The little town of Silverton, Colorado, may have a
year-round population of only 500 hardy souls (the winters are pretty long and
brutal in the San Juan Mountains), but almost half a million people visit each
year - most of them in the summer. The high peaks (including the largest
grouping of fourteeners in the state), crystal-clear creeks and lakes, clean
air, beautiful flowers, charming Victorian buildings, and friendly people entice
visitors to stay and play a while.
Jim and I have come to stay and play for about three weeks
this summer. We visited twice in 2000 and now wonder why it took us six years to
come back. With lots of places to camp for free on national forest property,
it's an inexpensive place to visit. There are also several private campgrounds
with full hook-ups. If you prefer cozy cabins or historic inns, you can find
those here, too.
What you won't find is oxygen-rich air or fast-food joints.
(Or cheap fuel for your vehicle.)
Silverton is one of many communities in Colorado that was
born in the booming days of silver and gold mining back in the 1870s. Many of
those towns all but disappeared after the ores ran out and fortune-seekers
headed off to the next deposits. Silverton, designated as a National Historic
District, has hung on because it found a way to survive on tourism (our next
destination, Leadville, has a similar story).
Silverton became prosperous in 1871 after the first major
silver strike in the area. In 1882 the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad made
access to the isolated valley much easier. Millions of dollars of ore
were mined over the next 36 years and the "silver kings" enjoyed an opulent
The Blair Street bordello district that formerly attracted
miners with saloons, gambling houses, and, um, bordellos, now houses
unique gift shops, restaurants, and other businesses necessary for a small town
to survive (it's a long drive to either Montrose or Durango). The Grand Imperial
Hotel, the gold-domed county courthouse, the old jail-turned-museum, the old
livery - these and many other original buildings still stand, although their occupants and uses may be different
Visitors of all ages enjoy browsing the unique shops
and museums, attending live local theatre productions, and learning about the
history of the area.
Of course, many people come to Silverton for the recreational
opportunities that abound in the millions of acres of public lands that surround
We're here to run the Colorado Trail and to help with the Hardrock 100-mile foot race that circles
the mountains around Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride. Many townspeople assist
with the race, which brings in lots of tourist dollars because most of the
runners get here two or three weeks ahead of time to acclimate to the altitude
(the race gets over 14,000 feet high). And they often bring their families or
friends. That's $$$ for Silverton.
Many other people come to hike, bike, or ride horses over
hundreds of miles of gorgeous trails, ride ATVs and jeeps (see photo below) over hundreds of miles
of bumpy dirt roads, climb the highest peaks, fish, camp, take photos, or
tour old mines. In the winter, visitors enjoy downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating, and ice climbing.
Promotional information boasts of over 700 miles of
"backcountry routes" in the mountains surrounding Silverton. That could take
several vacations to explore, even in a jeep!
Silverton capitalizes on its Western heritage and tries to
entertain its visitors with rides in horse-drawn carriages (below) and simulated 1800s gunslinger fights on
one of the side streets:
There are also museums documenting the area's
history, which you can visit on a walking tour. The next two photos show the
tiny old jail, which has been restored:
There are several restaurants in town with
very good food. We've had a fine grilled chicken
dinner at the Brown Bear Café, below . .
. . . breakfast at Chattanooga's (popular with
the Hardrock runners), and pizza at
the funky Avalanche Coffeehouse Café, below, which
has an eclectic offering of foods and other items. The owner drives an old VW
bus straight out of the 1970s. The property is for sale, in case you're
Out back, colorful old skis are used as a decorative type
of fencing. We've seen several of these "fences" in Leadville, too:
RIDIN' THE RAILS
Silverton is the northern terminus for the popular Durango
and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, an historic coal-burning passenger train
that runs throughout the summer between the two towns. The track follows the
Animas River through the rugged San Juan National Forest for a nine-hour round
trip that can start and end in either town. The train offers inside coach seats,
open-air gondolas, and a first-class parlor car. There is a museum in a
roundhouse in the Durango yard.
We haven't decided yet if we'll fork over the fare for a
round-trip ride on the train, but it looks like it'd be a lot of fun. We were in
Silverton one day when the train was just unloading:
You can see one of the open gondola cars on
the train to the right:
There are reminders of Silverton's mining heritage all over
town and the surrounding countryside. The welcome center has one of several
historical information signs in town and displays ore carts and buckets up close:
[Side note for boon-docking campers: you can get
free water at the welcome center and dump trash there. The only places we've
found to dump gray and black water are at the private campgrounds, which charge
a small fee.]
Just outside of town and all over the mountains you can
find remnants of old mines. You'd be surprised how precariously some of them sit
'way up on the sides of these mountains! It's amazing to think how they were
built and the gold and silver were mined. Those guys were fearless mountain goats.
One of the mines that you can tour (i.e., go inside) is The Old
Hundred, located a few miles out of town on the little dirt road to Cunningham Gulch.
The next photo shows an enlargement of part of the mine
that is about 300 feet up that hill. You can barely make it out in the photo
That is one steep hill, probably a 70-degree angle. There
must have been a sluice or conveyor or tracks or something going up that
hillside to take up the men and bring down the ore. Yikes!
Another mine we've seen on a recent run is the Bandora
Mine, located about six miles out South Mineral Creek Road. This dirt road is
great until the last couple miles, when a high-clearance 4WD vehicle is
That part of the road isn't steep but it's very rough, narrow, and fords three creeks.
Jim took this photo of Fuller Peak, with the mine area in
the foreground, when he was running part of the Hardrock course. He was standing
on a high saddle (Putnam-Lime Creek) on the
south side of South Mineral Creek Road, which is visible at the bottom of the
A little while before Jim took that photo, I was
driving by the mine on the road and took this photo from a totally different
angle (from below, looking east):
You don't have to look hard to find tailings and abandoned structures from mines
in this area. They are everywhere. I'll show you some more in upcoming entries.
If you have acrophobia or vertigo, don't go driving around
these mountains on the jeep roads. Even the paved Million Dollar Highway between
Silverton and Ouray is enough to spook some folks. We're not normally afraid of
heights, but some of the steep, rugged roads we've driven up and down these mountains are
a bit scary.
And we love them!!! Adrenaline junkies, I guess.
Next entry: an unforgettable run on Segment 26 of
the Colorado Trail.