Map time! Route 550 is part of Colorado's San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, talk about a run-on name; there is a 12 mile section between Ouray and the summit of Red Mountain Pass called "The Million Dollar Highway". It was built due to the area being too steep for railroads, and the mines needed easy access; two legends are also associated with the naming of this highway section. The first is that the actual cost of highway was one million dollars; the second was that one million dollars of gold ore was scattered throughout the road's building material.
As you begin driving north out of Durango on Route 550, it will be your typical highway; scenic of course, but highway is highway, right? Pay attention as the you begin to notice that the lanes start to narrow; the closer you get towards Silverton, the higher the surrounding mountains become. There will be hair pin turns that will make your hair stand on end; wait until you have to pass another vehicle coming from the other way...talk about an adrenaline rush! I did the driving on this trip and I believe this is how I finally overcame my fear of mountain roads, switchbacks, and looking down into expansive canyons and valleys.
There will be three mountain summits/passes along the way. The first will be Coal Bend Pass at 10, 640 feet above sea level. The roadway is still basic highway, but it will begin narrowing as you near Molas Pass.
The road is getting narrower, more twists and turns, you're gaining elevation and then the majestic Molas Pass comes into view. At 10,910 feet above sea level, it's an impressive site; you're not done climbing yet as the fun is just starting to intensify.
The first town you will finally reach is Silverton; originally it was called "Baker's Park" after Captain Charles Baker. It is a small town with many of the original buildings from the 1800s still standing. From Durango, you can take a scenic ride on the Durango-Silverton Railroad to the town and back again; during the winter holiday season, the "Polar Express" runs for children to enjoy.
Now remember that mining was the main reason why settlements began in this section of the Rocky Mountains. Historical restorations are taking place by the Idarado Mining Company in the San Miguel Valley; also, don't be surprised to see an abandoned mine shaft sticking out towards the highway as you drive through the mountains.
Between Silverton and Ouray is Red Mountain Pass whose summit reaches 11,038 feet above sea level. The drive is exhilarating along the narrow mountain road, but the scenic views are worth the anxiety.
Then comes the city of Ouray, much larger than Silverton and certainly offering much more for visitors. It has all the modern conveniences, intermingled with the charm of the Old West...have I mentioned the awesome scenery enough yet!?! As you take the hair pin turns on the highway exit, the slower speed will allow you to get a full appreciation of the city itself. Feeling stressed out from the drive; check into your hotel/motel and take advantage of Ouray's natural hot springs. I bet that piece of news just got your full attention.
Since it was spring time, snow was melting with the warming sun; don't be surprised to see a waterfall cascading down a mountain wall, only to become icy rivulets reaching out towards your vehicle. There will be a tunnel or two blasted out from the natural rock...this was such an awesome adventure!
If you continue northward on Route 550, your next stop will be Ridgway; it has become a haven for artists and artisans. Stop in at the True Grit Cafe for a meal; True Grit should sound familiar as Ridgway was the setting for the classic John Wayne movie. Take a walk along the main street and stop in at the local shops; many of the artists though have shops in the back streets.
We continued on Route 550 until we reached Grand Junction; had a great dinner at Famous Dave's BBQ, and made the long ride home to Monticello. As scenic as traveling Route 191 to Monticello is, it was anti-climactic after the journey on the San Juan Skyway (Route 550).