Wonders of the Western Slope Fall Drives: Million Dollar Highway

By: Dann Cianca, Weekday Morning Meteorologist Email
By: Dann Cianca, Weekday Morning Meteorologist Email

SILVERTON, Colo. - The San Juan Mountains form a seemingly impassable wall across southwestern Colorado. By necessity, early settlers had to cut a road across them.

This precarious route between Ouray and Ironton became known as the Million Dollar Highway due to the cost and difficulty of building it.

I traveled the route, looking down off its perilous drops but also reeling in the stunning scenery

At the end of the white-knuckled southbound stretch through the Uncompahgre River Gorge, the road pens out into Ironton Park, which is not only picturesque, but also filled with Colorado's mining history.

“There are some wonderful historical information boards that are there," said Warren Wieboldt of the Silverton Visitors Center. "And Ironton Park was one of the richer areas in mining that both Silverton and Ouray were racing to get to into the 1880s to service and to get their ore and to bring them supplies.”

Beyond Ironton, the road climbs again, switch-backing and hair-pinning past the Idarado Mine to Red Mountain Pass, eventually descending into Silverton.

In Silverton, Fall is big business.

“School has started in and the regular tourists have gone away. And now all the sudden we’ve got the leaf watchers. And they do bring quite a bit of business into this town," said Wieboldt, a long-time Silverton resident.

The area's plentiful aspen forest make for great fall scenery and the varied elevations can extend the season as some areas change color weeks before others.

“I love the spectacular colors, especially when some reds and oranges get mixed in with the yellows and then you still have some green.”

Wieboldt says it is even more spectacular once you add a little snow.

“And with the white in the background, it really, really added to the color.”

A plus for visitors is the accessibility of food and lodging along U.S. 550 in the old Victorian mining towns of Silverton and Ouray.

But if you're looking to get off the beaten path for a more personal experience, you can do that too.

“The best roads are the back country roads. You’ve got lots of back country roads out of Ouray. Out of Ridgway, you’ve got Owl Creek Pass, which is one of my favorite palces to go. And then, out of here, we’ve just got a maze of roads.”

So take a ride on the Million Dollar Highway. You won’t forget the views and you may capture a piece of Colorful Colorado’s history!

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