Is it worth the drive?

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, Colorado

Highway 550 in southwestern Colorado

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.

Highway 550

Highway 550 in southwestern Colorado

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 Aspen treesguard 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.Durango & Silverton Train

SilvertonOnce 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.

Silverton, Colorado

It was a cool and wet September day when we last visited Silverton.

Silverton, ColoradoWith 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.San Juan mountains

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.


The view along Last Dollar Road

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.

Million Dollar Highway

a part of the Million Dollar Highway

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.

PoppyWe’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.

Ridgway State Park

camping at Ridgway State Park

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.San Juan Mountains

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.

We find ourselves returning to Colorado every summer and during each visit we discover more hidden gems.  I guess there’s more than one kind of mining when it comes to finding gems!Rocky Mountains

Frogg Toggs All Purpose Women’s Rain and Wind Suits, Cherry/Black, Large
Columbia Men’s Watertight II Packable Rain Jacket, Black, Large


101 thoughts on “Is it worth the drive?

  1. Thanks for this great round-up of Colorado towns to visit. We visited Silverton years ago when we took our camping gear to Ouray and rented a Jeep and headed into the mountains. We were planning to do Black Bear Pass and happened to mention it to the guy at the rental company. His response was “not in my Jeep” and then proceeded to tell us some horror stories. Love the new theme. I am planning to do a re-design when we get settled at Lopez Island for awhile.

    • The new theme was kind of a forced change as things weren’t working quite right on my end. I thought it was my computer but I’m pretty sure it’s a problem with WordAds. Long story, but in the end I’m liking the new design. As we travel, I’ll work on capturing a new header shot.
      I think I’ll forgo Black Bear Pass and focus next summer on some of the less extreme back country roads. We might travel with the Tacoma again for just such a purpose. We’ll see. First I need to get my energy back…. grrrr! Have fun on Lopez and enjoy your time with Laurel 🙂 I’m jealous!

      • Hoping you will get your energy back soon. I have worked with folks who had Valley Fever and it took some time to fully regain their strength. Take care of yourself.

        • I’m lucky it seems to be a mild case but frustrating none the less. I know it’ll take me awhile and I can’t push myself. We started rearranging our travel plans for the next 2 months. We’ll still visit my dad but we’ll forgo the UP 😦

  2. We love Silverton, Ouray, and the surrounding area too. We usually boon dock just north of Silverton. We also enjoy the Roof Top Brewery in Ouray!

    • Since we need to be connected, we decided not to camp near Silverton, as much as I may have wanted to. Yep, the Roof Top Brewery in Ouray is a good one. We enjoyed it as well 🙂

      • We have AT & T and it worked great. We’ll definitely stay there next summer. We’re stuck in Cloudcroft, NM for the summer camp hosting right now. Though, it’s also a beautiful spot.

        • Good to know about the signal. Because of your posts, we drove around Cloudcroft last Nov. while we were at Oliver Lee SP visiting the White Sands NP. Obviously it was off season, but it gave us an idea how pretty the area is. Enjoy your summer 🙂

  3. Thanks for a lovely lunch the other day Ingrid (and Al!) I hope you’re settled in at Cherry Creek and staying warm and dry. I love these posts, we’ll refer to them many times in the near future I’m sure. I’m really glad you included the little video but I could hardly watch it. Now I’m sure I won’t ask Dave to attempt it! I don’t even think I’d go with a professional, its way to scary for my tastes although I’m sure the views are spectacular. I’d never see them, my eyes would be on the floor the whole time! Sue

    • Haha… as I mentioned Black Bear is the extreme. There’s a bunch of other great 4×4 drives dotted with ghost towns and deserted mines taking you above tree line. Definitely worth exploring. Just check with the folks at the Ouray visitor center for more details.
      We too enjoyed meeting up the other day. Hope my nagging cough wasn’t too annoying. We’re all settled in at Cherry Creek and I’ll focus on getting rid of this nasty spore…. grrrr!

