A Million Dollar Highway

By Bryan Hall

I just spent three weeks on the road, covering about 5,500 miles and riding through some of the most scenic and beautiful parts of the West this country has to offer. I was in Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Washington and even British Columbia. Amazing roads, breathtaking scenery, some triple digit temperatures and even thunderstorms.

But one road in particular is worth adding to the list of roads you have to ride.

This marvel of a road is US Highway 550, and stretches from New Mexico into Colorado. The Colorado portion runs along the west edge of the Continental Divide, which also claims the portion of the road known as the Million Dollar Highway.

Part of the San Juan Scenic Byway, the Million Dollar Highway runs for a mere 25 miles between the towns of Silverton and Ouray, situated just (over the mountains) east of Telluride. It is rated by many media outlets as one of the twelve most dangerous roads in the world, right alongside Bolivia’s Death Road and the Highway of Death in Iraq. It also boasts the highest avalanche hazard per mile in North America. According to one author, the highway’s twelve-mile stretch south of Ouray is “steep, twisting and completely unforgiving of driver error.”

How the road got its name is disputed, but local legends offer a few suggestions: one is that the road cost one million dollars per mile to build (back in the 1880s); another is that an early traveler was so overcome by vertigo while traversing the highway he swore he would never travel it again, “not even for a million dollars.”

The road is a snaking, twisting ribbon of two-lane asphalt that climbs and dips through the San Juan Mountains, ascending to three mountain passes: Red Mountain Pass at 11,018 feet, Molas Pass at 10,970 feet, and Coal Bank Pass at a mere 10,640 feet. The turns are sharp, the lanes are narrow, and then there’s those guardrails… oh, wait – there aren’t any. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, there simply isn’t room for guardrails due to the need for snow removal in the winter months.

Yes, the views are stunning, but mostly just for a passenger. The rider (or driver) is too busy watching for curves, rocks, animals, and other hazards. The surrounding area is home to black bears, elk, deer, and mountain goats, and they have been known to make their way onto the roadway. The posted speed limit is 25 mph, but one is lucky to be able to get above that for more than a short stretch. I rode the route from south to north, initially picking up Highway 550 in Durango. This, too, is a winding, serpentine path through the mountains, also requiring lots of attention to the road, especially the last twenty miles or so as it drops down into the valley and the town of Silverton (elevation 9,300 feet).

Once in town, I stopped for a quick snack and refilled my water bottle, thinking “that wasn’t so bad… why is there such a big deal about the Million Dollar Highway?” Oops… I hadn’t ridden it yet! Looking at the map posted in the gas station window, I was just at the start of the treacherous artery, not the end.

I headed off toward the northern end and immediately started climbing into the San Juan National Forest. The road started out sedately enough, until the first sharp turns a few miles up. Hairpins, switchbacks, and tight curves in general were the next 22 miles of my ride: with steep, rocky cliffs on my left and sheer drop-offs to God-knows-where on my right. Did I mention no guardrails?

I’ve been riding for about 45 years, and this road required all my attention. And not just because of the turns and other hazards: trucks and buses use this road as well, as it is only one of two US Highways running north-south in the state. And don’t forget about the mega-motorhome commandos trying to navigate the passes, too.

Fortunately, the pavement itself is in good condition, fairly smooth and not full of debris on the turns. There are a few turn-offs and scenic viewpoints as well for taking in the luscious scenery. Weather can be a factor on these mountain passes, but thankfully I had beautiful weather for the ride: clear, sunny, and warm. As an added note, I noted more State Police and Sheriff’s vehicles on this stretch than my entire ride through the rest of Colorado.

I’ll admit, I am not a fan of steep mountain roads with sheer drop-offs and no safety barriers, so I rode close to the yellow line when possible and barely got out of second gear. Sport bike riders may want to try to carve the turns at a faster clip, but the facts speak ill of that idea: in a ten-year stretch (2005-2015) there were 412 accidents and eight fatalities… and most involved single vehicle crashes.

Once I reached the town of Ouray (elevation 7,800 feet), I treated myself to a well-deserved cold beer and a little break to get the adrenaline levels down.

Don’t get me wrong: now that the scare tactics are over, this is most definitely a “bucket list” ride! I had fun riding it, but I was on high alert the entire time. The twists and turns put my suspension to the test, and the bike performed flawlessly even at the high elevations. The 45 minutes or so it took to run that mere 25 miles were some of the most memorable of my entire trip, and if I am ever in the area again, I’ll ride it once more.

Bryan Hall is an experienced rider and author based in Nampa, ID; and his stories have appeared previously in Quick Throttle. His book “Life Behind Bars” was published in 2013. You can read more on his website at hiwayflyer.com

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