An Insane Drive On One of the World's Most Dangerous Roads
Watching the video below gives me some pretty serious flashbacks, seriously. Not pleasant ones.
I drove this stretch of highway a couple weeks ago. Judging by the video, it’s a beautiful, although a little nerve racking in parts, ride during the warm months of the year.
I wouldn’t know. My journey, and view, was much different.
(The video begins at the point I turned onto the highway. If you don't want to watch the entire video, you can jump to the 16:30 mark to get a feel for things, or even 21:20 where you get a good look at how close the highway runs to the edge of the cliff.)
Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway connects Ouray to the north with Durango in the south. It totals 70 miles in length but it’s the first dozen miles beginning on the outskirts of Ouray that gets the notoriety.
Those miles are on one or more lists of the world’s most dangerous roads.
“But the 12 miles south of Ouray -- particularly for Durango-bound drivers, who are exposed to the unprotected cliffsides -- are steep, twisting and completely unforgiving of driver error.
Originally hand-carved by Russian immigrant Otto Mears in the 1880s, the modern highway remains open through the slip-and-slide snowy months. As the locals say, though, you'd have to 'pay me a million dollars' to drive that stretch in the snow.”
Driving it in the snow, Durango-bound, was exactly what I did, lots of snow.
I’d spent the night in Ouray after arriving the previous afternoon, driving in from the north through the 11,000-foot-elevation Monarch Pass.
Leaving from Ouray I had the choice of driving back the way I’d come the day before, which was the shorter route, or head south.
The trip through Monarch Pass had been a snowy one. It wasn’t terrible, but in those areas where there were passing lanes heading up the mountains most people were driving down the middle of the two lanes because of the slipperiness of the road, no one was passing. The view at the top was completely covered in fog.
I expected it would be the same going back that way, plus I wasn’t especially excited about covering the same territory, seeing things I’d already seen, so I decided I would take the longer route to the south.
You know the saying, “if I’d known then what I know now”? This is the textbook case.
It wasn’t supposed to snow. I checked the weather forecast, really I did. But when I looked out my hotel window from my bed at 6 a.m. there it was.
Big, fluffy, flakes. Lots of big, fluffy, flakes. Judging by what had fallen on nearby buildings it had been snowing for a while already.
I’d originally planned to hit the road around 8 a.m. but decided to push it back an hour, hoping the snow would stop and perhaps plows would be out to move any accumulation off the highway.
Heading to my car shortly after 9 a.m., the snow was still falling lightly and I set about brushing the five, inches or so that now blanketed Betsy (my car).
This would have been a good point to cancel my plans for the day. I really liked Ouray and wouldn’t have minded spending an extra day exploring its many shops and other offerings.
If I had known what lie ahead that would have been my choice. But, as I am often known to do, or not known, depending on how you want to phrase it, I had done no research on where I was going or what the road would be like.
I’d never heard of the Million Dollar Highway. By the time I’d realized what I’d gotten myself into there was no way to turn around, no way to go back.
This often works out for me. I head off in unknown directions, sometimes get straight out lost. The worst that usually happens is I see new scenery I would not otherwise have seen. Sometimes I discover some really special things making me glad I’d wandered off. On only extremely rare occasions does it turn out badly.
This was one of those occasions.
The highway snakes through the mountain climbing to more than 10,000 feet in elevation. If you watched the video above you know the drive is pretty much a series of sharp switchbacks, basically U-turns, with posted speed limits of 25 mph and even some at 15 mph.
Motorists driving north, toward Ouray, have the mountain to their right. While we’ll all agree you never want to drive into the rock wall of a mountain, you can be thankful you’re not driving southbound where the reward for missing a turn is plummeting hundreds of feet down the mountain to your death.
Very little of the highway has any kind of barrier, or even markings, to let you know where the edge lies. In many places there is no more than a couple of feet from the edge of the highway to the cliffside.
The snow that had fallen and continued to fall completely covered the highway and all its striping. The road, shoulder, everything was a sea of white.
Making matters worse, there were no vehicles in front of me so I didn’t even have the guidance of others’ tire tracks to help lead my way.
It had been warm the previous day so the fresh moisture of snow was creating a light fog reducing visibility to several car lengths in any direction.
I literally had times where I couldn’t see where the highway ended and the drop off the mountain began. At least twice I came to a complete stop, having little clue if the road went straight or veered left or right, inching my way forward cautiously until I felt sure I wasn’t headed over the side.
Snow from my windshield wipers accumulated to the left side of the windshield, blocking my view when I had to make turns in that direction. On several occasions I rolled down my driver’s side window and stuck my head out the side to see where I was going on those curves.
Google maps will tell you it takes 25 minutes to drive the 12.5 miles out of Ouray. It took me three times that.
The great thing about it all though is it’s great story to tell. It’s a great story to live to tell about.
One final note, even in the summer, the Million Dollar Highway can be a scary and dangerous ride:
**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address, alansheaven.com, or a link back to this page.