  4. I would have to pass on the mountain driving that requires both a Jeep and a spotter! I have a Jeep Liberty but I would never drive along that ridge!! Thanks for sharing the video!

  5. In years past, we took our kids to ski at the ski area at Durango regularly, and we loved that area. We always talked about taking a day off from skiing and taking the train to Silverton, but we never wanted to give up our ski day enough to do it, I guess. Hubby and I need to go back and visit this area, for sure. Great post once again!

    • Thanks D. Although beautiful in the winter, it’s something to see dotted with wildflowers or groves of aspen gold. There’s so many great places to camp in southwest Colorado too. However, Wolf Creek Pass can be a little tense to cross with the RV. We take it super slow and the scenery is outstanding 🙂

      • I think I’m done with Wolf Creek Pass. We had a really bad experience there in a blizzard on one ski trip before our kids were born. Thought we would die. Seriously, it was just a nightmare. Had to roll down the car windows and stick ski poles out the windows to feel where the snow bank was on the right side of the car during a white out. I don’t care if I ever go back there.

      • I’m pretty much done with Wolf Creek Pass. We had a really harrowing experience there one year in winter before we had kids trying to pass it in a white-out. Had to roll down the car windows on the right side and stick ski poles out to feel where the snow bank was next to the road because we couldn’t see squat. 😉 Never. again! lol

        • Yikes, scary for sure. It’s bad enough driving that pass in the summer; winter during a storm?….. no way. We’ve been known to cut vacations short attempting to time the weather 🙂

  6. I drove the Million Dollar Highway years ago from Durango to Ouray and would love to return (the hot springs in Ouray were wonderful!). Don’t know if we would drive that road pulling our trailer, though — I have a vivid memory of those sheer drop-offs. Thanks for the tour of your favorite Colorado towns. 🙂

    • That stretch of Hwy 550 is stunningly beautiful but I know we won’t drive it pulling the 5th wheel. It’s worth the extra mileage to go around when pulling. We’ve never done the hot springs but have heard good things about it. Hmm, might have to go back for that alone 😉

  7. Yikes! I can’t help staring at the Million Dollar Highway picture with no guardrails. Gives me the willies just looking at it.

    • Scared the cr*p out of me the first time we drove it. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to driving these kinds of roads, but still don’t like being the passenger 🙂

      • I watched that video several times. It’s amazing, the scenery is stunning, and I even like the music. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Wow! Another pin in the map of “to go tos”!
    The video was crazy! But can they do it towing a camper? 😉😉
    Being from Illinois, any type of elevation is interesting for me. We’ll get to Colorado soon and more often as my BFF just moved to Denver. I’ll be there in early October. The wildflowers should be gorgeous! 🌼🌻

    • Well, you won’t find flowers in October and hopefully the aspens will still have leaves, but regardless, the scenery can’t be beat. For those of us from IL, there’s an adjustment to driving these roads. After a one week visit, my niece couldn’t wait to return to IL to “normal” roads. It was rather entertaining showing her around Colorado 🙂

  9. Thanks for the great ride to Silverton! A few buddies and I took the train out of Durango and backpacked the Chicago Basin area about 10 years ago. A few days later, we caught the train into Silverton and had a wonderful burger before boarding the train for the ride back to Durango. Our train engine was trying to pull extra cars because another engine was being repaired. Our train ride turned into an adventure as we tried again and again to make it over several passes in the route. When we arrived in Durango after 9:00 p.m., residents lined the tracks cheering us in. Made for a long day but great memories!

