The Ouray Mountains, accessible via the San Juan Skyway. (Photo: Mark Johnson)
When the front bumper of our cheap rental car detached itself in Farmington, New Mexico, we knew we were going to have to do better than duct tape. The usual scrappy-adventure-girl fixes don’t cut it when you’re headed for Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway.
The problem wasn’t the aesthetics of duct tape in a luxuriously named destination, though this route through southwestern Colorado is nothing like Chicago’s Magnificent Mile or Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue. (And in fact, the origins of the name are debated, but more on that later.) The emergency mechanic visit was because the 25-mile stretch through the San Juan Mountains is a bit dangerous, not the kind of place where you’d want your car to fall apart.
The two-lane mountain byway that connects Ouray and Silverton, a stretch of US Route 550, is routinely listed on most-dangerous-drives and most-scenic drives lists, for the same reason: The road winds its way over three high-mountain passes (each more than 10,000 feet), complete with steep cliffs, narrow lanes, hairpin curves, a lack of guardrails, falling rock potential, and driving surfaces cut directly into sides of mountains. It is lined with many mining ghost towns–turned–boho adventure towns.
One popular explanation for the highway’s name is that an early traveler was so overcome by vertigo that he said he’d never traverse the route again, even if someone paid him a million dollars. The other explanations: construction of the road in the 1930s cost $1 million, or that the builders used gravel from nearby gold and silver mines and found out later that the dirt was worth $1 million because it was so rich in ore.
In any case, the scenery that unfolds beyond all that treachery is spectacular.
The exterior of the Hotel Madeline. (Photo: Hotel Madeline)
But that’s not why my friend and I had undertaken the Million Dollar Highway. We had actually set out on a longer driving adventure along the San Juan Skyway, which connects Cortez, Telluride, Ouray, Silverton, and Durango in a 236-mile loop of highways 160, 145, 62 and 550. Sure, we enjoy dramatic mountain vistas as much as the next girls, but we wanted to check out the quirky local establishments and colorful characters in these Victorian mountain towns. And, okay, we wanted to check out the luxury hotel amenities along the way, too.We drove up from Albuquerque, which took about five hours (not counting rental car diagnostics and replacement), because that’s where we were coming from, but visitors can fly straight to Cortez, Telluride, or Montrose, which are all on or near the route. Denver is also a few hours away. Once you’re on the highway, here’s what’s worth a stop.
The Madeline’s restaurant. (Photo: Hotel Madeline)
Once a mining town and now one of Colorado’s most high-end ski resorts, Telluride benefits from its picturesque and nearly inaccessible location in a mountain valley. Peaks rise up on all sides, and there’s not much traffic just passing through.
The Hotel Madeline offers a hefty dose of luxury to kick off a hair-raising drive. Located in nearby Mountain Village, the hub of Telluride’s winter activities, it’s connected to downtown via a free gondola that affords spectacular views and runs until midnight.
Stop along the gondola ride at the San Sophia mid-station for sundowners at Alreds, which is perched at 10,551 feet and has panoramic views of Telluride below and the sunset to the west. The Madeline has a great restaurant, but for a bite in town, try Brown Dog Pizza, a local favorite that serves classic American, Chicago deep-dish, Detroit-style, and gluten-free pies.
Ouray’s hot springs. (Photo: Mark Johnson)
“Hip, Hip Ouray,” shout the welcome signs at the quirkiest town along the route, a mecca for rock and ice climbers and hot springs soakers. And while the nature playground is certainly impressive, it’s worth spending a little time inside.
The Ouray Alchemist. (Photo: Steve Traudt)
The Ouray Alchemist is a passion project of former pharmacist Curtis Haggar, who spent 40 years collecting medical and pharmaceutical artifacts and built a re-creation of a frontier pharmacy to house them. Haggar’s guided tour (book in advance) is a fascinating hour of snake oils, patent medicines and dubious practices.
The Ouray Brewery. (Photo: Mark Johnson)
Sit on the roof for panoramic views and well-done pub grub at Ouray Brewery just up the street. Then get outside on your way out of town, and follow the short, easy walking path to check out Box Cañon Falls, where thousands of gallons of water per minute ricochet off the sides of a box canyon.
Silverton and Durango
Chugging along the Animas River. (Photo: Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad)
A great option is to base yourself in Durango and take a day trip on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which has been running since 1883. As the train makes its away along the Animas River, you get to enjoy the views and old-timey vibe (and perhaps a few sips of Colorado high-mountain rum at the Montanya Distillers Tasting Room in Silverton’s National Historic District). And better yet: you don’t need to worry about hairpin turns and steep drop-offs.
The Strater, in the center of Durango. (Photo The Strater)
Back in Durango, book a room at the über-Victorian Strater Hotel, built in 1887 and said to be haunted. Head downstairs for a cocktail at the giddily retro Diamond Belle Saloon, one of the West’s original ragtime piano bars, or go more contemporary at the hotel’s new watering hole, the Office Spiritorium. When you’re sipping cocktails by the bar, you’ll understand why it’s a local favorite — and the perfect way to end a day of driving along the San Juan Skyway.
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