U.S. Route 550

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U.S. Route 550

Million Dollar Highway
US 550 highlighted in red
Route information
Auxiliary route of US 50
Length305.104 mi[1][2] (491.017 km)
Major junctions
South end I-25 / US 85 / NM 165 in Bernalillo, NM
Major intersections
North end US 50 at Montrose, CO
CountryUnited States
StatesNew Mexico, Colorado
CountiesNM: Sandoval, Rio Arriba, San Juan
CO: La Plata, San Juan, Ouray, Montrose
Highway system
NM 549NM NM 551
US 491CO US 650

U.S. Route 550 (US 550) is a spur of U.S. Highway 50 that runs from Bernalillo, New Mexico to Montrose, Colorado in the western United States. The section from Silverton to Ouray is frequently called the Million Dollar Highway.[3] It is one of the roads on the Trails of the Ancients Byway, one of the designated New Mexico Scenic Byways.[4]

Route description

New Mexico

View of Tertiary sediments of the San Juan Basin Badlands[5] at southbound Mile Marker 111 in New Mexico (36.2558°N 107.6229°W).

U.S. 550 begins just north of Albuquerque at Bernalillo and passes through the towns of San Ysidro, Cuba, Bloomfield, and Aztec. Except for sections passing through the above listed towns, U.S. 550 in New Mexico has been widened to four lanes, offering a faster (70 mph) connection for Farmington, New Mexico and Durango, Colorado to Albuquerque and Santa Fe.


Most of U.S. 550 in Colorado is two-lane mountainous highway. It is one of only two north–south U.S. Highways in Colorado which runs west of the Continental Divide. (The other route is US 491.) The route travels north through the San Juan Mountains.

U.S. Route 550 at the Uncompahgre Gorge

The Million Dollar Highway stretches for about 25 miles (40 km) in western Colorado and follows the route of U.S. 550 between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado. It is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. Between Durango and Silverton the Skyway loosely parallels the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Though the entire stretch has been called the Million Dollar Highway, it is really the twelve miles (19 km) south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass which gains the highway its name. This stretch through the gorge is challenging and potentially hazardous to drive; it is characterized by steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and a lack of guardrails; the ascent of Red Mountain Pass is marked with a number of hairpin curves used to gain elevation, and again, narrow lanes for traffic—many cut directly into the sides of mountains. During this ascent, the remains of the Idarado Mine are visible. Travel north from Silverton to Ouray allows drivers to hug the inside of curves; travel south from Ouray to Silverton perches drivers on the vertiginous outside edge of the highway. Large RVs travel in both directions, which adds a degree of excitement (or danger) to people in cars.[6] The road is kept open year-round. Summer temperatures can range from highs between 70–90 °F (21–32 °C) at the ends of the highway to 50–70 °F (10–21 °C) in the mountain passes. The snow season starts in October, and snow will often close the road in winter. Chains may be required to drive.[7]

North of Durango, the highway passes by Trimble Springs, hot springs that have been open for visitors since the late 19th century. The highway runs north along the Animas River, under the Hermosa Cliffs. It enters the San Juan National Forest and goes past Haviland Lake and Electra Lake. Drivers pass by Engineer Mountain and Twilight Peak before crossing Coal Bank Pass. Next is Molas Pass, which offers a panoramic view of Molas Lake, the Animas River Gorge, and Snowdon Peak. Northbound travelers then pass through the town of Silverton, elevation 9,320 feet (2841 m), surrounded by 13,000 foot (4000 m) peaks Sultan Mountain, Kendall Mountain, and Storm Peak.[7]

The highway leaves Silverton and proceeds up Mineral Creek Valley before ascending to Red Mountain Pass. The ruins of the Longfellow Mine are visible along the way. The highway then goes through a series of steep grades and hairpin turns before reaching Lookout Point, which offers a view of the town of Ouray.[7]

Looking south toward Red Mountain Pass.

This section of the route passes over three mountain passes:

An "overpass" for an active avalanche chute on the Million Dollar Highway, south of Ouray.

The origin of the name Million Dollar Highway is disputed. There are several legends, though, including that it cost a million dollars a mile to build in the 1920s, and that its fill dirt contains a million dollars in gold ore.[3]

There are seventy named avalanche paths that intersect Highway 550 in the 23 mi (37 km) between Ouray and Silverton, Colorado.[8]

U.S. 550 ends at the corner of Townsend Avenue and San Juan Avenue in Montrose, Colorado at the junction of its parent route U.S. Highway 50.


A view of the Million Dollar Highway pass.

