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Million Dollar Highway named to list of most dangerous roads in the U.S.

Red Mountain Pass, on U.S. Highway 550 between Silverton and Ouray, offers “million dollar views.” (Durango Herald file)
It is ranked No. 2 by FindMyPlate; Florida takes top spot

The Million Dollar Highway, which stretches between Durango, Silverton and Ouray, is known for its breathtaking scenery and jaw-dropping mountain views, along with its hairpin turns and often dangerous conditions.

For this reason, it has been named No. 2 on FindMyPlate’s list for most dangerous roads in the nation.

FindMyPlate stated the Million Dollar Highway, more formally known as U.S. Highway 550, had been chosen as one of the most dangerous because of the high elevation (more than 11,000 feet at the summit) coupled with the number of hairpin turns without guardrails. FindMyPlate added that “occasional rock slides and inclement weather can make it a white-knuckled drive.”

The highway was joined on the list by roads in Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Montana, New York, South Carolina and Texas.

U.S. Route 1 in Florida holds the top spot as the deadliest road in America, with an average of 108 deaths per year. The state does not have a full ban on cellphone usage while driving, leading many drivers to cause accidents while texting or doing other activities on their phone, along with incidents caused by speeding.

According to FindMyPlate, the average American drives more than 11,000 miles a year and spends an average of 300 hours in the car.

FindMyPlate’s Top 10 Deadliest Roads in the U.S.

1. U.S. Route 1 Florida

2. U.S. Highway 550 Colorado (Million Dollar Highway)

3. Interstate 4 Florida

4. Interstate 10 Arizona

5. U.S. Route 17 South Carolina

6. Interstate 30

7. Taconic State Parkway New York

8. Interstate 15

9. Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Louisiana

10. Interstate 45, Texas

About 40 accidents take place on the Million Dollar Highway each year, with an average of seven deaths per year. Most of the accidents are caused by careless or fast driving in bad road conditions. Other factors are mudslides, inclement weather and wildlife appearing on the road when there is nowhere to swerve.

While avalanches used to be a factor, the last reported death on the road because of an avalanche came in 1992.

Recently, a 27-year-old Montrose man was killed in a crash on the highway Jan. 18 after attempting to pass two vehicles in icy conditions. In 2018, there were back-to-back accidents where cars missed a turn and drove off the edge of the road.

Mens pro rider LeRoy Popowski flies down Coal Bank Pass during the 2013 Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race on U.S. Highway 550. (Durango Herald file)

This isn’t the first time Highway 550 has been featured on a list of this kind. In 2013, it was named to USA TODAY’s list of “World’s Most Dangerous Roads.” The article said the Million Dollar Highway was “steep, twisting and completely unforgiving of driver error.”

There were 12 roads listed in the article, including Iraq’s “Highway of Death” and Bolivia’s “Death Road.”

While many mentions of the Million Dollar Highway have pointed to its oftentimes dangerous attributes, there are others who see past the steep cliffs and twisting roadway to the beauty it offers.

Reader’s Digest named the Million Dollar Highway to its list titled “Best Roadtrips in America,” and while writers cautioned that only experienced drivers should be behind the wheel while traversing this highway, they gushed over the beauty of the highway, noting how it winds through the San Juan Mountains. It also provided readers a look into the history of the famous, and infamous, Million Dollar Highway.

Red Mountain Pass on U.S. Highway 550 was closed in 2015 as crews made a second attempt to remove a vehicle that plunged off the side of the road. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Highway 550 was built between 1880 and 1883 as a stagecoach road, originally used to transport ore from Silverton to Ouray. The first person to travel the road in a car was reportedly a doctor in 1910 or 1911 driving a Model T to make a house call. By 1935, the road was completely paved. It notably doesn’t include guardrails, because of the area’s high rate of snowfall (about 300 inches per year) that needs to be pushed off the edge by snowplows.

There are conflicting stories about where the nickname “Million Dollar Highway” came from. Some say a man working on the road in 1921 said it would cost $1 million to pave, while other reports say it earned the nickname because of its million-dollar views or because people have said they wouldn’t drive it again for $1 million.

Either way, the name is fitting. While the stretch of highway is only about 25 miles, it takes about 45 minutes at least to drive it in good weather and summits at 11,018 feet before sharply descending 3,000 feet into Ouray.