aspen colony along the Million Dollar Highway

Autumn Colors on the Million Dollar Highway

Autumn colors made me feel like the Million Dollar Highway earned its name by the sea of gold aspens it winds through. In case you haven’t heard of it, the nickname belongs to a 25-mile stretch of the San Juan Skyway between Silverton and Ouray.

Autumn colors along the Million Dollar Highway
Autumn colors along the Million Dollar Highway

After driving on this scenic road to Silverton and stopping in town for a few hours, we continued following it towards Ouray.

Why the Name of the Million Dollar Highway?

I read a few different explanations for the nickname, though to me, after our latest drive, it means “filled with million-dollar views” at every turn.

Stop by a lake along the Million Dollar Highay
A stop by Crystal Lake along the Million Dollar Highway

Constructed in 1883s, the original narrow toll-road was dangerous and scary to drive on. An early traveler was quoted as saying she wouldn’t ride on it again even for a million dollars. According to some accounts, the nickname originated from that statement.

Others claim the name has to do with the actual cost of the road, built in the early 1920s. The original road didn’t go all the way to Ouray since it was too hard to finish. When finished, it supposedly cost a million dollars per mile to complete. Or the land it sits on cost a million dollars. Take your pick.

A third story is my favorite though. According to this tale, the road used gravel from the nearby silver and gold mines. The dirt was so rich in these precious metals, it was worth a million dollars. So, if this is the case, we are driving on silver and gold. I like this image.

Still, I feel that the road earned its name through its million-dollar views. It especially seems that way in autumn. Even if you think of million dollars in gold – at least the color gold.

A Large Aspen Colony Displaying its Autumn Colors

During one of our stops, we enjoyed views of a large aspen colony, at the peak of its color, by an old abandoned cabin of Ironton.

Aspen colony at its peak autumn colors by the abandoned cabin of Ironton.
Aspen colony at its peak autumn colors by the abandoned cabin of Ironton.

Founded in 1883, Ironton was built as a supply center and staging area for the mining towns in the area. It marked the end of the original toll road from Silverton, since the last few miles to Ouray were considered way too dangerous to build. Now, a few abandoned buildings mark the site.

One of these buildings offered a great opportunity for a parking spot, and thus a stop for us to enjoy the autumn colors of this aspen colony.

Aspen colony near Ironton along the road
Aspen colony in autumn, Ironton.

Aspens. Clones and Colonies

Aspens are probably my favorite trees. Not only in autumn, though their bright yellow leaves fluttering in the slightest breeze display the best spectacle of fall colors.

Bright autumn colors along the Million Dollar Highway
Aspen colony displaying its bright autumn colors along the Million Dollar Highway

Not only that, but they are also some of the most amazing trees on the planet, living through just about everything, seemingly forever. Arborists found that the oldest aspen colony is about 80,000 years old. No, you won’t find one individual tree that old. They are talking about the age of the root system, of the whole colony.

Most aspens don’t grow from seeds, since it is extremely hard for an aspen seed to germinate. So, when it does, it clones itself. Its roots shot new stems up that eventually turn into trunks.

Over time, the root system expands and aspen forests or aspen colonies grew. And once they do, they can survive almost anything.

Cutting them only kills individual trees, not the root system, not the colony. Freezing and forest fires cannot destroy them, since underground, where the root system lives, temperatures don’t change. As soon as the freeze or fire is over, new aspens shoot up towards the sun.

They are absolutely amazing! Always, but they are especially pretty in autumn. Their flat stems allow their leaves to flutter in the slightest breeze, making their bright colors shimmer in the sun.

Aspens in autumn at a viewpoint on top of Red Mountain Pass, Colorado
Aspens displaying their bright autumn colors at the viewpoint on the top of Red Mountain Pass.

A Walk Along Crystal Lake

As bright and beautiful as the aspens were by Ironton, my favorite stop along this road was Crystal Lake. Not because the colors were more spectacular, but a short trail offered an opportunity to take a walk rather than just get out of the car, take a few photos and leave.

A gate separated the trail from the road. Passed it I took the shorter side walking between Crystal Lake and the road. Autumn colors reflected in its crystal-clear water in the sunlight, making its name’s origins obvious.

View from the lake along the road

The short walk along its bank showed off the pass, with the mountains on both sides dressed in multiple shades of bright yellows and greens. In the distance, as a contrast, Red Mountain stood in the shade, with its barren top exposed.

A walk along Crystal Lake offers a gorgeous view of the Red Mountain Pass
A walk along Crystal Lake offered a gorgeous view of the Red Mountain Pass

Our Searches for Gorgeous Autumn Colors Had a Great Start

This past weekend was the beginning of our fall wanderings in search of colors, our first time experiencing fall in Colorado. I wasn’t sure we’d catch the peak of autumn colors, but since we had an opportunity, we drove up there anyway. The colors surpassed my expectations, especially past Silverton, on the Million Dollar Highway. I would make fun of the name, but in this case, as cheesy as it sounds, I thought it fit.

Autumn colors along the road between Silverton and Ouray
Autumn colors along the road, just passed Silverton.

As gorgeous as it is along Colorado’s scenic highways, it is only one of many places to enjoy autumn colors. Last year we enjoyed them in a different part of the country, in a quaint area of New Jersey. Next week, we’ll repeat our yearly pilgrimage to Flagstaff, to see the aspens turn their bright colors. We might even go to places we haven’t visited in years, in Arizona.

Yes, we have fall colors in the state. And not only what most people normally associate with fall. The state is filled with color this time of the year. Leaves turn colors in the high country, and wildflowers bloom in the desert. This is the time of the year when we start appreciating our state again. Soon, we won’t even need to drive far out of town to enjoy the outdoors. We, desert dwellers, are coming out of hibernation.

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Autumn colors in Colorado
Autumn colors along the Million Dollar Highway
Aspen colony in autumn along the Million Dollar Highway
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