    • Sounds like a heck of a good time. I can imagine the train trying to pull a pass with the extra weight of additional cars. What an adventure. Colorado never disappoints in the making of fond memories 🙂

  10. Black Bear Pass looks like some seriously scary driving! Eeek. I don’t mind rough outback roads on what is really fairly flat terrain, but I get a little nervous about narrow roads on mountainous countryside especially when there are sheer cliffs! The photo of the Million Dollar Highway without guard rails looked white knuckle enough. Kinda exciting though! Great post again. 🙂

    • Thanks! Oh, it’s definitely exciting and the views are unbelievable, making it worth the white knuckles. It’s hard to find flat terrain in western Colorado 🙂

  11. Ingrid, Thank you so much for sharing us your favorite spots with matching great photos in Colorado. Now everyone will be heading there 🙂 Im thinking that we may not be able to do this in one pass, and I sure do not want to stay at those beautiful places for only a few days. Great round up.
    Boy its been raining there everyday! And here we are sweating.

    • There’s no way you can do Colorado in one pass. You’ll need to spend at least a couple of months to get a sense of all the beauty this state has to offer.
      Yes, it’s been raining a lot more than us Coloradoans are accustomed to 😦

  12. Nice post – looks like a wonderful place to visit – I am sure the scenic views are limited to the passenger! If I made that drive and more than looked anywhere but straight my wife would be all over me! As for the Black Bear Pass – I’ll stick to the video and look forward to reading f your post when you take it on. Thanks for sharing your five favorites in Colorado. Have a great week and stay dry.

    • It sure has been raining a lot lately in Colorado. Almost makes me feel like I’m back in the Midwest. Since there’s so many other old mining roads to explore, I think I’ll save Black Bear Pass for last 🙂

  13. Ingrid – I really enjoyed your Top 5 Co Mtn blog posts. I totally agree. Colorado offers some amazing places for fun adventures. We always love the Silverton-Durango area. Had a blast hiking up Kendall Mountain in Silverton. As always – love your stunning photos! Thanks for the excellent series!

    • Thank you Karen. We’ve barely hit the surface on exploring that area. Hopefully next summer we’ll be able to spend more time discovering some more amazing scenery.

  14. Amazing! We’d probably go to Silverton just to drive those crazy roads, we love crazy roads and haven’t yet come across one we wouldn’t drive:) The colourful houses on main street are beautiful!

    • Perhaps next summer…. camp hosting at Ridgway SP would be an awesome gig. If it weren’t for our daughter in Denver, we would jump on it.

  15. Silverton is definitely on my (our) list/s of places to go. Thought we might be doing that area next Spring but looks like it will be longer away than that. But. We. Will. Get. There. !!!!!

    • NOT in the spring. This area of Colorado is best visited in July, August, or September. At 9,000 feet, it takes a little longer for snow to melt 😉

      • Yeah — I agree. I’ve been caught (years ago) in Spring CO snowstorms, and over passes with snow on the ground. I don’t much care for that. And you are right about CO being best in late summer and early fall. Maybe 2017…..

  16. I have been loving this series! While we are enjoying our time on the east coast visiting family, I really miss those dramatic Colorado views. We almost rented a RZR while in Silverton, but the weather crapped out on us – next time for sure. We have driven the Million Dollar Hwy with our RV in tow (25′ trailer) twice and had no problems. The last time it was the day after July 4th and there was a steady stream of RVs MUCH larger than us going the other way. We even saw one large 5th wheel towing a boat! Crazy. I guess it really is all about your comfort level. Thanks for sharing my blog post 🙂

    • Thanks Amanda. I do remember when you drove the Million Dollar Highway. Al’s concern is always oncoming traffic and we’ve seen our fair share of drivers crossing the center line as they feared the outside edge. I’d like to return to the area next summer and travel more of those back roads 🙂

  17. We’ve been from Durango to Ouray twice and enjoyed both towns but the drive made my stomach pang a few times as I looked over the edge. I was shocked to see trucks and RVs up there especially on the leg into Ouray.

    • Aren’t you glad you didn’t drive the RV on that stretch? I don’t mind driving it in the little truck when the weather is nice but we’ll leave the RV behind 🙂

  18. Wow! Those highways look treacherous. But the views are magnificent. Someday, I hope my hubby and I get to Colorado to explore some of your highlighted towns. They’re gorgeous.

