The Highway of Terror (Western Colorado, Part III)

According to Google Maps, there’s about 135 miles between Montrose, Colorado (near Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park) and Cortez, Colorado (near Mesa Verde National Park.) Easy-schmeezy, right? A little over two hours and we can be at our hotel in Cortez—right?


What Google Maps doesn’t quite mention is that there’s an enormous mountain range in between Montrose and Cortez. And we would be driving straight through/over those mountains—on the most frightening road you’ve ever been on.* The name of the road? US Route 550, or “The Million Dollar Highway” (I have no idea why it’s called that.) 

Mind you, the road isn’t scary because of its condition. It is, by necessity, very well maintained and smooth. No, the drive was scary because—for much of the time—there was a several thousand foot drop directly to our right. 

Oh, and there’s no guardrail.

It’s also a breathtaking road which passes through some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery I’ve ever seen—but it was hard to concentrate on that aspect while I was keeping my eyes tightly closed and clutching onto the hand-thing above my seat (because it would protect me if our car careened off the cliff.)  


But let’s back up.

After we left Black Canyon, we began heading into some really beautiful country. As you drive south of Montrose, you begin approaching the San Juan Mountains—which is one of the most beautiful ranges I’ve ever seen. Telluride, home of a famous ski resort and film festival, is located in these mountains (we decided not to take the Telluride route through the mountains because of construction—I wonder now if it would have been less harrowing.) Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures of this part of the drive. It’s hard to take pictures with your eyes closed—so I’m going to take some from Google and Wikipedia.

Anyways, we keep driving, and the mountains keep getting closer, and we begin to realize that we we're almost certainly going to end up driving through or over those rather tall and imposing peaks.
The view as we approached the San Juan Mountains. (I did take this picture, and the next)

 And, right at the foot of the mountains, we reach the really gorgeous town of Ouray and admire the scenery.

Ouray, Colorado. This is not my picture.

And then we pass through Ouray, and the road keeps going up. And up. And up. And then we’re at an overlook a thousand or more feet above Ouray. And we keep going up. And up. And up.

 And the mountains are green and lush, with lots of waterfalls—but I don’t really notice, because we keep going up. And up. And up.

And there’s no guardrail. And, about two feet to our right, is a 2,000 foot drop. Into an abyss.
And the road is narrow, and the speed limit strangely high, and every time a car passes us you feel a little bit… Tense. 

And still we go up, and up, and up. And up.
Ouray, Colorado is located at 7,700 feet above sea level. Within an hour of leaving Ouray, we were driving over mountain passes at 11,000 feet.

There were a lot of passes on this drive. So we’d go up a few thousand feet, and then down a few thousand feet, and then back up a few thousand feet, and… It was a very long (and not fuel efficient) two or three hours.

Not my photo

Not my photo either

Fortunately, the first hour outside of Ouray was the worst. After that, the cliffs weren’t quite as high or steep and we could finally breathe. Our biggest concern, at that point, was getting out of the mountains before sunset (we intentionally left Montrose early enough to make sure we would get to 
Cortez by sunset. But we had failed to take the mountains into account.) 

When we drove under this "avalanche chute," there was a pretty good waterfall running over it. In other words, we drove under a waterfall. (Not my photo)

The appropriately named "Red Mountain"

But we did - finally - roll into Durango just as the sun was setting. From there, it was a relatively easy hour to Cortez—where we checked into our hotel and had dreams about falling off cliffs (ok, maybe that was just me.)


I found out later that many people love driving the Million Dollar Highway—which I can understand, since it is very pretty and it apparently has a ton of really amazing ATV trails leading off of it, etc.—but they always recommend driving north from Durango, instead of south from Ouray. That way, you’ll be hugging the mountainside through much of the drive, rather than driving two feet away from the edge of a cliff. Which, I imagine, is considerably less stressful.

“If only we had known,” etc.

A Truly Random Side Note

Incidentally—and this may only be interesting to me—it turns out that about 50 miles west (as the crow flies) of where we were driving in the San Juan Mountains sits the La Garita Caldera—the site of one of the largest volcanic explosions in the history of the world. It was several times bigger than the much-ballyhooed Yellowstone supervolcano. For some reason, I find that kind of thing cool—even if it was 25 million years ago. I'd love to visit the site of the eruption one day when I have access to an ATV.

We didn't see this (in other words, not my photo,) but this is part of the "Wheeler Geologic Area" where the La Garita supervolcano erupted a long, long time ago. These weird formations are a remnant of that eruption.


*Ok, so it's quite possible that you've been on more terrifying roads - I mean, at least this one was paved and well-maintained. It was really only terrifying because of the steep, steep dropoffs and the lack of guardrails (and the narrow lanes, and the speed limits, and...)