Updated December 2, 2016.
Join us on our tour of Silverton Colorado, the gem of the San Juan Skyway National Scenic Byway, crowned by the San Juan Mountains . . . the most resplendent range in the Rockies!
Our point of origin for this leg of our road trip began at the southwestern tip of the San Juan Skyway National Scenic Byway in Cortez, Colorado where we stayed for a few nights while taking in the local sights, including visiting the stunning Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
With so much to see, a week spent on the byway in the San Juan Mountains is just not enough!
Find out how our trip began in The San Juan Mountains Colorado--Traveling the San Juan Skyway, part 1 of the San Juan Skyway series, and then you can learn more about our trip in The Million Dollar Highway-Traveling the San Juan Skyway, part 3!
Step back into a different time, a page in old west history, when Silverton Colorado was a mining camp isolated from civilization in an unforgiving wilderness high in the San Juan Mountains deep in the Rocky Mountain Range.
Imagine it’s 1873, and venturous men flock here to make their fortunes mining rich mineral resources. The flash of gold and silver beckoned these rugged individuals and caused them to travail through 200 inches of snowfall each winter.
Never mind that Silverton was built in an ancient volcanic caldera over 9000 feet in elevation, one of the highest towns in the contiguous United States.
Remnants of mines from those early days to current times dot the San Juan Mountains, especially near Silverton Colorado.
Mining families proudly pass down the mining traditions they inherited to their future generations. This heritage is as rich as the findings and the mountain folk are a friendly, hardy bunch who enjoys shooting the breeze with those passing through.
This frontier boomtown’s wild and wooly past continues to live, carefully preserved in the town’s colorful culture as evidenced by those buildings still standing and the celebration of annual festivals, to which visitors are invited.
Enjoy the Silverton Brass Band, ceremonies at the Tirolesi-Trentini Monument, stage coach rides, gun fight shows and productions by the A Theatre Group. Check the Silverton Chamber of Commerce’s calendar of events when planning your road trip.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, we started our journey to the Great Southwest at Cortez, Colorado.
Then, we headed east on the Navajo Trail/US Route 160 toward Durango.
In Durango, we turned north on US Route 550 and immediately ascended into the heavenly heights of the San Juan Mountains. We took in the breathtaking sights and jaw-dropping scenery along the way.
It’s about 48 miles of steep narrow road with hairpin curves and amazing overlooks from Durango to Silverton Colorado, a little over a one hour drive, non-stop when the road and weather are clear.
From Molas Pass, we drove about 34 miles following the Animas River where we dropped out of the mountains via a steep switch-back with Anvil Mountain looming large and then turning our backs to this monolith . . . there was Silverton CO.
The sight was stunning!
Nestled in an incredible valley ringed by the San Juan Mountains rising precipitously on all sides, Silverton glistened like a jewel.
Our first stop was the Silverton Visitor Center, literally sitting at the foot of Kendall Peak. What a striking view! The visitor center houses a small museum and is loaded with historical and traveler information. Here is where we discovered how much Silverton Colorado had to offer . . . so many things to do, places to see, tastes to experience . . . myriads to explore!
We had planned to spend most of the day here before venturing forth on the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray.
But our time was cut short due to road reconstruction on a rock slide in the Red Mountain area. The highway was closed except for the workmen's lunch hour at mid-day, one hour only per day.
That left us only 90 minutes to visit Silverton Colorado before we had to hit the road again. Though I was disappointed not to be able to take the time to "soak" up all things Silverton, we did manage to see quite a bit and took some precious time to chat with the locals, who are very friendly. We loved their stories!
Mining is everywhere. Of course, this is what Silverton is all about. We saw mining ruins, tailings, vintage mines, miner's shanties, antique cabins, and newer mining operations.
Did you know Silverton Colorado is a National Historic Landmark? Very few towns receive this coveted designation and none is as intact as Silverton. We loved taking the Historic Walking tour, especially down Greene Street.
