The Million Dollar Highway is a spur of U.S. Highway 50, Also known as U.S. 550. The stretch from Silverton to Ouray is frequently called the Million Dollar Highway, but it goes by other names; such as the “Scenic Byway”. If you are being dramatic it’s referred to as the “Highway to Hell”.
The road has made its way to several large publications and most dangerous lists. Popular Mechanics ranked it Number 3 of 10of the “Most Dangerous Roadways”. It is the only road in the continental US ranked by USA Today’s list of the “World's Most Dangerous Roads”. The automotive blog RoadCrazed and the DangerousRoads.org Rank the Million Dollar Highway as the most dangerous road worldwide. If you are measuring how dangerous a road is by the number of fatal accidents that happened on it the Million Dollar Highway is the winner, with no contest. This is especially astonishing when we consider war zone roads, such as; Kabul-Jalalabad Highway (Afghanistan) and Nanga Parbat Pass (Pakistan) were included in most publications, considerations, and lists. Perhaps, the “Highway to Hell” isn’t such a bad name after all?
While the highway we see today was built in the 1880s, the original trail that it was built upon is one of the roads on the “Trails of the Ancients Byway”. In other words, this passageway dates back to the start of recorded history and then some. It provides insight into the lives and migration habits of the Ancestral Puebloans and the Navajo, Ute, and Apache people. With this much history, it has a big head start on the total death count and continues to add to its total each year.
he first time you drive it, you’ll have sweaty palms. Expect sheer drops; over 2,000 feet, along the entire road and enough hairpins to make anyone seasick. This road claimed over 412 lives since 1992 and is nothing to be toyed with. The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) spends an average of $2 million per year, maintaining the 24-mile (38.6 km) section of highway. In an interview with the Telluride Times newspaper a CDOT representative; Nancy Shanks gave a few simple tips for surviving the Million Dollar Highway. Shanks said, “Know the conditions, (obey) the speed limit and, if you’re a truck driver, put your chains on.” But Seriously, if you decide to visits drive with care as this is a mountain road with hairpin curves, dangerous drop-offs, and no guardrails. If you are driving south you'll be on the outside with the “no guardrails view”. Do use caution and enjoy the majestic scenery. But leave the marveling to your passengers. This road requires 100% concentration and limited distractions. So passengers, please be considerate of your drivers' nerves (and perhaps be concerned for their sanity).
In other words, if guardrails aren’t your thing; this road is for you. The Million Dollar Highway also sports some seasonal hazards. In winter this ribbon of asphalt snakes through over 100 named avalanche paths and countless unnamed snow-runs. In the spring it is easily overcome by waterfalls and crumbling rock.
This winter blasted Colorado with its third-largest snowpack to date (since the National Resource Conservation Service started recording data in 1987). The highway had 500 torrents of snow down its slopes that killed three people, fully buried two, and nearly overtook a snowplow. According to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center the highway only saw 54 slides in 2018 and 140 in 2017. Meaning we saw a 72% increase in avalanches in the last year. Due to the increased amount of snow, The Million Dollar Highway can expect an increase in falling rock and waterfalls until fall.
The origin of the name “Million Dollar Highway” is very disputed. There are several legends and myths associated with its name. One of the more popular myths believes that the fill dirt used to widen the original trail had over $1 million of gold ore within it. This has been proven possible; however, it would be more like $100 million of ore under this road.
Nancy Shanks weighed in on the topic of the name and pointed to the story of Otto Mears as the most likely origin of the name. Otto was an Estonian immigrant who had become locally famous for building the Galloping railroads and Rio Grande Southern railroads. Otto began dynamiting for a basic toll road above Ouray. At the time it was said that Mears spent $1,000 per foot to construct this road. When it’s all put together this equates to a road the cost a million dollars a mile to build. Shortly after, word of Otto's expensive engineering marvel spread and the small tollway became nationally known as the “Million Dollar Highway”.
While the road has been updated over the years it still holds its old world charm and real world danger. It is an honest rollercoaster of a ride and will weigh on your nerves. People with vertigo, seasickness, or prone to panic attacks should not attempt to drive the Million Dollar Highway. It is a real treat to see, given that you have the right weather conditions, you have an experienced driver, and nerves of steel.
Raw Footage of Rain on the Million Dollar Highway:
Photos From the Day:
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