Emily & Silent Partner
Welcome to another mega-post!
I’ve been looking forward to writing this for months, since I’ve mentioned previously that Crested Butte, Colorado is “one of our favoritest places in the world”. If that’s true, then this naturally begs the question, what is our favoritest place in the world?
In answer this long standing mystery, I am proud to continue our series on places we’ve stayed in the Airstream by revealing our single most favoritest place in the world: Silverton, Colorado!
The best part about Airstreaming is immersing yourself in amazing surroundings, and Silverton turns that experience all the way up to 11. This tiny little town perches in a Tolkien-like valley high in the the San Juan Mountains, which are located in the extreme south-west corner of Colorado.
The San Juans form a violent and abrupt uplift that fracture the otherwise serene desert tableau into snow-capped madness.
In the space of an hour you can drive from the high desert of Cortez, CO pictured above to the lush forests of Molas Pass and drop fifty degrees while doing it.
The stretch of road that leads to Silverton is called the Million Dollar Highway (aka U.S. 550) and it is widely considered to be one of the most scenic drives in America. This road offers stunning vistas as it winds its way into the mountains and traverses multiple passes in excess of 10,000′ (3048m).
The journey is punctuated by alternating pine and aspen forests, alpine lakes, historical mines, four-wheel drive roads and, if you’re coming north from Durango, it’s also flanked by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Harley riders flock to this area for the serpentine bends while OHV enthusiasts flush into the surrounding hills to explore miles of trails.
Or to put it another way – there is, in my personal experience, nothing quite like it.
Silverton is positively overflowing with camping opportunities, and remarkably, many of them are free.
Kendall Campground is located a few miles west of Silverton on Forest Road 585. This is a so called “dispersed” campground which means there are no services except a vault toilet and no assigned campsites. As such there is also no fee. The campground is immensely busy but owing to the national forest rules which state you can only stay for 14 days there is a lot of turnover and we had very good luck finding spots.
Two years ago we scored the best spot in the campground which snuggles up to a meadow on the west side.
The year after that we backed into a cozy tree-covered location on the north side. Note all the other adventurers. We came affectionately to call this shanty town.
To Vault Toilet Or Not
Considering this campground is free, it’s amazing there’s even a vault toilet. Perhaps not so surprising, it’s not maintained and, occasionally, became unusable. As we have facilities in our trailer, this wasn’t an issue for us but I felt for the folks who were tent camping.
Rules posted at the entrance to this campground clearly state you should park your rig perpendicular to the river so as to allow as many people to share the view as possible. From our stay there we learned most people can’t or don’t read.
In a campground such as this where there are no cleanly marked “sites” personal space becomes an issue. We found generally generators we off by 10pm and on by 6am. We also found people generally avoided walking through other sites. Dogs, unfortunately, we often left off leash which led to some issues for us with our little ones.
In 2014 fiber optic service arrived in the town of Silverton and with it awesome cellular service. This campground is only a couple miles (5 km) from the main cell tower and signal is blazing. Some people have complained of overloaded service but we never experienced that problem, possibly due to our cell booster. As my living depends on internet connectivity it’s hard to articulate the madness of camping in the deep San Juans while still pulling down intense speeds necessary to telecommute in the morning and then mountain biking at 10,000′ (3048 m) in the afternoon.
Anvil Campground is immediately west of Kendall Campground but only offers a few spots. Otherwise all the rules are the same as Kendall, free with a 14-day limit.
Golden Horn Campground
Golden Horn Campground is even further west on Forest Road 585 from Kendall and Anvil. The approach to the river seemed extreme to us but we saw plenty of big rigs down there (I still wouldn’t try it with the Airstream). This site is also free with a 14-day limit.
South Mineral Campground
South Mineral Campground is a paid campground but all sites are first come first served. Getting a spot here can be very tricky, even in the middle of the week. By complete accident we scored an incredible location on a small hill.
This campground consists of two basic loops and is very busy. Still we never found it to be too noisy and many sites are well away from the road. All sites are on crushed aggregate and overhung with deep green forest. Additionally the campground hosts keep the vault toilets pristine, there are dumpsters for paying campers and limited treated spring water (also only for paying campers).
The Ice Lake trailhead is located directly across from the campground and it can get extremely busy. The Ice Lake trail is an exceptionally difficult hike gaining 2,500′ (762m) in only 3.5mi (5.6km). That’s a 13% grade!
For those that brave this torture (which should be started early in the morning to avoid the afternoon storms) they will be rewarded with god-like views, waterfalls and alpine lakes.
Forest Road 585 continues past South Mineral Campground and takes a very steep climb up to terminate at the Rico-Silverton trailhead. This drive should only be attempted by four-wheel drive high clearance vehicles and also makes for a difficult but rewarding mountain bike ride as well. The end of this road also offers a rage of dispersed sites but certainly only for the most intrepid souls with capable vehicles. Taking the Airstream there was a non-starter.
There is a wealth of additional camping around Silverton including free dispersed sites at the mouth of Maggie Gulch and the Highland Mary in Cunningham Gulch. At least three RV parks offer camping directly in town. Little Molas Lake and Molas Lake Park and Campground offer additional paid camping south of town in the spectacular Molas Pass.
In a pinch you can find almost anything you need at Silverton Grocery or Silverton Hardware. Prices are commensurate though, so if you have the means we highly recommend you stock up in Durango or Montrose first, both of which are roughly an hour drive from Silverton.
