Silverton, CO: A Place Where the West Still Runs Wild

Ride an Iron Horse Into a Storied Past

by Ria Nicholas

Treasure Mountain Mine

The historic western mining town of Silverton, Colorado lies frozen in time in a high valley of the River of Lost Souls*. With only one paved road – a spur of the Million Dollar Highway – and a permanent population hovering at just 600, Silverton’s economy still benefits from the regular arrival of vintage narrow gauge steam trains from Durango.  

Beginning in the 1882, iron horses of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Company traveled between Durango and Silverton, servicing gold and silver mines in the San Juan Mountains. Over the next 100 years, the mines eventually played out. But the narrow gauge trains, designed to handle sharp curves and steep grades, wisely traded their loads of ore for even more precious cargo: tourists. 

In a typical year, restored steam locomotives of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad ferry 200,000 visitors per year past the Hermosa Cliffs, through spectacular gorges carved by the turbulent Animas River, into the wild frontier.

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Durango and Silverton Narrow Guage Railroad Soft Coasters (Set of 8)


Despite colorful travel brochures and even more colorful descriptions presented by others, NOTHING prepared us for the awesome experience of actually traveling aboard the train!

The “Highline”
Silverton Depot

Arriving in Silverton, the train crawled past the depot where the tracks veer onto E 12th Street and terminate. The engine heaved one last sigh after its arduous 3,000 foot ascent and deposited us directly into the heart of town.

A stone’s throw from the terminus, lively ragtime piano music spilled from the stately Grand Imperial Hotel. Farther up Greene Street, the San Juan County Historical Society’s Mining Heritage Center steeps patrons in local lore.

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Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Train. Potholder, 8 x 8


In the other direction, the well-worn gingerbread of one-time saloons and bordellos on ‘Notorious’ Blair Street pique a voyeuristic impulse. While the ‘ladies’ no longer ply their wares, quaint curio and souvenir shops wink and beckon from every direction.

Red Mountain, near Silverton, CO

The two-hour layover in Silverton was perfect for grabbing lunch and browsing a few stores before embarking on the return trip.

But with so much ‘treasure’ hidden in these mountains, those in the know will rent a Jeep and opt for an overnight stay.

Remote Silverton spins a network of threads – nearly invisible trails – that reach up every narrow gulch. These rocky four-wheeler roads lure adventure seekers. They simultaneously thrill and unnerve as they snake through jaw-dropping scenery. Unpaved single lanes, with their impossibly sharp switch-backs, consist of nothing more than old burro trails carved into the granite over a hundred years ago by miners eager in their quest for silver and gold.


Mouse Pad Colorado, Silverton, Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Train, 8 x 8″


Abandoned 1884 Yankee Girl Mine near Silverton, CO

They lead variously to forsaken mines or to ghost towns where weathered wooden shanties, abandoned for a hundred years, bear silent witness to forlorn hope in a time when ore was king.

Others begin deceptively, with a gentle incline meandering through fragrant stands of conifers before transmuting into mere ledges that fall away precipitously just beside the passenger door. These lead to 12,000-foot elevations, where the air is rarefied and Alpine meadows, bursting with vibrant wildflowers and streaked by patches of remnant snow, surprised us with a wandering flock of sheep.

Where silver once flowed through her veins, tourism is now the lifeblood of Silverton. But as in old mining days, life in these parts can pose challenges. A semi-arctic climate and heavy snowfall limit train excursions to Silverton to the months of May through October (though shorter excursions out of Durango are available in all but January and February).

But the citizens of Silverton, descendants of miners and frontiersmen, are nothing if not resilient. They spring from wiry stock, as hard and rugged as the terrain. And when the snows of winter melt away, as they soon will, the high valley will again bloom and beckon tourists, awestruck by the riches of history and natural beauty.

Travel Tips:

Getting there: Although visitors can reach Silverton via a 48-mile drive up U.S. 550 from Durango, nothing beats a ride on the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Plan for a full day: approximately 3 ½ hours each way, with a two-hour layover.

What to wear: Don’t forget to bring sunscreen and dress in layers or bring additional layers in a day pack. This should include a rain jacket or poncho, since weather in the mountains is capricious.

Grab a bite: We recommend breakfast at the Brown Bear Cafe, lunch at the Pickle Barrel, dinner at the Bent Elbow or a steak at Handlebars Food & Saloon.  Another of our favorites is the French dip at The Grand Imperial Hotel Restaurant & Saloon.

Stay the night: Silverton offers a variety of places to stay, including several bed & breakfasts, the Triangle Motel and the Grand Imperial Hotel. The massive granite Imperial Hotel was commissioned by New York perfume importer and mine owner, W. S. Thomson and was completed in 1883, a year after the first train from Durango reached in Silverton. The current owners (who also own the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad) fully renovated the hotel and filled it with furniture authentic to the late 1880s to enhance an immersive experience. To add to the fun, the third floor of the hotel is rumored to be haunted.

* The original Spanish name of the Animas River is ‘Rio de las Animas Perdidas,’ which means ‘River of Lost Souls.’

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Engine 486, built in 1925, was one of the last narrow gauge steam locomotives built for the D&RGW

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