Off-Highway Vehicle Access to Silverton Sets OHV-Friendly Standard

Feb. 09, 2016 By Justin Fort, Photos by Justin Fort and Jaime Hernandez

On June 8 of 2015, the town of Silverton, Colorado, took a step to accommodate its noteworthy off-road and adventure audience by adopting limited-use permissions for non-licensed vehicles on city streets – the proverbial off-highway vehicle (OHV)-access rule. Because this rule permits the drivers of OHVs and unlicensed trail-only vehicles to drive their quads, dirt bikes, side-by-sides and snowmobiles into town, these visitors can make the several-mile commute from National Forest and BLM land for supplies, service, dining and beveraging, without requiring the use of a street-licensed vehicle.

The value of such an ordinance (2015-03, initially published May 4 of the same year) is several-fold: more people camped in neighboring National Forest and BLM land can take advantage of Silverton’s restaurants and support facilities more easily, there’s improved pass-through to adjoining terrain, OHV/ATV users can buy gas and supplies without driving their toter, motorhome or tow rig into town from National Forest areas, and the town is enriched by the commerce that follows. This is in addition to other, less prominent secondary efficiencies, such as less fuel used (ala more small vehicle use), and smaller vehicles (a side-by-side instead of an XJ, for instance) being trailered into high country.

The most popular picture’s ever run wasn’t of a truck, it was an OHVing couple and their ballistic dog on a quad on Engineer Pass, circa 2011. OHVs are an honest bug-in-face way to see high country.

If You Don’t Know Silverton...
Surrounded by national forests and BLM land, Silverton is the only active town in San Juan County. Its geographically and municipally isolated location, while ideal for adventure seekers and folks who like the outpost lifestyle, has meant the town is limited in the number of ways it can sustain itself. Silverton’s semi-isolation is magnified by its location in southwestern Colorado – there are many closer spots for the urban/eastern Coloradoan (ie: the I-25 corridor, A.K.A. Denver and Colorado Springs) to partake in high-mountain off-roading. Though Colorado is an international locus of adventure sports action, towns like Silverton must overcome their relative remoteness and attract a regular flow of travelers and adventurers to underwrite their tourist/visitor-based economy. Ordinance 2015-03 is designed to do so, and by informal measure, has.

Silverton, of Colorado backcountry repute (with Kendall Mountain looming in the background), has made its way over the past decade or three as an outpost for high-mountain pleasure (truck, OHV, snowmobile, raft, steam, pedal or foot).

Ordinance 2015-03: A Simple Solution
In the effort to make the town of Silverton stand out as an adventure destination, Ordinance 2015-03  isn’t complicated. It essentially boils down to bridging a gap, permitting licensed drivers on non-plated off-highway vehicles (as defined by the state of Colorado, essentially side-by-sides, quads, dirt bikes and snowmobiles) who have access to the forest and BLM trails surrounding Silverton but not to Silverton proper, to drive and park on certain streets and locations within the Silverton city limits. Off-roaders and high-mountain adventurers are thusly more able to connect with the town’s restaurants, retail stores, rental suppliers, repair and fuel/supply facilities, historic allure, touristy shopping, breweries and distillery and, of course, the narrow gauge rail that runs to Durango three times a day.

According to Michelle Hamilton, Silverton Town Clerk and Treasurer, the arrival of the OHV ordinance was half flash in the pan, half smoldering idea that bubbled up over the past few years. The original push for legal street OHV access was pressed to a vote by Silverton’s residents, and it cleared that hurdle in 2014. In turn, the town approved an additional ordinance specifying OHV-permissible routes, and in 2015, permissible OHV use of town roads was approved. “Year-round” language included in the ordinance means 2015-03 covers Silverton’s snowmobile and winter-adventure visitors as well.

“Since being instated in 2015, we’ve revised the ordinance to add to the available OHV routes,” Hamliton said. “Now OHVers can get to the car wash and Blair Street. There is special parking for OHV vehicles as well, along the designated route. They can’t park on Green Street, though they can park in some of the neighborhood alleys. There’s plenty of signage that shows the route and brochures are available at entrance to town from both the highway and the Alpine Loop.”

OHV-accessible roads in Silverton, as dictated by the town trustees and locals’ generous, inclusive nature.

The board of trustees also saw to it that the ordinance includes traffic laws’ applicability to OHV users, so a speeding OHV user is speeding, driving under the influence is driving under the influence on an OHV, and doing donuts in the center of notorious Blair Street on an OHV is still a good way to meet the local constabulary the hard way.

