Mining town turned travel destination, Silverton has a lot to offer without losing sight of its past.
Tucked in at 9,318 feet in the San Juan Mountains sits a town that is no stranger to visitors but has never had that tourist-trap feel. A little rough around the edges and completely authentic, Silverton is a gateway to some of the most breathtaking country in the state, a caretaker of Colorado's mining history, and a step into (very) small-town life.
Founded on the promise of silver and gold, and sustained by the mountains that surround it, Silverton came to being in 1874, serving as a hub for mining camps. In 1882, the railroad rolled in from Durango to connect the mining towns, causing the town to grow to 2,000 people, 400 buildings, including 29 saloons and the notorious Blair Street red light district. Mining left the area in the 1990s, leaving behind a fairly large amount of ore undisturbed, as well as ghost towns and old mines behind to visit.
While I could go on about the town's fascinating history, there have been literal books written on it, so I'll skip ahead to everything that the area has to offer. Check out activities that are not to be missed.
There are some awe-inspiring mountains peaks and mountain valleys waiting for you just outside of Silverton. Honestly, either way you drive on the highway from Silverton, either toward Ouray or toward Durango, it is an amazing drive suitable for any vehicle. But, there is something to be said for looking over the top of the craggy peaks and seeing the remnants of mines that seemingly hang off the mountains. The best way to do that is to drive a Jeep or other off-road vehicle in the backcountry.
Alpine Loop scenery. Courtesy of Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs.
From Silverton, you can access the Alpine Loop, a 65-mile 4-wheel track that passes by surreal scenery and views that will stay with you forever. It's best to have a high-clearance vehicle, so you can rent a jeep or hire a guide to drive you, depending on how you feel about driving narrow, windy and technical mountain roads. On a personal note, I drove up Engineer Pass in a Jeep Grand Cherokee and probably should have diapered up before I went. I'd do the trip again in a heartbeat ... just as long as someone else was driving (but I'm not overly adventurous when it comes to vehicles, and hard-core 4-wheelers don't even bat an eye at the road, so take my advice as you will). The journey is incredible, and if you have time to drop over Engineer Pass into Lake City, head that way to support an amazing community that has had a tough time with avalanches and flooding this past winter.
The best way to find a Jeep/OHV rental service and tour guides is to simply Google Jeep rentals in Silverton. There are plenty to choose from. Bike rentals are also available.
The Ghost Town of Animas Forks
There are tons of mining ruins to see in the high country around Silverton, but it's definitely worth it to take a trip up to Animas Forks. You can access it from Silverton via a gravel road with some rather rocky bumps (you'll pass by it on your way to the Alpine Loop, as well, where you can head up Engineer Pass or Cinnamon Pass). On your way, you'll pass the remains of Howardsville and Eureka before you hit your destination. Animas Forks has been well-preserved and gives people a glimpse into mining life in the 1880s. It sits at 11,000 feet and was one of the highest mining camps in the U.S. Mines, houses, and more stand in various conditions, some even containing the original linen- and newspaper-lined walls. Interestingly, the town is home to some unique history: a member of one of the families who lived in the home with the large bay windows owned the Hope Diamond. Guess it really paid to be a mining mogul.
While you're there try to imagine avalanches shooting down the mountain and traveling from building to building (and town to town) via snow tunnel. Those were some hardy people.
Courtesy of Adam Baker, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8019246.
Old Hundred Mine
Since you are in the middle of mine country, you might as well see how it was all done. This mine is easy to access with a car (up a gravel road), and is definitely worth the time. You can take the one-hour guided mine tour that takes you 1/3 mile into the heart of 13,000-foot Galena Mountain where you can follow the vein and see real mining equipment in action. Go underground and experience the secret world of the gold miner! It's a fun tour that I recommend.
Courtesy of Old Hundred Gold Mine.
Stroll the Sidewalks of Silverton
Shopping and dining in Silverton certainly should have a place on your itinerary. Check out the charming shops with local goods, travel down Blair Street and imagine the bawdy times of days gone by, stop over at a brewery, buy some rock candy in one of the sweets shops, and watch the train come into town just like it has for decades. If you're hungry, you really can't go wrong with any of the eateries in town. My go-to stop is always Handlebars Food & Saloon as much for its mining-town kitsch as its menu. Afterward, try a funnel cake for dessert from Rocky Mountain Funnel Cakes. You can thank me later. No matter where you stop, you'll get a chance to meet local residents, some that live in Silverton year-round, who are as authentic as the atmosphere.
Take the time to cruise on down to the Grand Imperial Hotel to see its Victorian finery and player piano that harkens back to saloon days. While it has been restored to its 19th-century glory, the Grand Imperial also has all the modern amenities that you could want if you choose to take a room.
While you are in town, don't miss the San Juan County Historical Museum. I'm a history nerd, but it has so many amazing displays packed into one place, everyone will enjoy the visit. You can (and likely will) spend hours there lost in mining and Old West artifacts, the old jail, and much more memorabilia from several eras.
Courtesy of John S. Hirth, Wikimedia.org.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
This train has been tied to the heart of Silverton since the 1880s. Today, it still serves as a major contributor to Silverton's economy, and a really cool trip to boot. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers you an unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience through the beautiful San Juan Mountains. This historic scenic railroad runs May through October with service to Silverton. For more information on options, including staying overnight in Silverton and returning to Durango another day, or boarding in Silverton to visit Durango for the day, then catching a shuttle back.
Of course, due to its wondrous location, hiking, camping, biking, fishing, and a whole host of other outdoor activities are also available. Bike rentals are available among other outdoor equipment. In the winter, the snow rules, and you can hit the slopes at Silverton Mountain Ski Area, for advanced or expert skiers, or Kendall Mountain, which has easier terrain. These aren't large ski areas (think one lift), but like everything else in the town, they offer an authentic experience that you won't find in many other mountain towns.
A great place to start is to visit the Silverton Chamber of Commerce's website. It offers a wide variety of activities, lodging, dining, shopping, and so much more to help you plan your perfect vacation.
Have you visited Silverton? Let us know your favorite things to do there in the comments.