Every building has a story to tell, ones that have endured through the trials and tribulations of the town’s history.
Named after the town’s father, George Greene, Greene Street grew from the ground up during the town's two earliest boom eras. The first prospectors lined the bottom of the caldera and up the mountains sides with tents, shanties, and log cabins.
As time drew on, more permanent structures were built. Those that survived fires and force majeure have been restored to their former glory and updated with modern amenities.
This elegant showplace built by English mining interests in 1882, has endured as a hotel from its birth. Initially named the Grand Hotel and later the Imperial Hotel, its intriguing history is immortalized in its current name, the Grand Imperial Hotel. Much of the original interior has been preserved. The focal point is the beautiful hand-carved bar and antique mirror in the Hub Saloon.
The Old Benson Hotel is a classic structure built in 1901. When we visited here in May 2014, the building was under renovation and reopened soon after as the Benson Hotel, a higher end establishment specializing in contemporary luxury.
Charles Fischer had a vision, ethnic saloons. Built in 1896, Mr. Fischer dedicated the first floor of his new building to two saloons. For his Italian patronage, he opened the Tyrol, and for his French customers, he named his second saloon, The Frog. Upstairs, he opened the Teller House Hotel, which continues to lodge visitors to this day. If you love everything Victorian, including the hospitality, then this is the place for you.
The minor antique buildings are no less charming and some are packed with a wallop of history. At 1335 Green Street, current day Weathertop Wovens occupies a non-descript structure which originated as a saloon in 1876. Its personality developed over time . . . butcher shop, drug store, Chinese laundry, boot shop, jewelry store, barber shop and a laundromat. I wonder what the future has in store for this little place? Whatever it is, it will be interesting.
I was particularly attracted to this sturdy building. It looks like it belongs, like it has always been here and always will be. After doing some research I discovered native red sandstone construction is the reason. Silverton’s Town Hall and San Juan County Courthouse has a burning history. Wiped out by various fires over the course of its life since it was erected in 1908, the building has under gone several restorations, the last of which received several nationally recognized awards.
One of the stateliest buildings we’ve ever encountered has probably one of the richest histories of any structure in Silverton. The building was erected as The San Juan County Sheriff’s office and San Juan County Jail in 1902. A few years later, in 1907, construction was completed adding the courthouse, which is still in use today. During the 1930’s the jail served to house unfortunates. Currently, this building houses the Museum of the San Juan County Historical Society.
Do you recognize the stone on this building? It's the same native red sandstone used to build the Town Hall. Since its completion in 1902, this substantial structure has served a variety purposes throughout its history, which adds to its unique appeal. After a Victorian period restoration, the building now serves as a luxury bed and breakfast lodging.
Adding to the historic lure of the Wyman is this quaint courtyard, inviting and friendly.
The architectural character of Ye Olde Livery caught our eye. Located at 1142 Greene Street, this ornate building, constructed in 1897, is rather fancy for a livery stable. The central location is curious, too, as old time livery stables were usually located down-wind on the outskirts of frontier towns. Like all the historic buildings in Silverton, the livery sports a lively history.
Prohibition left a lasting mark on this building constructed in 1909, shutting down the original saloon. The business was converted to a movie theater. The movie house endured until about 1990. Since then, Montanya Distillers has returned the premises to one of spirits and camaraderie, and added a roof deck with terrific views of the San Juan Mountains.
In its heyday the revelry on Blair Street never quit, neither day nor night, thumbing its nose at all that was good and noteworthy. Rowdy brothels and riotous saloons catered to a fractious bunch of miners bent on ruination.
The taint of this former red-light district remains, as much a part of Silverton Colorado as any other historic place.
Today shops and eateries occupy what is left over from that bygone era and they exhibit the vestiges in rustic architecture . . .
. . . restored fixtures and furnishings, and in memorabilia.
