Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway, also known as U.S. 500, holds the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s 12 most dangerous roads, according to an article by Peter Koch appearing in USA Today. U.S. 500 — which runs from Bernalillo, N.M., to Montrose, Colo. — and the James Dalton Highway in Alaska are the only U.S. highways on the list.
U.S. 500 runs for about 25 miles in western Colorado, between Silverton and Ouray, and is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, according to RoadTripAmerica.com But it is the 12 miles south of Ouray through the Uncompahgre Gorge that make for scary driving, Koch writes, with steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and a lack of guard rails. Koch calls the road “completely unforgiving of driver error.” An article titled “Colorado Death Ride” cautions drivers not to ride too close to the road’s edge when climbing or descending Red Mountain Pass, as “there is NO shoulder or guardrail and the drops exceed 1,000 feet in places!”
Of the road’s weather conditions, DangerousRoads.org writes:
The weather on this zone is harsh and highly unpredictable and it does not take much time for the bright sun shine to change over to moderate to heavy snow fall. Large RVs travel in both directions often. The road is kept open year-round. Summer temperatures can range from 70–90 °F highs at the ends of the highway to 50–70 °F 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.
Koch writes, however, that the highway “remains open” during the winter. And, referencing how some say the road got its name, he adds: “As the locals say, though, you’d have to ‘pay me a million dollars’ to drive that stretch in the snow.” DangerousRoads.org writes that the origin of the name “Million Dollar Highway” is not known, with some legends saying it cost a million dollars a mile to build in the 1920s, and that the dirt used to fill it contains a million dollar in gold ore.
The road is only ever closed for a few hours at a time, to allow road crews to clear the snow, or for maintenance, writes Maria Ziemba in an article for Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs. Maintenance is usually done overnight, she writes, asking “Who would want to drive this road at night anyway?” Ziemba recommends that drivers be prepared beforehand, making sure to have good tires, a front-wheel drive vehicle, windshield wiper fluid, and to drive slowly. “I once asked a police officer, and he told me the largest number of accidents that occur on the Million Dollar Highway involved locals who have taken the road for granted, and forgotten how deceivingly beautiful it is,” she writes.
The other most dangerous roads, as listed by Koch, include: Trollstigen in Norway; Federal Highway 1 in Mexico; Gulling Tunnel in China; Highway of Death in Iraq; the Trans-Siberian Highway in Russia; Luxor-al-Hurghada Road in Egypt; the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan; Stelvio Pass, in Italy; and Kabul-Jalalabad Highway, Afghanistan.
Image by Alan Stark