Red Mountain Pass: The Million Dollar Highway

U.S. Highway 550 - Red Mountain Pass

Red Mountain Pass, or a section of U.S. Highway 550 that travels through the San Juan Mountains, is one of Colorado's most dangerous mountain passes. It's also part of the San Juan Skyway, a scenic byway route between Ouray, Silverton and Durango. Most of these treacherous mountain passes started out as horse trails or stagecoach roads leading to mining camps that popped up during our Gold Rush era, from about 1858-1876. The early placer gold deposits gave out quickly, leading miners to explore the ore-rich veins of gold and silver in the high country.

The Million Dollar Highway is the section of U.S. 550 that connects Ouray to Silverton in the San Juan Mountains. It is consistently listed in the top ten lists of scenic highways in the United States, and for good reason. It twists and turns through the mountains and gives drivers spectacular views of the Uncompahgre Gorge. This route was vital to the Victorian-age mining towns of Durango, Silverton, and Ouray. You can also visit the Red Mountain Mining District ghost towns of Ironton and Red Mountain City. If you want to see these beautiful, scenic vistas and our history as a mining state, this is one area you don’t want to overlook. In addition to driving over Red Mountain Pass, sightseers can experience the spectacular San Juan Mountain scape via the Colorado & Southern Railroad, a scenic train out of Leadville.

Red Mountain Pass

Into the Twentieth Century and Beyond

The Million Dollar Highway name is subject to debate. Some say it was because it cost a million dollars to build. Others have said that after traveling over it in a stagecoach, a female passenger exclaimed, “I wouldn’t take that road again if they offered me a million dollars!” No matter how it got its name, it is worth driving over if you seek a thrilling, white-knuckle road trip.

History of Red Mountain Pass San Juan Mountains

Back in 1880, the road from Ouray to Red Mountain Pass was built by the Ouray and San Juan Wagon and Road Company. By 1882 they had run out of money, and though some progress had been made up the “impassable” cliffs, it was still unfinished. This was when Otto Mears, known as the “Pathfinder of the San Juans,” entered the story. He earned the Pathfinder title because he had engineered many difficult road projects in the San Juans. He offered to purchase a 54% interest in the project and designated it to become a toll road. After using a much more experienced crew and lots of dynamite to blast through solid rock at a cost of $40,000 per mile, they completed an 8.5-mile section of the most difficult part of the road. Mears and his crews extended the road along Red Mountain Creek, over the pass, down Mineral Creek, and into Silverton.

The road was completed in 1883, and Mears oversaw building a narrow gauge railroad and stage line. Mears charged users a toll to use the road, from $5 for a team and wagon to $1 for a saddle animal such as a mule or horse. He was trying to recoup some of the money he had invested. He also narrowed the road a few miles outside Ouray to ensure people couldn’t sidestep paying the toll fees. When many of the local workers and business owners complained about the fees and turned on Mears, the county took over road maintenance in 1887. Otto Mears continued to build a railroad line connecting the mining district to Silverton. But it turned out the final section of the road was too steep for rail operations, and the plan was abandoned.

The End of the Silver Boom Ouray Tunnel

The silver began to play out, the mining boom had slackened, and the automobile was coming onto the scene all over the country. The Silverton Railroad closed in 1921, and intrepid pilots of the new-fangled “horseless carriage” began to drive up and over Red Mountain Pass.

The first motorized vehicle drove over the pass in 1910, and Mear’s road operated as a toll road until the nineteen twenties when the Colorado Department of Highways upgraded the road significantly and merged it into U.S. 550. Much of Mear’s original work was improved, but one feature remains to this day. The 200 foot long, 17 foot wide Ouray Tunnel was designed and constructed so well that it is still an integral part of the modern highway. You will drive through it if you decide to take this breathtaking road trip.

Where is Red Mountain Pass? - Southwest Colorado.

The Million Dollar Highway (MDH) is part of US Highway 550 and runs between Ouray and Silverton. The highest point is 11,018’ at the summit of Red Mountain Pass. It is a part of the San Juan Skyway, a 224-mile-long loop through some of the most scenic terrain in the country. Remember this, many parts of the MDH have no guard rails at all. This allows the snow plows to push the snow (over 300 inches per year!) off the road and over the edge. Pay attention to the weather, keep your eyes on the road, and slow down nad be prepared for mountain driving, no matter what kind of fancy vehicle you drive. 

Source: Legends of America website

by Jonathan D. Hands

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