After a walk through Blair Street . . . it’s not what you think! Really! A cat house . . . as in "feline"!
For those of you who’ve taken time to get to know me, you know I love cats (CatsStories.com). I couldn’t resist sharing a photo of this gorgeous tuxedo cat sunbathing in the window of this quaint Victorian cottage.
Then, in the back yard we spied a delightful kitty garden ornament perched atop a fence rail, its beady marble eyes glowing from the depths of black coal.
Remember the wooden Indians standing next to the door of the old-time cigar store? You know what I’m talking about, the ones you’ve seen in western movies. Cigar statue figures come in all shapes and sizes, and not all of them are of Indians. These life-size sculptures gracing various doorways really add to the ambiance of this frontier mining town.
Wow! Does this building ever have stories to tell! I guess it should, as it’s the oldest brick building in western Colorado. Built in 1880 as a hardware store, the Posey Wingate Building also housed store fronts, saloons and clothing stores. The First National Bank of Silverton did business here, its bank vault endures. Mining companies, legal offices, a telephone exchange, and a billiard’s and pool hall are all part of the history here.
In this photo you can see what caught our eye . . . a “Tin Lizzie” sporting a handlebar mustache!
Of all the shops in Silverton Colorado, we most enjoyed the Train Store. Housed in the historic George Wright building erected in 1875 as a general store, later a dry goods establishment, and home to the Silverton Standard and The Miner newspapers, The Train store celebrates the importance of the railroad in Silverton’s mining culture.
What caught my eye were the antique glass insulators on display. As we hail from the Pacific Northwest, we felt these glass insulators were a long way from home. Perhaps glass insulators are rare here, but where we come from they are a common find, especially along the Southern Pacific/Union Pacific line north of Klamath Falls, Oregon!
So common, in fact, as children we used to pick them up alongside railroad tracks where we went exploring with our father when we traveled. At home we used them as garden ornaments, lining our flower beds.
Winter weather can make travel difficult on routes passing through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Bookmark this page to return to time and again to get the latest about road conditions before you go!
Once in a while we run into something interesting to share. For lack of better terminology, I decided to throw these things into the “Roadside Oddities” category . . . those road trip peculiarities and curiosities that really are Americana.
My husband struck up a conversation with the gentleman who was washing this one-of-a kind taxi parked in front of Grumpy’s Restaurant & Saloon, located at the Grand Imperial Hotel.
The story, as I remember it, is the body of this rig was once a real taxi. (Visions of vintage Yellow Cabs lining the streets of Manhattan Island in New York City dance in my head.)
When jokingly asked if Grumpy’s Taxi was for hire, the gentleman smiled, his pearly whites glinting in the bright sunshine.
Mounted on a four wheel drive chassis, this vehicle is designed to give rides to guests who wish to traverse the rugged backcountry outside Silverton Colorado.
We were intrigued, thus the photo.
Harley Davidson motorcycles are part of our nation’s culture. What better way to become a piece of Americana than by staking a bold claim in a famous western mining town, like Silverton Colorado . . . “The World’s Highest Harley Store”!
. . . Our adventure continues from Silverton Colorado; see The Million Dollar Highway--Travelling the San Juan Skyway, (part 3)!
“This historic train has been in continuous operation between Durango and Silverton since 1882, carrying passengers behind vintage steam locomotives and rolling stock indigenous to the line. Relive the sights and sounds of yesteryear for a spectacular journey on board the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.”
"The American West once had hundreds of precious metal mills. Now, most are in various stages of ruin. One important exception is the Mayflower Mill, (or the Shenandoah-Dives Mill) located two miles northeast of Silverton. A National Historic Landmark, this wonderful piece of mining history is open to the public."
“Experience underground fun and adventure, pan for gold, ride the Mine Tram 1/3 mile into the heart of Galena Mountain . . . “
"The original Silverton Northern Railroad was built by pioneer Otto Mears. It operated from 1895 to 1942, serving the mines between Silverton and Animas Forks." This railroad was of great historical significance in Colorado. A historical interpretive center is planned in the near future. Watch for it's opening.