The original portion of the Million Dollar Highway was a toll road built by Otto Mears in 1883 to connect Ouray and Ironton.[3] Another toll road was built over Red Mountain Pass from Ironton to Silverton. In the late 1880s Otto Mears turned to building railroads and built the Silverton Railroad north from Silverton over Red Mountain Pass to reach the lucrative mining districts around Red Mountain, terminating at Albany just eight miles (13 km) south of Ouray. The remaining eight miles (13 km) were considered too difficult and steep for a railroad. At one point a cog railroad was proposed, but it never made it beyond the planning stage.

In the early 1920s, the original toll road was rebuilt at considerable cost and became the present day US 550. The Million Dollar Highway was completed in 1924.[7] Today the entire route is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway.

US 550 was part of the original 1926 federal highway system. The original highway extended 110 miles (177 km) from Montrose, Colorado at U.S. Highway 50 to U.S. Highway 450 (now U.S. Highway 160) at Durango, Colorado. In 1934, Highway 550 was extended through Farmington to Shiprock, New Mexico. In 1989, the western end of US 550 was replaced with US 64 between Farmington and Shiprock. In 2000, US 550 was extended further south from Aztec to Bernalillo to replace the newly widened NM 44 and NM 544, at which time all of US 550 in New Mexico was four lanes.

In 2009 US 50 was re-routed onto the San Juan Avenue bypass to avoid downtown Montrose. As a result, U.S. 550 was extended approximately one mile northwest to intersect with the new U.S. 50 alignment.

Major intersections

New MexicoSandovalBernalillo0.0000.000
NM 165 east – Placitas
Continuation east beyond southern terminus

I-25 / US 85 north (CanAm Highway) – Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Raton

I-25 / US 85 south (CanAm Highway) – Albuquerque
Southern terminus; I-25 exit 242

NM 313 north (Camino Del Pueblo) – Santa Ana Pueblo, Algodones, San Felipe Pueblo

NM 313 south (Camino Del Pueblo) – Pueblo of Sandia Village, North Valley
NM 528 south – Rio Rancho
Northern end of NM 528
NM 4 north – San Ysidro
Southern end of NM 4
NM 197 south – Torreon
Northern end of NM 197
NM 126 east – Santa Fe National Forest
Western end of NM 126
NM 96 north – La Jara
Southern end of NM 96
NM 537 north
Southern end of NM 537
Rio ArribaNo major intersections
San Juan123.470198.706
NM 57 south
Northern end of NM 57
US 64 west – Farmington, Taos
Southern end of US 64 concurrency
US 64 east – Navajo City
Northern end of US 64 concurrency
NM 516 west (Aztec Boulevard) – Farmington
Eastern end of NM 516
NM 173 east – Navajo State Park
Western end of NM 173
New Mexico–Colorado line
ColoradoLa Plata16.56126.652
US 160 east – Pagosa Springs
Southern end of US 160 concurrency
SH 3 north
Southern end of SH 3
US 160 west – Cortez
Northern end of US 160 concurrency
San JuanNo major intersections
SH 62 west – Placerville
Eastern end of SH 62
SH 90 west (Main Street) – Naturita
Eastern end of SH 90
US 50 south (North San Juan Avenue) – Sapinero, Gunnison
North Grand Avenue west
Northern terminus

US 50 north (North Townsend Avenue) – Olathe, Delta, Grand Junction
Continuation north beyond northern terminus
1.000 mi = 1.609 km; 1.000 km = 0.621 mi

Related routes

See also


  1. ^ a b Statewide Milepost/Point Map (PDF) (Map). New Mexico Department of Transportation. 2007. Retrieved August 16, 2014.
  2. ^ a b "Highway Data Explorer". Colorado Department of Transportation. Archived from the original on September 10, 2012. Retrieved August 16, 2014.
  3. ^ a b c Road Trip America – Million Dollar Highway by Mark Sedenquist accessed Oct 21, 2007
  4. ^ Trail of the Ancients. Archived August 21, 2014, at the Wayback Machine New Mexico Tourism Department. Retrieved August 14, 2014.
  5. ^ New Mexico Geologic Highway Map, New Mexico Geologic Society, New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, 2005.
  6. ^ The Cultured Traveler-Million Dollary Highway by "Totty" accessed Oct 21, 2007
  7. ^ a b c d Million Dollar Highway
  8. ^ Leath Tonino (February 23, 2017). "Keep Your Hands on the Wheel and Don't Look Down". Outside Magazine. Retrieved May 4, 2017.

External links