The Million Dollar Highway: Complete Motorcycling Guide (+ things to See, Eat, & Do!)
The Million Dollar Highway (technically US Highway 550) is one of my favorite motorcycle destinations in the state of Colorado. This scenic byway takes you through high mountain passes along cliff faces, numerous hairpin turns, and historic mining towns. It’s been considered one of the best motorcycle rides in the United States by many, and I’d have to agree. This should be on your bucket list if it isn’t already!
In this guide, we’ll explore everything you need to know to make the most of your motorcycle trip to the Million Dollar Highway.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Why is it called the “Million Dollar Highway”?
Nobody really knows the true reason. Some say it cost a million dollars to build. Others say it has to do with the rich mining history that the road was built upon. Others say it’s because of the million-dollar views that you can witness as you drive it.
Is the Million Dollar Highway Dangerous?
Some say it’s the most dangerous road in America. In the right conditions, I’d probably agree. On a motorcycle on a sunny day (or even in the rain), I completely disagree. You’ll need to pay attention and utilize your riding skills, but you’ll be fine.
Where is the Million Dollar Highway?
Spanning 25 miles between the historic mining towns of Ouray and Silverton, the Million Dollar Highway is a small portion of US Highway 550 in Southwest Colorado.
Technically, the 50-mile portion of US Highway 550 that takes you from Silverton to Durango is not a part of the Million Dollar Highway. Although many people consider it a part of the drive. (I’ll be covering that section in this blog, too!)
The Million Dollar Highway is part of the San Juan Skyway National Scenic Byway, which traverses 233 miles around Southwest Colorado. The full loop is considered an “All-American Road”.
Tips for Planning Your Trip:
Getting there: Rent a Motorcycle & Ride the Million Dollar Highway
If you’re flying in and renting a motorcycle, the closest EagleRider location is in Durango at Durango Harley-Davidson. If you plan to fly to Denver and explore more of the Colorado region, there are multiple EagleRider locations along the front range.
Getting there: How Much Time Does it Take?
Time needed to ride the Million Dollar Highway: You can spend an entire day riding from Ouray to Durango or vice versa, but at minimum, plan for two hours. Here are more specifics:
The Million Dollar Highway (from Ouray to Silverton) is only 25 miles but takes roughly 45 minutes to travel without stopping. Plan for two hours if you enjoy stopping to see a few sights. There is plenty to see along this stretch.
The second portion, from Silverton to Durango, is roughly 50 Miles and takes at least an hour. Again, without stops.
If you’re traveling from Denver: Whether you wish to ride the Million Dollar Highway from North to South or South to North, both Ouray and Durango are roughly 330 Miles from Denver. Be aware that these are mountain miles. I’ve ridden this route more than a dozen times, and it always takes longer than what Google or Apple Maps claims it will. Mostly because it’s too beautiful to not stop a few times and take it all in.
With an early start from the Denver area, it will easily take you a full day to reach Ouray or Durango, leaving you with minimal time to truly enjoy everything that the Million Dollar Highway has to offer. Yes, you can do a Denver to Durango loop over a full, two-day period. However, you will enjoy the trip much more if you can spread it into three days.
What is the Best Time to Ride the Million Dollar Highway?
Winter: While the Million Dollar Highway is open year-round, weather permitting, I wouldn’t advise attempting to ride it in the middle of Winter. You’ll likely encounter snow and ice at certain elevations.
Late Spring: It’s possible to ride this route in May and early June, but you’ll need to watch the weather to know for certain. A good rule of thumb for any motorcycle trip to Colorado is to visit between Memorial Day Weekend and mid-October.
Summer: Summer is a beautiful time to ride the Million Dollar Highway. You may encounter a few rain storms due to the Monsoon Season, but overall the temperatures should be favorable.
Fall: The Million Dollar Highway, and the rest of the San Juan Mountains, are popular destinations in the Fall due to the vibrant fall foliage from the Aspens, which typically begin to change color in late September and peak in mid-October. It is a bit chilly at night, so plan accordingly.
If possible, plan your trip to the Million Dollar Highway on a weekday. Weekends are always much more busy on the roadways in Colorado.
>>>>> Read Next: My Favorite Seasonal Roads in Colorado
Watch for Wildlife: Bear, Moose, Elk, Deer, Bighorn Sheep, and Mountain Goats call the Million Dollar Highway home. It is common to see at least one of these animals, if not multiple of them, on your trip!
Riding Skills Required: There are numerous tight curves and areas where there are no guard rails and steep drop-offs. The area is gorgeous, but please pull over to enjoy the scenery!
Things to See, Eat & Do Along the Million Dollar Highway
Pro Tip: If you have the opportunity to ride the Million Dollar Highway twice, ride it in both directions. Both ways offer completely different views and experiences. The information below will be explained in a “Ouray to Durango” itinerary format.