"Located right in town and easy walking distance to shopping, dining, hiking and fishing. Enjoy the spectacular views of the San Juan mountains from your site."
This place has it all . . . motel, cabins, RV park with full hookups and a dump station, tent campground, a hunt camp, laundry facilities, off-road vehicle rentals, kids play area and activities . . . and pets are welcome.
Centrally located on the San Juan Skyway, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad turns around next to the park. Ride the train down the mountain to see the sights . . . Mesa Verde National Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, or drive the Million Dollar Highway to see the Black Canyon Gunnison National Park. Recreational vehicle rentals are available to convey you to scenic trailheads and fantastic fishing.
Popular with off-road vehicle aficionados, this RV park provides basic amenities just a few steps from downtown Silverton. Reviews are excellant.
"The Bar D Wranglers perform their Famous Stage Show after supper with songs of cowboys and the old west, comedy, and lively instrumentals to please the whole family."
The Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce has done such a great job curating information about dining in Silverton Colorado; I decided it would be best to feature a link to their webpage for your convenience.
"The Silverton area boasts a number of great day hikes but none can compete with the sheer scenic beauty of Ice Lake."
The Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce has done such a great job curating information about the lodging available in Silverton, Colorado; I decided it would be best to feature a link to their webpage for your convenience.
"Our mining heritage has been the heart of San Juan County's development. Many service industries were instrumental in the success of the mining industry including the railroad for transportation of the ores, Otto Mears toll road system, the mining of precious metals (from numerous mines, the mills and smelters, boarding houses) and the support towns that followed the big strikes, which provided employment, supplies, housing, cultural opportunities, and entertainment."
"If you look north toward Anvil Mountain, you'll see the Christ of the Mines Shrine, the centerpiece of which is a 12-ton statue of Jesus carved of Italian marble. The shrine was erected in 1959, and has been credited with a handful of miracles over the subsequent years. A moderately strenuous 1-mile hike leads to the shrine, which has memorable views of the surrounding San Juan Mountains."
An interesting little side note: the stones making up the alcove behind the Christ of the Mines Shrine on Anvil Mountain come from an old brewery!
"The historic and ruggedly beautiful Hillside Cemetery in Silverton is a gem in the rough! Located in the high country of southwestern Colorado, the graves, marked and unmarked, reveal the colorful history of the area."
Fun activities for the whole family can be had the Durango Mountain Resort, located about 21 miles south of Silverton, Colorado. Activities include, hiking, mountain biking, ziplining, mountain sliding, miniature golf, disc golf, obstacle course, bungee trampoline, winter sports and scenic chairlift rides in summer.
Ice skating, sledding, downhill, backcountry and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and ice climbing . . . these are the winter recreation opportunities attracting the adventurous to "The Cheapest Ski area in the West".
"As the Southwest’s Adventure Experts, we offer the biggest selection of Colorado, Utah and Arizona river rafting and jeep tours. Our interpretive Mesa Verde tours and adventure packages with Durango’s Train complete your Southwest Adventure. Escape. Experience. Explore. And, Always Live with Adventure!"
"The 1890s stagecoach company carrying passengers from the Hotel Western to the San Juan high country boasted the ride as the "grandest in the land." Now you can experience the 1880s and the world of prospectors, adventurers and mountaineers with your own ride on those high cliff-hanging stage and wagon roads! You can see firsthand the old mining ghost towns above Ouray, Silverton, Telluride and Lake city with the guides of Colorado's first and original Jeep Tour company."
"Silverton Mountain is designed to have a minimal environmental impact with the major possibility of creating long term positive environmental impacts (see environment). With no plans or desires for condos, high speed lifts, or insane daily ticket prices, Silverton Mountain is how skiing used to be."