I’m going to wrap up my series of posts on “Top 5 favorite Colorado mountain towns” by heading up in elevation. Hold on, as the only road to get to Silverton, Colorado, is not for the faint of heart.
Silverton sits in southwestern Colorado and there’s only one paved road leading to this charming and historic town. I need to put an emphasis on the word paved because this former mining town is host to some of the most fantastic 4×4 back country roads. That said, you’ll need to know not to trust your GPS because if she recommends any other route other than Highway 550, you may find yourself traversing one of those high clearance, dirt, mountain roads, turned summer fun four-wheeling routes. Many of those old mining roads are numbered, named, and recognized on maps, and trust me when I say you’ll want a “high clearance” vehicle traveling these back roads as deep ruts, rocks, and water are common encounters.
So to get to Silverton from the south, you’ll need to take Highway 550 from the town of Durango and travel about 50 miles north on a beautiful and scenic well maintained road. The road twists, bends, goes up, and goes down as it meanders through the San Juan Mountain Range. There are drop offs with guard rails or maybe not.
You’ll pass mountains, lakes, and streams and take in some jaw dropping beauty. And when the wildflowers are blooming in July and August or the Aspen tree leaves turn golden in September….. oohhh …. my ….. gosh!!! Let’s just say, it’s a sight to behold and photographs rarely capture the enormity of such a spectacular and stunning sight.
If driving mountain roads isn’t your thing, consider taking the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The rail route is even more scenic than the highway and the train pulls right into the town of Silverton.
Once in Silverton, you’ll find the town has a natural beauty that’s steeped in Victorian charm and mining history. Gold was discovered here in the 1860’s. The town was platted in 1874 and by the late 1800’s the main business section was built.
On the “other side of town”, is notorious Blair Street. At one point, Blair Street was home to 40 saloons and brothels. Many of the original buildings are still standing today and have been turned into quaint gift shops and restaurants.
Tidbit: During the mining boom, Silverton boasted a population surpassing 2,000. Today the year round population is less than 700. Although tourism has replaced mining as the current economic engine, conjecture is someday mining will return.
Silverton is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmark District.
With mining heavily ingrained in the area’s history, the back country is dotted with remnants of abandoned mines and ghost towns. Have a high clearance vehicle? The old mining roads are a blast to explore and remains my favorite thing to do in this part of Colorado.
The visitor center in the town of Ouray provides free maps and info to help you navigate the back country. The visitor center in Silverton also has a lot of info but charges for some maps.
In Ouray (pronounced; your ray) there’s several businesses that rent Jeeps, ATV’s, and Razors allowing one to explore the high country at one’s own level and pace. There’s also a few places in Silverton that offer rentals. However, for those less experienced in high mountain four-wheeling, a guided tour might be the perfect option.
During previous visits, Al and I have taken the Toyota Tacoma on a couple of the “easy” 4×4 roads. The map info is very helpful in rating these roads and we wanted to start easy and work our way up. We’ve taken “Last Dollar Road” to Telluride and “Owl Creek Pass” to Silver Jack Reservoir. Although lovely and enjoyable drives, neither road took us above tree line and with the exception of a couple of rutted areas, a Subaru or CRV could easily travel these two 4×4 roads.
For those of us looking for a true white knuckle Colorado experience, there’s Black Bear Pass. I’m still working on hubby for us to rent a RZR and tackle this insane scary road, but I’m not averse to signing up for a tour with an experienced driver. Actually the more I watch this video, the more I think that’s the way to go.
And speaking of white knuckle driving, I’ve shared the route from Durango to Silverton, now let’s talk about driving from the other direction. Coming from the north, the 21 miles via Highway 550 from Ouray to Silverton, otherwise known as the Million Dollar Highway, is an experience in itself.
This two-lane mountainous highway can be a challenging and potentially hazardous drive due to narrow lanes, steep cliffs, and no guard rails. There are some hairpin curves, elevation changes, and the road is shared with semi-trucks and brave RV drivers.
We’ve driven Highway 550 from Durango to Ouray with the truck camper many years ago, but not with the 5th wheel. It’s all about comfort level. Northbound traffic gets the luxury of hugging the inside of the curves while southbound traffic gets to be perched on the outside edge.
Is it worth the drive to visit Silverton? Absolutely! The drive is an integral part of the overall adventure. Regardless of which direction one travels from, the San Juan Mountains are breathtaking, and once in Silverton, the towns’ rough, rustic character easily transports a soul back in time.
So there you have it – my Top 5 Favorite Colorado mountain towns;
Telluride – everyone’s favorite
Crested Butte and Grand Lake – my two favs (family memories play an important role in why they are “my” favorites) and then there’s Frisco and Silverton, each with their own unique draw, charm, and character.
Camping near Silverton? There are a bunch of camping options, however I can’t speak from experience. We’ve always camped at Ridgway State Park and driven Highway 550, aka the Million Dollar Highway, to Silverton for day trips with just the truck. If you’re interested in a little more info on camping around Silverton, you can check out Amanda’s post here. You can also find more camping reviews in western Colorado by checking out Nina’s blog here or my buddy Russ here.