Visit Ouray: The Switzerland of America
Ouray is the Northern terminus of the Million Dollar Highway, but I tend to start my journey from here and head south.
Ouray is one of the only towns I visit often where I see all types of motorcycles, including dirtbikes, parked out on the main street every visit. Known as the “Switzerland of America,” Ouray offers hot springs, shops, lodging, and lots of restaurants. It’s a beautiful little mountain town, but can be quite touristy at times. If you visit on a weekend, be prepared for LOTS of people and potentially long wait times at restaurants.
Where to Eat in Ouray:
There are over a dozen options in Ouray, but the Elote Dip and views from the rooftop patio at Ouray Brewing keep me from going anywhere else when I visit.
If I were to venture out, I would recommend The Outlaw. It’s the oldest operating dining establishment in Ouray. Self proclaimed as “high altitude fine dining,” the Outlaw is known for their steaks, but serve up a killer brunch certain days of the week, too.
If you want to eat somewhere a little further out of town, Ridgeway is home to the True Grit Cafe and Gnar Taco, a personal favorite. Montrose is just a little further north (roughly 45 minutes from Ouray) and offers all sorts of food options.
>>>> Read Next: How I Find Places to Eat on Motorcycle Trips
Things to See & Do in Ouray:
- Soak in the Hot Springs: Ouray Hot Springs is my personal favorite, but you can also stay at three different lodges in town that offer access to private hot springs.
- Box Cañon Falls: This is a lesser-known attraction even though there are signs for it right off of Highway 550! A short hike and metal walkway structure will take you into a gorge where an 85-foot waterfall plummets through the canyon! If you’re up for more of an adventure, you can see the gorge from the Permiter Trail.
- Switzerland of America Lookout Point: Just past the Box Cañon Falls turnoff, as you begin to climb the switchbacks out of Ouray, you’ll see this iconic sign. You have to stop and take a photo!
Bear Creek Falls Scenic Overlook
As soon as you leave Ouray, you’ll begin to climb up and out of the town via numerous switchbacks. Just after the tunnel you’ll see the iconic view of the Uncompahgre Gorge. This scenic pull-off is a great place to take a photo of the Million Dollar Highway, especially the most picturesque portion where the road runs along the cliff.
As you stand on the viewing platform, you’ll see Bear Creek Falls flowing under US Highway 550 on your left. If you look to your right, you’ll see another waterfall (weather permitting). And if you look below, you’ll see the Uncompahgre River.
Red Mountain Pass
This is my favorite part of the Million Dollar Highway. You’ll ride through numerous hairpin turns and see lots of old mining remnants! In fact, the mining district along this section once housed 3,000 people in under 8 square miles. There’s a scenic pull-off near the Yankee Girl Mine that will teach you about the mining district and the booming towns that have since disappeared.
If you’re a skilled off-road rider, you can also detour over to the Yankee Girl mining district and see it up close via County Road 31.
From the Summit of Red Mountain Pass, you’re only 10 miles from Silverton. Keep an eye out for moose in this area. They love to eat the swampy snacks just off the roadway! I’ve seen them in this area on three different trips.
I LOVE Silverton! A well-preserved mining town that sits at a whopping 9,318 feet in elevation, Silverton is a true Wild West gem in Colorado.
The town itself is actually a National Historic Landmark and is considered one of the most intact historic sites in America. Sorry Ouray, but the grit of Silverton definitely pulls on my history loving heartstrings here.
If you’d like to poke around and check out some history:
- The Silverton Railroad Depot offers a glimpse into the area’s mining history.
- The Old Silverton Jail was built in 1883 and Stands at the end of the historic old Main Street!
- Again, most of the buildings in this town are considered “historic” so take a look around!
If you’d like to get a unique, Colorado mountain town experience, I’d recommend staying here for the night. Additionally, Silverton is a gateway to the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway, a rugged off-road route that includes part of the Colorado BDR. If you’re on an ADV and plan to ride to Animas Forks or any part of the Alpine Loop before finishing the Million Dollar Highway, this may be a great “hub” for you!
If you’re looking for food & drinks in Silverton, here are a few places I’ve tried:
- Handlebar’s Saloon: Cold Beer, burgers and other classic “American food”
- Avalanche Brewing: Pizza and Wings
- Coffee Bear: GREAT Coffee and Breakfast Burritos!
- Shady Lady: The building was built in 1888 and was once the last brothel in Silverton. Now it’s a bar & grill.
Note: Silverton is a pretty small town, hours of operation that are listed online aren’t always accurate. Some places do change their hours depending on the season.
