Silverton, a historic silver mining town, sits alongside the Animas River in the heart of the San Juan Mountains. Soaring mountains frame its narrow streets in every direction. Greene Street, Silverton’s main drag, is lined with wooden false-front stores and brick Victorians. When the narrow gauge train rolls into town from Durango, its shrill whistle echoing across the valley, it’s easy to step back to Silverton’s 1885 heyday when silver was king.
The town, one of America’s highest at 9,318 feet, is more than a quaint living-history museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Silverton is also the jumping-off point for grand adventures in the surrounding San Juan Mountains. If you drew a circle with a ten-mile radius from the Grand Imperial Hotel you would find almost 100 mountains reaching up to 14,000 feet, including Handies Peak, Niagara Peak, Jones Mountain, Kendall Peak, Sultan Mountain, and Vermilion Peak.
Miles of trails and closed roads, a legacy of the mining era, ascend almost every gulch and valley above the Animas River Valley and Silverton. Good hikes are seven-mile roundtrip trail to Porphyry Basin; eight-mile roundtrip hike on Bear Creek National Recreation Trail; the 7.8-mile roundtrip hike to Highland Mary Lakes; or take in a 10-mile stretch of the Colorado Trail from Little Molas Lake to Lime Creek.
Grab a tent, sleeping bag, and pack and head for the hills for great backpacking adventures. The best one near Silverton is the 7.6-mile, out-and-back trek to Ice Lake Basin, a beautiful alpine cirque floored with three lakes and ringed by ragged mountains. Set up camp on the hillside above turquoise-colored Ice Lake and climb the highest peaks the next day, including 13,894-foot Vermilion Peak. Take the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad south from Silverton to the Needleton stop for another great backpack. Head up into remote Chicago Basin and climb its four Fourteeners—Mount Eolus, North Eolus, Windom Peak, and Sunlight Peak.
Silverton is renowned for its 4×4 adventures on those old mining roads. Bring your own jeep, rent one in town, or take a guided jeep tour to experience some of the state’s wildest roads. You can drive to various ghost towns near Silverton or head to the hills for tougher roads. The Alpine Loop Backcountry Byway is one of the best. The 65-mile loop crosses Cinnamon and Engineer passes and explores ghost towns and scenic valleys. Other famous backroad trips include the Ophir Pass Road, the scary and hairy Black Bear Road to Telluride, Corkscrew Gulch, easy Clear Lake Road to a mountain lake, Placer and Picayune Gulches, and Stony Pass.
If you head to Silverton in winter, be prepared to go off-the-grid and go snow crazy. Kendall Mountain Recreation Area above town is an affordable local ski slope. It also offers cross-country skiing, an ice skating rink, snowshoeing trails, and a sledding hill. If you’re an expert skier, head to Silverton Mountain. Its 1,819 acres are loaded with 400 inches of snow and wild terrain, including bowls, chutes, cliffs, and big thrills. They call it the highest and steepest ski area in the United States, with a 13,487-foot summit, and its longest run is 3,000 feet.