  19. Thanks for this post Ingrid, it’s so informative – filled with the kind of real nitty gritty information we need to get up the courage to visit this area. We’ve been kind of intimidated by the roads and can’t figure out locations to safely travel with the 5th wheel that are central enough to take day trips to all these great places we keep hearing and reading about. Your suggestions about the I25 corridor served us well. Now we’ll return to this post when we’re ready to explore western Colorado. Great pictures too!

    • Thanks Lenore. We’re very comfortable driving from Grand Junction to Ridgway State Park and making that the home base. From there, there’s so much to see and explore. July and August are beautiful and by mid July most of the snow in the high country has melted allowing for some back country exploring without constraints.

  20. I love that airplane photo! Amazing photos and place!
    You might want to change your setting so readers have to click to your site instead of seeing the whole thing in the Reader and email. 🙂

    • That biplane photo was taken at the Dillon Air Show last summer…. a very fun event.
      Hmmm, I’m perplexed. In my Reader my site shows up like everyone else’s (one photo and first few lines) so I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I’m all ears!

      • I commented from it after seeing the whole thing in the reader! Also it comes up in email that way. Maybe click it and then unclick it…
        Now I’m wondering if mine comes up like that.

        • After I get settled into Cherry Creek SP later today (moving from Bear Creek Lake Park), I’ll go through all the WordPress settings and see if there’s something I missed. I didn’t think I had control as to how it shows up in the Reader.

  21. Ingrid you know how I love adventure but my stomach churned watching that video. Wowza! That is one scary ride i have to say! Might I suggest a guided trip? 🙂
    Your photos are stunning as always. Even in the rainy mist it looks like a spot well worth going.

    • Oh, I know you’d be game for the 4×4 trip as well as the Via Ferrata. I’ll admit I’d probably get out of the vehicle and walk some of those stretches. The back country is so stunningly beautiful, it’s worth the scary road…. at least once 🙂

  22. Wow! I’m not sure I would do that Jeep drive, even with the experienced driver/guide. Hike it? Absolutely! Drive it? Not without sedation! 🙂

    • I think there’d be stretches I’d have to disembark and hike. I can’t handle it when a vehicle / ATV starts to lean, but hey, sometimes we just have to challenge ourselves. I think you know a thing or two about that 🙂

    • Your camera would get a serious workout in some of the back country in this part of Colorado, especially when the wildflowers are blooming or the Aspen’s have turned golden.

  23. Thanks, Ingrid, for that bery interesting series about Colorado towns. As my wife’s cousin lives in Denver, we might get to see some of these some time.
    Have a great time,

    • Well then you have reason to visit. Frisco, Dillon, Breckenridge are less than a 2 hour drive from Denver and it’s absolutely beautiful. Wonderful place to visit 🙂

  24. I would have to have a “million dollar” pair of Depends to do the Million Dollar Road..just for the record…We took our Cougar up Kitt Peak in Arizona and the trip down was leaning on that trailer brake all the way..never again! Thanks for the tour!!

    • Haha Donna, yep those roads are white knucklers. I don’t mind driving them in the little truck but we do our best to avoid the challenging roads while pulling, not that we haven’t gotten ourselves into a pickle here and there 🙂

  25. Thanks again, Ingrid, for great info on another place we have yet visited:) I watched the video. Black bear Pass itself would be fine but it is slowly falling away and making it way too narrow in many spots. I imagine very soon there won’t be any road there! I think I’ll leave it to those with a death wish. I don’t want be there when part of the road crumbles away under us. But it was fun to watch other crazy people:) Thanks for sharing the video!

    • Black Bear Pass is obviously the most extreme, but there are a bunch of other amazing 4×4 roads that you and John would absolutely love. Add in some high mountain hiking to a stunning glacial lake surrounded by wildflowers and I think it just doesn’t get much better.

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