Silverton is the only gas opportunity between Ouray and Durango. If you have a small tank and can’t make it another 50 miles, fill up!
When you leave Silverton and head south to Durango, you’ve technically finished the real “Million Dollar Highway. Rest assured, the next 50 miles as you head to Durango are pretty epic and worth the trip.
Just 7 Miles South of Silverton, you’ll reach the 10,910-foot summit of Molas Pass. This area is beautiful and worth a stop at the Summit for a photo op before you continue on to Durango.
PS: I’ve also seen moose on Molas Pass! Keep an eye out for wildlife, you just never know what will pop up!
Pinkerton Hot Springs
This is a bit of a wacky roadside attraction. If you pay attention, you’ll notice a weird, orange formation spewing water out of it just off to the side of Highway 550!
This is Pinkerton Hot Springs. At one point, it was a destination resort complete with a swimming pool. It burned down in the early 1900s. Today, this man-made formation serves as a way for the hot spring to discharge water. Travertine has formed over the man-made structure and flows down the hillside. There are a few small tubs where you can dip your feet in if you wish.
Durango is the largest of the three towns on this route, which is why I typically end my journey along the Million Dollar Highway here. There’s plenty to see and do in the Durango area and it deserves its own blog, honestly.
Things to Do in Durango:
- Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad: This is considered one of the best train rides in the country. Naturally, I had to check it out during the Fall one year. I would recommend doing the Cascade Canyon Express route. It’s only a half-day adventure.
- Go For A Ride! You can complete the entire San Juan Skyway, ride out to Vallecito Lake, head out towards Mesa Verda National Park and the Four Corners region, or head to Pagosa Springs.
- Soak in the Hot Springs! If you didn’t take advantage of this in Ouray, enjoy a good soak at Durango Hot Springs. It’s the best way to end a day of epic motorcycling down the Million Dollar Highway.
Where to Eat: There is a TON of good food in Durango! Here are a few options I’ve tried or recommend:
- Breweries (they all have food): Ska, Steamworks, Carver, or Animas Forks
- If You’re Feeling Fancy: Ore House, Chimayo, Perbacco Cucina Italiana, El Moro Tavern
- Mexican: Nayarit, Taco Libre
- Breakfast: Durango Diner, Carver Brewing, Durango Doughworks, Oscar’s
- Motorcycle Destinations: Billy Goat Saloon (Bayfield), Million Dollar Highway Saloon (in front of Durango H-D), El Rancho Tavern (no food)
Listen – There’s A LOT of food options in Durango, y’all. Just pull out your Maps app and check it out!
Where to Stay along the Million Dollar Highway
Ouray, Silverton, and Durango all offer numerous lodging options. From Air Bnb, VRBO, and numerous Hotels and Hostels, there are plenty of options to choose from depending on your wants and needs. If you plan to visit on a weekend, I highly suggest reserving your accommodations before your trip.
Here are a few places I’ve stayed at:
- Twin Peaks Lodge and Hot Springs – Ouray
- Kendall Mountain Lodge (Hostel) – Silverton
- Motel Durango – Durango
- Siesta Motel – Durango
- Caboose Motel – Durango
- Econo Lodge – Durango
Other nearby towns: Montrose, roughly 45 minutes north of Ouray, is also a great place to consider for lodging as they have plenty of hotels and a KOA available. You could also camp at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park!
Pagosa Springs, or “Pago-Slow” as some locals like to say, is roughly 60 miles east of Durango. It’s home to the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring aquifer, so soaking in the hot springs is definitely a must when you visit!
Camping on the Million Dollar Highway
There are very minimal established camping options along the Million Dollar Highway. However, there are plenty of dispersed camping options. If you want to find great dispersed camping areas, I’d recommend utilizing the Dyrt with a Pro subscription. This is one of a few ways I find campsites on my travels.
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If you’re interested in staying at an established campground, here are a few popular options:
- Orvis Hot Springs – Ridgeway – If you enjoy soaking in hot springs, this one’s for you! Not only do you get two days of hot springs soaking with each night of camping, but you also get all-night access to the hot springs ponds, pool, tubs, sauna, and bathrooms. Only 30 people are allowed to camp here per night, so if you have a passenger, that means you have 2 people that you must reserve a space for.
- KOA Holiday Ouray – There is tent camping available here. Although not much.
- The Amphitheatre Campground – Ouray – This campground is located just above the town of Ouray on the side of the mountain. It’s small but offers incredible views of the town and surrounding mountains!
- Molas Lake Campground – Situated along Molas Pass just south of Silverton, this picturesque campground has been rated as the most beautiful campground in Colorado. Reservations are highly encouraged as it is often completely full.
- Haviland Lake Campground – Durango – Just north of Durango on Lake Haviland