One of the most beautiful drives I've ever made (and my personal favorite) is the drive between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. This stretch of Highway 550 is affectionately known as the Million Dollar Highway by locals and tourists alike. It was originally given the moniker by the local miners, who claimed that was the value of the ore that was mined in the valley. Today, the name is more appropriate for the million dollar views one sees when driving along this highway.
The Million Dollar Highway is part of the San Juan Scenic Byway - a loop that starts and ends just north of my hometown in Durango, CO. This 233 mile journey travels through many of my favorite Colorado mountain towns including Rico, Telluride, Mancos, Ouray, and Silverton.
You start gaining elevation pretty quickly once you head north out of Durango. The lush green valleys start fading as you reach timberline (about 10,000'), but the views don't fade with the green. The ore-rich mountaintops change from purple to orange and yellow, the perilous climb turns from a relaxing cruise to an attention-holding lesson in defensive driving.
One of the gentler, less terrifying curves.
A lot of my friends don't believe me when I describe this road. Steep cliffs, few guardrails, hairpin curves - this drive isn't for the anxious. For the few who decide to brave it, however, the views are well worth it!
No photoshop here!
As you make your way north, closer to Ouray, the curves get tighter, the lanes narrower, and the cliffs more dramatic. I wish my camera could convey the beauty of this place! The valley cut by this road was mined for minerals (mostly silver and gold) in the late 1800's, the evidence of which is still shown in the mineral deposits and abandoned mines you see along the way.
As beautiful as this drive is, my favorite part has always been Bear Creek Bridge (about 1.5 miles south of Ouray). This historic bridge crosses over a waterfall (!) at one of the scariest parts of the highway. I crossed over this bridge countless times in my childhood, and never realized how perilous it was. The bridge was constructed in 1883, but hadn't been improved since the 1960s. In fact, it got a terrifyingly bad safety rating in 2008. Some of the bridge was still held by the wood of the original! Yikes!
Bear Creek Bridge
Luckily, the Colorado Department of Transportation agreed that this was not ok. In 2010, CDOT started work on a two-phase process to repair and improve the old Bear Creek Bridge. You can read more about this amazing engineering feat here. I knew about the construction project, but had no idea they were including one new detail....
A new overlook!
Because of the precarious placement of this new overlook, I had a great deal of difficulty getting a good picture that shows you how it looks. (You can sort of see it better in the first picture on the link I posted above.) Suffice it to say - it's kind of terrifying! And mostly amazing - the views are spectacular. This new, unique vantage point not only gives you a great view of the new bridge, but also of the beautiful waterfall that flows beneath it. It's not for the faint of heart, however - the overlook places you over 200 feet above the canyon below.
Brother and I on the overlook at Bear Creek
If you have a bucket list, I highly recommend you check out San Juan Scenic Byway. If you can't commit to the long drive, at the very least you should try to do the Million Dollar Highway span of it at least once in your lifetime. It's remote so many do not know of it. Heck, I know people from my own hometown that have never driven it! But it's truly awe-inspiring. Hope you enjoyed seeing a bit of it through my eyes!
PS - I know this post is half a year late. I am trying my best to get y'all caught up before the New Year. 2013 ended up being one of my most well-traveled years since 2008. It's been a lot of fun, but a little time consuming. Resolution for 2014? Maintain this blog! Ha!
Until next time...