out of town on County Road 2 (Greene Street) to explore a section of the Alpine Loop, a series of unpaved roads winding through the mountains between Ouray and Silverton past a number of abandoned mines and ghost towns.  While the meadows and tundra are accessible to ordinary passenger vehicles, a high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle is required to travel the entire route.

The initial section of the loop is on a well-maintained road

A herd of vicious Llamas guard the roadway

The loop is quite scenic

One of many abandoned mines in the area

As the road gained in elevation we passed a number of still unmelted banks of snow.

Soon we came to an area where a huge avalanche during the past winter had blocked the road.  Apparently this section of the road was only opened for travel in late June.

The road narrowed and became rougher as we drove north.  After about 12 miles we came to our destination, the ghost town of Animas Forks.  At over 11,000 feet, Animas Forks is one of the highest mining camps in the Western US.

Buildings of Animas Forks visible along the tree line

The town’s first log cabin was built in 1873 and by 1876 the community had become a bustling mining community.  At that time the town contained 30 cabins, a hotel, a general store, a saloon, and a post office.  By 1883 450 people lived in Animas Forks and in 1882 a newspaper, the Animas Forks Pioneer, began publication and lasted until October 1886. Every fall most of the residents of Animas Forks migrated to the warmer town of Silverton.  In 1884 a 23 day blizzard inundated the town with 25 feet of snow and the residents had to dig tunnels to get from building to building.

When mining profits began to decline, investment in Animas Forks was no longer justified.  The Gold Prince Mill closed in 1910 and in 1917 most of the mill’s major parts were removed for a new facility in another town.  The mill’s dismantling signaled the beginning of the end for Animas Forks.  The town was a ghost town by the 1920s.

The Gold Prince Mill

Below is a photo of the Gustavson House, built in 1906.  A couple from Scandinavia lived here year round with their four children for four years.

Residents had beautiful views all around them (we wonder how much time they had to enjoy them)

The rehabilitated 1879 William Duncan House (below) belonged to one of the first miners to live in Animas Forks year round.

Duncan House in 1905

Main living area inside the Duncan House

After exploring the ghost town buildings we headed back down the loop road, going back through the avalanche area.

Returning back over the Million Dollar Highway we had some great views during the descent back down into Ouray.

Next up for us is a hike on the Perimeter Trail, a loop trail going high around Ouray.  More on that later . . .

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19 Responses to Jeep Roads and the Million Dollar Highway

  1. Joe Taylor says:

    Cool history on the Million Dollar Hwy…those views are worth $1,000,000! Exploring Animas Forks is so much fun. I love the history and picturing how the people lived and survived in those areas. Looks like one of the residents hung around for a few more years to share the story of Animas Forks from his front porch…great photo! I read about that avalanche. Awesome to see the pictures! Gay

    • placestheygo says:

      These were very hardy people who lived in the old mining communities especially in the winter. I can’t imagine how anyone survived the winter in Animas Forks. But that young fellow on the porch sure was a tough character!! It must have been an unbelievable noise when that avalanche came down. There was so much snow and debris.

  2. Great photos–that area of the country is so beautiful. That was one heck of an avalanche!

  3. Laurel says:

    Those old snowbanks along the sides of the road? That is not okay. It’s almost winter again! I can’t imagine living in that kind of climate. I’ve always wondered how people manage to get out of their houses if there’s a blizzard. Seriously, how do you open the door so that you can dig a tunnel to your neighbor’s house?
    Anyway, I drove the Million Dollar Highway about a million years ago, and it’s been on my list to return to. We really need to get ourselves to Colorado one of these days for some serious exploring. Just not in the winter, LOL.

  4. Laurel says:

    Wait…my question sounded dumb. Of course, the exterior doors on a house open inward, it’s only in an RV that they open outward. I’ve been living in an RV for too long. But still, how do you get started digging yourself out??

    • placestheygo says:

      The snow along the road will be there into this coming winter. The avalanche was so strong and there was so much snow and debris that they were only able to dig out a single lane through the deepest part. Most of the creek along the road was covered in at least a foot of snow, too. I can only imagine just how much snow this area of CO got this past winter. I guess one waits for the blizzard to stop and then start the dig before the next one. Crazy to think people stayed for the winter.

  5. Jeff Pierce says:

    We explored Animas Forks several years ago in October without the avalanche on the road; cold but little snow. It’s a great area to explore. We did not do the Alpine Loop, hope to work that into a future trip. Thanks for sharing!

    • placestheygo says:

      The avalanche sure made the drive very interesting. We only drove a small section of the Alpine Loop. We tried to start the loop at the other end but the road was way too bad for our Jeep without a lift. We later read that there were a couple avalanches in this area and the road was a mess. A lot of rock came down on the road. It was pretty good from Silverton to Animas Fork. Who know s what the passes were like.

  6. georgeyates says:

    What and interesting posting love your pictures.

  7. Wow, Colorado is just brutal. We had the wildfires while we were there. Now you’re telling me about 23 day blizzards and massive road-closing avalanches, and snow that never melts. It’s good it’s so scenic. Otherwise, no one would ever go there. 😃

    It’s neat to see the structures at Animas Forks. I’m glad to see efforts have been made to maintain and restore some of them.

    Wonderful photos of a stunningly beautiful place! Keep em coming!

    • placestheygo says:

      Thanks, Laura! It was nice to see the restoration of several of the buildings and accompanying family stories in Animas Forks. Really brings the town to life. Colorado does have its weather related problems, but the beauty keeps us coming.

  8. Jodee Gravel says:

    So beautiful, thanks for all the wonderful history. That road is wonderful, even with the high walls of ice and snow! Can’t imagine braving those brutal winters a small cabin with a family- tough people! Glad those llamas were behind a strong fence 🙂 The boys and I did the Silverton train many years ago and it was the highlight of our adventure. The little town still looks the same.

    • placestheygo says:

      Glad you enjoyed John’s history to accompany the photos. People were much stronger back then to brave the brutal winters in Animas Forks. I bet the boys loved the train ride and have fond memories.

  9. Sue says:

    I vote for the “I won’t drive on this road ever again, not even for a million dollars” theory! I have to admit that the views are like no others, but does it have to be so “on the edge”? I loved the look of the Alpine Loop and the avalanche area. I wonder how it will look next year when more winter snow piles up on the stuff from last winter? I wonder….but I don’t want to find out from personal experience! We’re enjoying ourselves here at the lake for the summer, but oh man….do I wish I was out there with you! Such breathtaking beauty.

    • placestheygo says:

      The Million Dollar Highway would be a tough drive for anyone who is bothered by drop offs. Guard rails would help. I do understand phobias too well. The avalanche snow heading to Animas Forks is going to be there for years. Even the creek all the way up had a couple feet of snow and it wasn’t melting very fast. It won’t be long now and the wheels will be turning again to the west.

  10. Breathtaking photos! I think we drove as far as those signs hoping to take a mine tour but it was already closed for the season. I can always rely on your history lessons, John 🙂
    As much as we love to be out in the sticks but no I would not live there even if you give me a million dollar!

    • placestheygo says:

      Thanks, ML! It’s hard to take a bad photo in this area. One is surrounded with beauty at ever turn. Glad you enjoyed John’s background information. Those mining towns definitely don’t look very pleasant.

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