“OHV users will be held to the same rules as licensed vehicle drivers,” cautioned Hamilton. “We expect people to obey traffic laws. Law enforcement will absolutely write a DUI for folks in OHVs.” As of this time, Hamilton included, there have been no OHV DUIs.

On-trail traffic in Colorado means regular interaction of OHV and truck (here, dropping down from the Virginius Mine in 2012). The same should be easy in-town, where there are lanes and curbs, which are more traffic-friendly than rockchucks and cliffs.

We resisted the urge to ask about PBR 5150s on OHV HMMWVs and HEMTTs. Perhaps the DUI issue is not a big deal for most folks, but certain audiences (ahem!) that frequent the sandier corners of California need to understand that Silverton intends to keep things under control: don’t pretend you can come wailing into town like it’s the sand drags at Glamis.

Effects Still Being Understood continued our chat with Silverton’s Hamilton about the upsides and one predictable downside of their recent OHV-access rule. “There’s no doubt that providing OHV users access to public streets in town has helped increase tourism,” continued Hamilton. “For example, it’s a huge convenience for RVers who can park in forest land and drive into town with the OHV they’re using on-trail instead of dragging a car behind their motorhome.

You’d be well served to maintain social contact with these wily OHV types – trail manners are trail manners. You’ll pass so many, it’s only a matter of time before one brings you a part that fell off your truck. True story.

“There was definitely an increase in the dollars spent and the number of people in Silverton following the enactment of the OHV ordinance this May, but we’re having a hard time calculating the number. Though there’s been an increase in business revenue, because of the Gold King incident [as covered by earlier this year] and how it skewed the year in general, it’s hard to say if incident-related business or the OHV-access ordinance was more responsible. Because we’re doing no permitting and no tracking of users – keep it simple, you know? – the evidence is hard to compile beyond looking at basic numbers.”

The inevitable downside of the ordinance – so obvious it never occurred to – was the simplest. “By passing this ordinance and opening the city up to increased business, it’s also opened us up to an influx of traffic that could hasten wear and tear to our streets,” stated Hamilton. “There’s not much of a buffer in available budgets to expand road maintenance, and because the city isn’t capturing revenue from this increased access, there’s some wariness of the potential additional service costs. We hope ‘tread lightly’ will serve Silverton as well as it does off-road terrain.”

The flipside of kindness given to a lost biker or dry quad (a favor oft returned in beer form) is that Ordinance 2015-03 increases the likelihood you’ll see them later in the day in Silverton. pressed Hamilton about the inevitable “no engine” and “anti-truck” noise that follows any kindness shown to the tire and throttle crowd. “There is always a back and forth between bikers and hikers versus trucks and OHVs in Colorado. The same antagonism is common throughout the year – you get it with cross-country skiers and fans of quiet during snowmobile season too. It’s not as big a deal in the summer, as there are a lot of bike-only Colorado trails like the Colorado Trail, but you can hear a snowmobile pretty far off in the still of winter.”

“Our goal is to make the high-mountain and off-roading adventure experience better for everybody, including the towns and the visitors and the locals, without antagonism between one group and others. Ultimately, we want to do right by everyone.”

The access issue goes both ways: improved quad/side-by-side/motorcycle access means improved truck and buggy access, and vice-versa. Towns like Silverton are doing every tire and throttle fan a favor.

Improving OHV Usability and Off-Road Access Throughout Colorado
We dug deeper with Silverton’s Town Clerk and Treasurer regarding neighboring municipal sentiment about OHV-access permissions, and the likelihood of other towns in the Alpine Loop region and beyond following Silverton’s OHV-friendly maneuver. “Silverton is one of the only towns in Colorado that allows OHVs within city limits, on city streets,” Hamilton said. “There are others, like South Fork, but we’re definitely at the forefront. Our OHV ordinance is pioneering effort: we want to bring others into the fold.

“It’s a learning process. We’ve been working in conjunction with our neighbor, Lake City, which is at the other end of the Alpine Loop. Lake City still doesn’t allow OHVs in town, though lots of people are interested in it. The issue had stirred up a good deal of contention amongst Lake City locals, though for the time being it’s been tabled,” added Hamilton. “This presents a bit of a conundrum for Silverton, as we’d like to have an OHV destination city working as a partner. On the other hand, Lake City not having an OHV rule really marks Silverton as the most OHV-friendly town in the region and makes us a leader.”

State of Colorado
Office of the Governor
136 State Capitol Bldg.
Denver, CO 80203

Town of Silverton
Office of the Municipal Clerk
1360 Greene St.
P.O. Box 250
Silverton, CO 81433 Newsletter
Join our Weekly Newsletter to get the latest off-road news, reviews, events, and alerts!