Last Updated on January 5, 2021 by Janet Frost
All road trips promise fascinating attractions and opportunities to learn new things. Sometimes it requires miles of interstate driving between destinations. But sometimes, the road itself is the destination. We often identify these as scenic or historic byways. Colorado is rich with scenic drives. U.S. 550 heading north out of Durango towards Ouray is one of their most famous. For reasons not entirely clear, it has acquired the nickname of “Million Dollar Highway”. Part of the larger San Juan Skyway, this 75 miles of majestic mountain vistas and nerve-rattling hairpin turns is breathtaking for so many reasons!
The first 50 miles closely parallel the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway as it climbs from 6500 to 9300 feet in the San Juan Mountains. Things get really interesting (dicey?) the last 25 miles from Silverton to Ouray. Twelve miles south of Ouray you pass through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass. This stretch through the gorge is characterized by steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and a lack of guardrails; the ascent is marked with a number of hairpin “S” curves used to gain elevation, many cut directly into the sides of mountains. Sound terrifying or thrilling? Personally, I was very glad to be in the car and not on my motorcycle, but I would call it Thrilling.
Let’s Go! Learn Things on the road from Durango to Ouray…
History of the Durango Region
It is fitting that one of the biggest attractions in modern day Durango, CO is still the historic locomotive ride through the mountains. Durango was actually founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1880. The Durango-Silverton Railroad was originally constructed to haul silver and gold out of the San Juan Mountains. In 1882, tracks from Durango to Silverton were completed and the train began transporting both freight and passengers.
But long before the mining towns of Durango, Silverton and Ouray were founded the ancient puebloan peoples made this region home. Nearby, the world heritage sites of Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients and Chimney Rock National Monument provide ancient evidence of these indigenous cultures.
Learn More: Mesa Verde National Park
Geography of the Region
Durango is located at the base of the San Juan Mountain range in Colorado and on the northeast edge of the Colorado Plateau. This region is dominated by plateaus, mesas, hills, and canyons. The Animas River springs forth far north in the San Juans and rushes down through Silverton and Durango.
Let’s jump onto the US 550 in Durango Colorado. Durango has an endearing vibe that welcomes tourists, artists, hipsters, sportsman and real cowboys alike. There are beautiful art galleries and fly fishing shops, historic hotels and saloons, craft breweries and trendy eateries to serve every taste.
I don’t love towns that cater only to the tourists, its Main street lined with t-shirt and tchotchke shops. Durango has a few t-shirt shops, but they don’t dominate Main Street. It feels like a place where real people live and contribute to the charm and well-being of the town.
The Train and its Museum
Riding the Rails
As we mentioned before, the biggest tourist draw to Durango is the D&SNGRR, Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This vintage coal-fired steam locomotive puffs through spectacular canyons in the wilderness of the San Juan National Forest. These narrow gauge tracks are 3ft wide instead of the standard 4.8ft. The narrow gauge was chosen in the mountainous region because it was less expensive to lay and more flexible around the curvaceous switchbacks.
Today the D&SNGRR runs north to Silverton several times a day, with a plethora of day trip options. The train travels slowly and takes 4 hours to reach Silverton, 50 miles away. You can choose to take the train both ways or take a quicker coach bus for one of the legs of the trip.
Visit the Museum
The D&SNGRR Museum is attached to the still functioning 1880’s depot. This extensive collection of narrow gauge railway memorabilia is free, and can be enjoyed by both ordinary tourists and train enthusiasts.
Views from the Scenic Road between Durango and Silverton
We chose to drive the route, instead of taking the train, because we wanted more photography time and we wanted to proceed on to Ouray after Silverton. The train stops at Silverton. The first half of our road trip was full of gorgeous and classic Colorado views.
Silverton was originally a silver mining camp. Gold and silver mines popped up in the region during the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the turn of the 21st century most mining shut down and the tiny town learned to subsist on tourism. Currently, the town boasts a booming popuation of 550 and is designated as a federal National Historic Landmark District.
The majority of Silverton visitors come in on the daily D&SNGRR locomotive. Most others are thrill seekers on the Durango to Ouray scenic road trip. Silverton is more touristy than Durango but still very fun to wander the quaint Victorian-era streets. Lodging choices are all either historic hotels or private B&Bs, no Hampton Inn here.
This town and its surrounding mountains have also become a year-round mecca for extreme adventurers. Hiking, Off-roading and heli-skiing are all on the list.
Views from the Scenic Road between Silverton and Ouray
It is along the last 25 miles between Silverton and Ouray that the curves and plummets start to shake your nerves. There are a few viewpoints for stopping but mostly you are all gripping something with white knuckles. The day we drove was spectacularlly clear and beautiful. I cannot imagine this on a rainy let alone an icy day. Portions of the Durango to Ouray road do close during the winter season for obvious reasons.
Ouray is another historic mining town. It has a couple of lucky features that set it apart. There are several hot springs in the area that have attracted settlers and visitors since the 1880s. Another forunate factor for Ouray is that the town never suffered a devastating fire so common for mining towns. As a result, the town is lined with original historic architecture.
Similar to Durango, Ouray has a great collection of craft breweries, fun dining, art galleries, and adventure outfitters. This is a beautiful town at the end of an exciting scenic road trip. We reversed our path and returned to Durango the same day. But the alternative of spending a few nights in a couple of these historic hotels would be perfect.
Mesa Verde Country
Durango is just an hour from Mesa Verde National Park. The region from Durango west is known as Mesa Verde Country. For more details about the region check in with the tourism departments of Silverton and Ouray, and the Durango Visitor Center . It is an impressive resource for any activities you are looking for in the region.
Go! Learn More: Visit Mesa Verde Country