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A bird’s eye view of Silverton. Photo courtesy of Silverton Chamber of Commerce

First-Timer’s Guide: Silverton, Colorado

This mountain town is rich in history, big on adventure, and appealingly rough around the edges.

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Like many of Colorado’s mountain towns, Silverton, which is perched in a lofty valley at 9,000 feet in the southern San Juan Mountains, began as a mining town, and found a second life as a recreation hub rich in heritage tourism. Unlike many of its fellow mountain burgs, however, Silverton has not been polished and manicured into a destination for the well heeled. You won’t find upscale here. Instead, Silverton retains the wild, wooly and independent energy of a remote mountain town where snowfall is measured in feet and whiskey is served neat. The fact that the rough-and-tumble spirit has not been scrubbed away makes Silverton all the more charming, authentic, and adventurous. Its history is palpable, its services unpretentious, and its buffet of adventures endless. It’s not easy to get to, and can even feel like a step back in time, but a trip to Silverton is a guaranteed adventure.

The Odometer: 323 miles one-way (about a six-and-a-half-hour drive)

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Getting There is Half the Fun: Whichever way you approach it, the drive into Silverton entails hairpin turns, eye-popping drop-offs and massive views of mineral-stained mountains. That’s because Highway 550, aka “The Million Dollar Highway,” crosses over 11,000-foot Red Mountain Pass to the north of Silverton, and 10,900-foot Molas Pass to the south.

Mine the Mountains: Silverton was founded after prospectors discovered gold and silver in its hills. Today, the mountains are filled with different kinds of treasures: slopes of untracked powder, high country trails, wildflower-festooned meadows, and delicate waterfalls.

If you are a skier, a winter trip to Silverton Mountain should be on your bucket list. The mountain offers a stripped-down big-mountain ski experience that is truly one of a kind. Let’s put it this way: there’s only a single chairlift and the base lodge is a wood-fired Quonset hut. But with more than 2,000 acres of steeps, chutes and gulleys, carefully farmed powder fields, optional helicopter drops, and a base elevation of 10,400-feet, Silverton offers unforgettable adventure focused on one thing: getting the goods. Brace yourself‚—Silverton Mountain is expert-only, and requires skiers to carry or rent avalanche equipment.

Silverton Mountain offers guided big-mountain skiing on incredible terrain. Photo courtesy of Silverton Mountain.

Families or beginners can find friendlier terrain at nearby Kendall Mountain. Silverton is also home to miles of groomed snowmobile track great for snowshoeing, Nordic skiing and fat-biking, and numerous backcountry skiing options.

In the summertime, Silverton is encircled by opportunities for hiking, backpacking, and Jeeping. Both Columbine and Ice Lakes entail hikes through steep wildflower country to subalpine lakes of otherworldly blues. Looking for a shorter jaunt? Hike to Christ of the Mine Shrine for a bird’s eye view of downtown Silverton. Mountain bikers can hit up sections of the Colorado Trail near Molas Pass. Or for four-wheel-drive action, rent a Jeep to explore the famed Alpine Loop, and any of the many ghost towns that dot the mountains.

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Tap Into History: Of course, Silverton’s biggest attraction is probably the coal-fired Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The railroad line was constructed between Durango and Silverton in 1882 to haul silver and gold ore; today it hauls history buffs, curious families and tourists from around the world between the two towns. A ride aboard the chugging train’s vintage cars is both a step back in time, and a thrilling journey through the rugged Weminuche Wilderness, and along the precipitous Animas River canyon. Ride options vary; a one-way jaunt to Durango with a shuttle ride back is a great way to see the sights. The summer season runs May through October.

The Grand Imperial Hotel is one of Silverton’s most eye-catching historic properties. Photo courtesy of Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad/American Heritage Railways.

The train is only one of the myriad ways to experience Silverton’s mining history. Others include: a tour of the Old Hundred Gold Mine, where passengers ride into the belly of Galena Mountain to watch mining equipment in action; a visit to nearby ghost town Animas Fork—once the bustling county seat—to explore empty buildings and peer into the past; a self-guided tour of the Mayflower Mill; or a horse-drawn carriage ride through Silverton’s old town square.

Eat & Drink: Playing in the San Juans builds a hearty appetite. Find a delicious post-adventure repast at Avalanche Brewing Company. The cozy and colorful restaurant offers from-scratch pizza, wraps, salads and an array of local brews. Try the Super Hawaiian Pizza, which gets a kick from green chilies, and a pint of punchy Sultan IPA. If it’s straight-up southern-style barbecue you’re after, hit up Thee Pitts Again, where the decor is Pepto-Bismol pink, and the plates are weighed down with brisket, ribs, and sides like slaw and baked beans. Handlebars Food and Saloon embraces the town’s history with wall-to-wall mining bric-a-brac and a meat-centric menu. The Brown Bear Cafe offers classic dinner breakfast fare under a pressed-tin ceiling. Or if you’d got an adventure to get to, grab your coffee along with a tasty breakfast burrito or pastry at The Coffee Bear inside the Grand Imperial Hotel.

The colorful and cozy Avalanche Brewing on Blair Street in Silverton. Photo courtesy of Avalanche Brewing.

Stay: Lodging options run the gamut, from cozy VRBOs to the Blair Street Hostel and the dog-friendly Canyon View Motel. History nerds should head to the Grand Imperial Hotel, originally opened as an opulent accommodation in 1883 by New York perfume and lumber magnate W.S. Thompson. The hotel underwent extensive renovation in 2015; today, it’s 40 suites, lobby and saloon are soaked in mining era history. For a more intimate historic stay, check out Inn of the Rockies at the Historic Alma House, a Victorian bed and breakfast known for top-notch breakfast fare.

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