Silverton, Colorado. Population 566. No stoplights. No dry cleaners. And no McDonald’s.
This old mining town’s official beginning came in 1874 with the discovery of gold and silver (hence the name). There are still some active mines, although today it has turned into a small tourist stop at the end of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Train Route. This historic train has been in continuous operation for 126 years, carrying passengers through the stunning vistas of mountain passes and valleys behind a vintage steam locomotive. The train runs from late Spring through the end of October.
During the summer season, when the train reaches Silverton, at an elevation of 9,300 feet, tourists get off the train for a couple of hours to shop at the tiny Western motif shops and traipse around the charming, yet dusty streets that mostly look the same as they did in the early 1900s. My mom and step-dad moved here 10 years ago and built a ten- room motel—The Canyon View Motel, that they also run themselves; they are the owners, the desk clerks, the maids, and the maintenance staff.
They also built a log cabin home about 6 miles outside of town 20 minutes down an unpaved road farther into the wilderness. Technically, they don’t even live within the city limits of Silverton. They actually are the only year-round residents of Middleton, another mostly abandoned mining town and consider themselves the mayor and the mayor’s wife.
For a slice of pure Americana garnished with a spectacular landscape, one-of-a-kind Silverton in Southwest Colorado may be the answer for an affordable yet spectacular getaway.
This small, mountain town exudes real old-west ‘movie-set’ charm with shops, restaurants, and a Victorian feel of days gone by. Silverton, where the mayor is also the milkman, is nestled high in the amazingly picturesque, San Juan Mountains. Only about five hundred residents live here year round (in summer it swells to about 2000).
Local Lyn Simon, who runs a coffee shop in town, says, “The heritage, culture, history here is untouched. It is a simple town, based on a simple quality of life, simple ways, simple needs of the people. ”
It’s a great place to visit, but can be a pretty tough place to live. The winters here are long and the landscape can be unforgiving. A four-wheel-drive truck is pretty compulsory if you want to get around. And sometimes you still can’t leave. The town sits in between two mountain passes on Highway 550 knows for its white-knuckle, switchbacks and s-curves. Even during my four-day visit, one of the passes was closed due to avalanches so you simply could not go north even if you wanted to. And between the tiny downtown and my mom’s house there are several avalanche chutes. In fact, one evening we said goodnight (I was sleeping at their motel and she was returning home) and about twenty minutes later, she returned with a big smile on her face. An avalanche had run right across the only road leading to her house coincidentally stranding her in town for the first time since she moved here more than 10 years ago. Two good things came out of this: 1. my mom and I hugged and jumped up and down like little girls excited about our ‘unexpected’ girl’s night in and, 2. she was lucky to arrive at the path of the avalanche just after it ran…not during! Eek.
This is backcountry. This is the land of avalanches. It’s man against nature…and nature is always the victor. Tragedies around these parts are not uncommon. In the last few years a local coffee shop owner starved to death while attempting a hike across the state. Another local woman shot herself inside her home. And every year several people are killed by avalanches or simply from driving right off the edge of the road and plunging hundreds of feet to their death. In many spots there are no guardrails, so when snow is plowed it can be pushed right over the cliffs. Often people skid or misjudge the treacherous hairpin turns…or they just decided they can’t deal with this podunk isolation anymore. Welcome to town!
During the winter, Silverton is famous for its anti-ski ‘resort,’ Silverton Mountain. It opened just a few years ago and is totally one-of-a-kind. While the word unique is often overused, it applies to the Silverton concept: One lift, one big mountain, no grooming, limited reservation-only skiing (for guided season), no apres-ski lodge – a real no-frills operation. You can pay almost $100 a day for a lift ticket to ski at Vail with 6,000 other skiers, or ski Silverton for as low as $39 a day with around 80 skiers or less most days. The alpine terrain is entirely for advanced and expert skiers and offers amazing, pristine backcountry conditions.
Silverton is so ‘backcountry’ and hardcore, that Olympic gold medal winner, Shaun White, spent several months here last year practicing his snowboard moves in an amazing, specially-built, top-secret half-pipe. Red Bull built the half pipe completely out of natural snow on the backside of Silverton Mountain. He rented a house in town and had a Red Bull sponsored helicopter at his disposal to drop him in the wilderness to practice his crazy boarding tricks.
See Vid here:
Since Silverton Mountain is a tad too hardcore for me (read: way out of my league), I enjoyed a laid-back and easy day skiing at the town’s Kendall Mountain Ski Area. Also equipped with just one lift…it was perfect. There are just a few runs so if you are looking for an easy day of carefree skiing, this is it. And also perfect is the price. Lift tickets are only $15 and rentals are just $20. I enjoyed a few hours of no-pressure, no-crowds skiing for under $40. And when I got bored (as I often do) I stopped in a couple hours and still got my money’s worth.
In the Summer:
- Ride the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
- Hike and/or rock climb on several 14,000 ft. Peaks
- Mountain bike the many trails in the area
- Take a mine tour of the Old 100 Mine
- Pan for gold or fish in the Animas River
- Go white-water rafting
- Try 4-Wheeling on the Alpine Loop
In the Winter:
- Try Snowshoeing
- Rent skis at the ScottyBob Ski Factory and go back country skiing
- Go Snowmobiling
- Extreme Backcountry Skiing at Silverton Mountain
- Easy Skiing and Ice Skating at Kendall Mountain
- Just a one hour drive to Durango Mountain Resort Ski Area
- Ice Climbing at Stairway to Heaven
- Ouray Hot Springs and Ice Park
- San Juan Grill—A newer eatery with an American eclectic menu of tasty homemade organic foods
- Handlebars or the Brown Bear – For some more authentic chow. Think all-American classics like chicken fried steak (is there actually any chicken in this mystery meat dish?) and stick-to-your-ribs meatloaf with gravy.
- Mobius Café – a big, airy, loft-like brick and timber café with great coffee, free wifi and a well-worn leather couch where you can take a load off and chat with some locals.
- Silverton Brewery – the local brewery with microbrews, bar food, and the classic circulating electric train.
- Montanya Distillery – a new addition to town, this unique Rum Distillery is Colorado’s first all-rum distillery and, at 9,300 feet, the highest distillery of any kind in the country. Of course at this altitude, one mojito is all your need.
Of course, there are the requisite western motif local souvenir shops…but for something different and locally made try:
- Mountain Boy Sleds- featured in Sundance and L.L. Bean catalogs
- Venture Snowboards—handmade, handcrafted, solar powered business
- Canyon View Motel—Family owned (my family!) motel with a western façade and free treats for four-legged guests.
- Eureka Lodge—looking to really get ‘out there’, then stay at the Eureka Lodge.
Major airline carriers fly into Montrose Airport, one hour north and Durango Airport, one hour south of Silverton. Of course, if the passes are closed, then you will be staying in those cities anyway.