Off-Road Travel: Silverton, Colorado

Jul. 23, 2013 By Jaime Hernandez
The San Juan Mountains are known as the “Switzerland of America.” Striking high peaks and lush alpine meadows make it a beautiful place to go four-wheeling in the summer and fall.

Colorado offers great off-road adventure and natural beauty throughout the state.  A large collection of trails from Colorado’s early mining days gives dirt seekers hundreds of miles to explore on two and four wheels. One area that stands out in our tracks is the San Juan Mountains region. First introduced to us by Justin Fort, a Colorado trail junky and fellow contributor, the San Juans embody what the locals define as classic Colorado 4-Wheeling.

San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colorado (Photo: Justin Fort).

This dramatic section of the western Rocky Mountains features deep valleys, mineralized volcanic peaks, old mines and several historic towns including Telluride, Ouray, Durango and Silverton. The historic mining town of Silverton, Colorado, is located just 50 miles north of Durango and makes a great base camp for exploring the San Juan Mountains and backcountry. Silverton has direct dirt access to nearby ghost towns, high mountain passes and neighboring Lake City and Ouray via the scenic Alpine Loop.

See related story on Colorado’s scenic Alpine Loop

Silverton is the only original mining town left in San Juan County. It sits in a volcanic caldera surrounded by mountains at an elevation of 9,308 ft. It offers plentiful off-road adventure opportunities with scenic alpine vistas. The historic mining town was established in 1874 following the discovery of gold and silver in the area. Silverton quickly became the center of activity in the San Juan Mountains, growing even more after the introduction of the D&RG railroad in 1879. The narrow-gauge railroad connected Durango to Silverton, making the flow of people, supplies and ore much faster than by mule or wagon.

With mining booming in the mountains, merchants offering supplies to the miners and camps set up shop. Homes, churches and schools followed, as did hotels and entertainment. It is said that at one time Silverton had 34 saloons and a bawdy house—fully stocked and ready to serve hooch, cards and doves. With so many explosive past times now lurking in Silverton, it was common for there to be scuffles and gun fights on the notorious Blair Street (Silverton’s red light district).

The Sunnyside Mill can be seen from CR2. Take a side trip up to the Sunnyside Mine for great views of Eureka gulch and cascading waterfalls.

By the early 1900s, most of the mining activity had ended in the San Juans. Prices of gold and silver was down, making mining unprofitable. Owners and investors cut their losses and pulled out from the San Juans. Most of the miners had no other choice than to also leave their picks and shovels behind. Only a few hardy souls remained in Silverton, weathering the bad times. The last large-scale mining operation near Silverton closed in 1991 (Sunnyside Mine).

Today Silverton thrives mostly on tourism. Many of the original Victorian buildings and homes still stand offering unique shops, restaurants and museums for visitors to enjoy.  Except for Main Street, the streets are still dirt, keepings things very true to the days when horses and buggies made tracks through here. Summer travelers looking for cooler weather come to Siverton, as do tourist on the Durango & Silverton railroad.  More info at

If you are in town and have a chance, the Silverton Historical Society does a great job at telling Silverton’s story and keeping its colorful past alive. They have a museum inside the old San Juan County jail that exhibits early mining in the San Juans and people like Otto Mears, a famous Colorado developer and entrepreneur responsible for toll roads and railroads in the San Juan Mountains. For those interested in more mining history, there are also tours just outside of town at the Mayflower Gold Mill and Old Hundred Gold Mine. More info can be found at

Kendal Mountain sits just above Silverton and offers great views of town, the Million Dollar Highway (HWY 550), and dirt roads making tracks out of town. (Photo: Justin Fort)

Gold, silver and rich minerals are abundant in these hills, as are the trails that once connected mining camps and towns in the San Juans. Dirt trails out of Silverton lead to Animas Forks, Engineer Pass, California Gulch, the Red Mountains and scenic Alpine Loop. County Road 2 (CR2) and County Road 110 (CR110) head north into the backcountry, giving access to historical mining sites, ghost towns, water falls, rivers and beautiful country.

Staging areas for ATVs and dirt bikes can be found on CR2 just outside of Silverton. Those with street legal vehicles can head out directly from town. The fun starts where the pavement ends.

Many of the dirt trails heading out of Silverton lead up to majestic alpine meadows with breathtaking passes and vistas as high as the sky. A number of high mountain passes can be reached from Silverton, including Red Mountain Pass (Elev. 11,018 ft.), California Pass (Elev. 12,930 ft.), Engineer Pass (Elev. 12,800 ft.) and Cinnamon Pass (Elev. 12,640 ft.).

Heading up CR2 provides a gentle steady climb past the Mayflower Mill, heading toward Animas Forks. This county-maintained dirt road travels along the Animas River and makes for an easy trip past spring fed waterfalls and strikingly large granite faces on either side. 

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