The Million Dollar Highway from Durango to Ouray gained another bit of notoriety this week, earning a spot on a USA TODAY list of the “World’s most dangerous roads.”
The list written by Peter Koch of TheActiveTimes.com notes the highway’s 12-mile stretch south of Ouray is “steep, twisting and completely unforgiving of driver error,” particularly in winter.
The portion of U.S. Highway 550 is listed alongside the “Highway of Death” in Iraq and the “Death Road” in Bolivia. Twelve roads made the list.
Locals said the highway’s reputation is somewhat overblown.
“I have no problems with it, but I drive it often, and I drive it in pretty much any weather condition,” said Chad Leaver, owner of the Beaumont Hotel in Ouray, who chuckled at the news when reached by phone. “I’ve driven it in really heavy snow. I’ve driven it when it’s icy.”
Leaver said 18-wheelers transit the pass throughout the winter, along with Alsco trucks that deliver hotel linens, Meadow Gold trucks that deliver milk and Sysco trucks that deliver food products.
The Beaumont draws many guests from Texas, Arizona and Southern California – sunny places lacking in 11,000-foot highway passes – and visitors occasionally will comment about the drive.
“Many people are unsettled by the lack of guardrails and get themselves wound up about it,” Leaver said.
Indeed, locals agreed the pass can be intimidating, particularly for southbound travelers who hug the edge of the road. An inattentive driver could fall a few hundred feet to his or her death. But Leaver said calling the highway dangerous “may be a little bit of sensationalism.”
“I don’t think it’s one of the most dangerous,” he said, noting the 25 mph speed limit. “Going the speed limit, I think you’d almost not have to be paying attention to get in trouble.”
Most visitors are happy to be done with the drive, however.
“It’s beautiful, it’s breathtaking and they’re glad to be on the other side,” Leaver said.
Jay Lowe, a manager at Ouray Brewery, agreed.
“For anybody, the first time, the first couple of times you do it, it’s a little intimidating,” he said. “But the more you drive it, it’s fine.”
The Ouray Chamber Resort Association was at work on a response to the USA Today piece. Marketing manager Heidi Pankow said motorcyclists and others come to Ouray specifically to drive through Red Mountain Pass.
“We’re certainly not worried about its popularity,” she said. “People love, love, love this road.”
Nancy Shanks, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation, said the highway is not even one of the most dangerous in the state, let alone the world.
“In fact, it’s below average for accidents,” she said.
In 16 years from 1995 to 2010, nine people were killed in eight incidents on Red Mountain Pass. There were 302 total accidents in that period. Of those, most occurred in dry conditions, and a majority involved only one vehicle.
The highway’s lack of guardrails is explained by the need for snow removal in winter. “There’s no room,” Shanks said.
Shanks said she’s familiar with Bolivia’s Death Road from a TV program. Much worse, she said.
“Our highway looks pristine compared to that one in Bolivia.”