How to Explore One of Colorado's Lesser-Known Adventure Towns

There is one paved street in Silverton. This is not it.
There is one paved street in Silverton. This is not it. Abbie Mood
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Silverton is a small town. A really small town. With a year-round population of about 700 residents and one paved road, it’s a mountain town that’s easily overlooked. Sure, skiers and snow enthusiasts know it for the advanced, big mountain skiing, but what plenty of people don’t know is that Silverton has a lot to offer in the warmer months, too.

Silverton wasn’t always this small. At the peak of the mining boom in the late 1800s, more than 1,000 people called Silverton home. The Ute Indians first lived in the area, but following the Brunot Treaty of 1873, white settlers began to trickle in. Once gold and silver were discovered in the mountains in the 1870s and 80s, they began to swarm in seeking prosperity and wealth. But the mining industry that the town was built upon has come and gone, and the last mine shut down in 1991.

Today, tourism is the big industry thanks in part to the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which brings tourists in on several trains per day, as well as to the near-endless outdoor activities in the area. If you find yourself in this underrated adventure town in the San Juans, here’s a quick glimpse at what you can do.

OHV

Taking to the OHV trails in Silverton.
    Abbie Mood
Taking to the OHV trails in Silverton. Abbie Mood

Off-highway vehicles are a big thing in Silverton. With the 63-mile unpaved Alpine Loop just a few minutes’ drive from town, it’s easy to hop on an OHV and go. Literally. You can rent a state-of-the-art Polaris RZR from Rock Pirates and drive right from their shop on the main street of town out to the loop. Once you get there, the options are endless. Drive up to Engineer or Cinnamon Pass, the two 12,000-foot high points of the loop. Visit one of the seven ghost towns (Animas Forks is the first one you’ll come to). Ride all the way over to Ouray or Lake City—the only places where you’ll actually have cell phone service once you leave Silverton. You can also rent a Jeep in town, but it will take you much longer to travel along the loop.

Rock Climbing

Where there are mountains, you can usually find climbing, and Silverton is no exception. You won’t find an abundance of developed routes here, but there are a handful of areas with some trad and sport climbing. There’s tons of potential here if you’re going after first ascents, but with established routes ranging from 5.7-5.13a, there’s something for everyone already. Jump on the Hardrock Miner, a five-pitch, 600-foot 5.7, or pretty much anything at the Master’s Wall in the Cunningham Gulch Area. The best time to climb in the Silverton area is in the summer and fall.

Paddling

The scenic white waters of the Animas River.
The scenic white waters of the Animas River. Dan Davis

With the Animas River running along the edge of town, it’s no surprise that there are some opportunities for whitewater paddling. The entire river runs 126 miles from the Animas Forks ghost town down into New Mexico, including a 24-mile section of continuous class IV whitewater. Most of the rapids are straightforward, and the typical Upper Animas run is to put-in on Mineral Creek in Silverton and take-out near the Tacoma Power Plant. It makes for a very long day, so many people plan for a two-day trip or plan for a shuttle by parking at the Rockwood Rail Yard. The tourist train rolls through here, so you may be able to catch a ride back to Silverton that way, too (make sure they can accommodate your gear).

Hiking

The view from the top of Engineer Pass on the Alpine Loop.
    Abbie Mood
The view from the top of Engineer Pass on the Alpine Loop. Abbie Mood

Locals hike up Silverton Mountain on a regular basis, but if hoofing up a ski mountain at elevation isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of other options. Spud Lake is an easy, 3-mile walk that’s a good one if you have kids or if you’re not used to the elevation. You’ll see wildflowers in the summer, aspens changing colors in the fall, and plenty of wildlife year round on your way out to Spud Lake. The road to the trailhead can be a little rough, but as long as the snow is clear, you’re good to go. The lake is also popular for fishing and camping.

If you want to see those beautiful blue alpine lakes the area is known for, though, you’re going to have to work for it. The Highland Mary Lake Trail is a 5-mile moderately difficult trek that is another local favorite, and it won’t take long to figure out why. You’ll see two pristine lakes fed by melting ice and snow, highland tundra, wide open spaces filled with wildflowers, and remnants of mines—all while hiking through gulches surrounded by mountain peaks.

For even more of a challenge, try the 8-mile Ice Lakes Basin Trail. It’s got all of the above plus waterfalls, too.

Mountain Biking

There are three main trails that Silverton mountain bikers frequent, and like most everything else around here, it’s not going to be easy. There is a 10.3-mile section of the long-distance Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to Engineer Mountain Trail that is open to mountain biking. This intermediate to difficult section is a good introduction to the area’s riding without the commitment of going into the backcountry.

The 8.4-mile intermediate Rainbow Trail goes out to Ophir Pass and back. The mostly singletrack ride can be tricky depending on the weather and water runoff, but the ride back from Ophir Pass is a fun downhill. Your last option is the Columbine Lake Trail—6.6 miles of hard riding between 10,300 and 12,700 feet.

Snow Sports

Ripping a nice turn at Silverton Mountain.
Ripping a nice turn at Silverton Mountain. Pierce Martin

Winters in Silverton are all about skiing and snowmobiling. Rent a snowmobile from Ice Pirates and hit the backcountry. The land out here is rugged, but there are snowmobile trips suitable for all experience levels.

Speaking of rugged, the skiing here is definitely not for all experience levels. There is tons of backcountry, and Silverton Mountain is a big draw. It’s not your typical resort—there is one chairlift for access to intermediate and advanced terrain, or you can book a heli-skiing trip to really get out there. If access to almost 2,000 acres of the highest and steepest ski terrain in North America sounds like an exciting challenge, you should definitely ski Silverton next winter.

If snowshoeing is your winter activity of choice, many of the trails mentioned in the hiking section are open to snowshoeing, too.

Eating & Sleeping

A cabin in Animas Forks on the Alpine Loop. You can't stay there, but it's fun to look inside.
    Abbie Mood
A cabin in Animas Forks on the Alpine Loop. You can't stay there, but it's fun to look inside. Abbie Mood

There aren’t a ton of options in a place like Silverton, but what is there is solid. Start your morning with a traditional bacon and eggs breakfast at the Brown Bear Café, or grab a coffee from Cafe Mobius. At the end of your day, hit up the Golden Block Brewery for a cold local beer and a pizza, or Eureka Station for a more extensive menu (try the Cornish Pasty, an old miner favorite).

There are a few hotels around town, but if you’re up for a bed and breakfast with a ghost story or two, book a night at the Inn of the Rockies at the Historic Alma House. Don’t be surprised if you hear the old school marm walking around on the third floor at night. The Teller House Hotel, built in the 1890s, is another option right on the main drag.

There are a couple touristy shops around town to check out, as well as the Chocolate Dog, which features products from local artisans. If you happen to be traveling with the family, stop by Professor Shutterbugs for an authentic Wild West portrait. Professor Shutterbug and his crew take their job very seriously and won’t snap that shot until you’re 100% set.

Whatever you decide to do, be sure to check the operating hours. Some places aren’t open every day, and others close early.

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