The dispersed camping sites do not have trash collection so you can haul your garbage to a free transfer station only a mile or so north of town.
Sewer dump stations and fresh water are available in town at the Red Mountain Motel & RV Park and Silver Summit RV Park & Jeep. We recommend you get there early as some of the dump stations are blocked by Jeep washes later in the day. As there is little competition for these services expect an outrageous fee.
There is a very well provisioned Conoco station strategically positioned at the entrance to town. Diesel is available along with unleaded and many many tourists line up to use the pumps.
Restaurants & Shopping
Silverton is the terminus for the Silverton & Durango Narrow Gauge Railroad and services multiple trains per day.
There are scores of restaurants and stores ready to serve these trains full of hungry and spendy customers so it pays to eat early or late to avoid the rush.
San Juan County Historical Museum
The San Juan County Historical Museum is an absolutely mind-blowing experience that documents Silverton history in a myriad of narratives that journey from Silverton’s earliest roots all the way to the present. Displays include mining history, rock and mineral collections and even the city jail.
Make no mistake, Silverton is essentially owned by the OHV/4-Wheel crowd. There are countless Jeep rental outfits in Silverton, Durango and Ouray plus a constant stream of visitors hauling their own toys. The local RV parks make extensive accommodations for these visitors and the town even bears extensive signage about OHV protocol on paved roads. Even so we never felt crowded out or loss of zen sharing this space with our OHV friends. There’s a lot of territory to explore so even when mountain biking encounters with motorized vehicles were far apart.
There are extensive hiking opportunities around Silverton including Ice Lake, Rico Silverton, Highland Mary Lake Trailhead and the Colorado Trail. I’m not much of a hiker but I suppose if you want to waste your time this way so be it (I kid, I kid).
Mayflower Gold Mill Tour
The Mayflower Gold Mill is a self-guided tour that gives you unprecedented access to every level of the Mayflower Mill, which processed ores for many varieties of metals all the way up to the 1980’s. Since I’m a engineer this self-guided tour kept me entertained for hours. Documentation in the mill is extensive and a wide range of the equipment can still be turned on by museum goers.
The Old Hundred Mine
The Old Hundred Mine is a genuine no-holds barred gold mine located a few miles north of town at the base of Galena Mountain. The extent and scale of this mine is hard to express until you’ve experienced it for yourself. The tour itself follows a fairly short civilized portion of the lower level that has been heavily stabilized and lit. These refinements in no way diminishes the tours effectiveness, however. Entrance to the mine is achieved using an actual rail car where you then disembark and walk with tour operators as they demonstrate period mining equipment, explain blasting strategies, do show and tells on sample ores obtained from the mine and carefully point out connecting shafts.
Outside the mine you can make your way east up Cunningham Gulch where you can look up to the top of Galena Mountain and see the Old Hundred bunkhouse and tramhouse pinned impossibly high in the savage geology. Using binoculars to really zoom in on these tiny structures the true scale of the Old Hundred begins to set in. I highly recommend the tour, though possibly not for anyone claustrophobic, scared of the dark or uncomfortable being splashed with casual spring water seepage from the surrounding rock.
Ah yes, my favorite topic – mountain biking. As much as we love Silverton, this town is geared entirely for the off-road enthusiast of the four-wheel variety. This means most of the mountain biking we’re found is along routes shared by Jeeps and RZRs, though not all of it.
Rainbow/Nute Chute Trail
The Rainbow/Nute Chute Trail is one of the few dedicated mountain bike trails in Silverton. Following an old narrow gauge rail bed out of town this ride rarely exceeds 4% and provides stunning views. The east end of the trail scampers over some pretty sketchy terrain.
At the time of this writing part of the trail was entirely washed out on this iron rich scree slope but I found an alternate drop-in only a mile east of town on the 550.
Further west the trail is rather mystical, most of which is overhung by forest.
The Rico Silverton trail is located at the end of Forest Road 585 west of town. While technically open for mountain biking I found conditions on this trail to be muddy and rutted making for frequent dismounts and a lot of walking. The ride from South Mineral Campground to the trailhead is severe and also offers occasional dismounts on the incredibly steep terrain but I found it more enjoyable than the trail itself. I also recommend ample bug repellent as the horse flies can be atrocious.
Lime Creek Road, so named for the aspens that turn lime green in summer, makes for an easy-going ride through the San Juans. Averaging only 5% this is a forest road but it’s quiet and scenic. The drive from Silverton takes about 30 minutes and passes through the incredibly scenic Molas Pass.
Colorado Trail Segment 25 can be picked up by parking at the Little Molas Lake Campground. Climbs are moderate but I felt like they were double the grade due to the extreme altitude which tops out above timberline at 12,000′ (3657m). The scenery is epic – of course.
Cunningham gulch is located on County Road 4A a few miles north of town. You can ride to the ride or drive to the intersection of County Road 2 and County Road 4 and park there. The grade is somewhere in the neighborhood of 7% over several miles. This road is popular with OHV enthusiasts but not choked with them. The ride for practical purposes begins at the Old Hundred mine and stops at Highland Mary Lake Trailhead which is popular with hikers. Along the way you’ll see marmots, pikas, alpine flowers and wild raspberries is you’re late enough in the year.
Arrastra Gulch is closer to town, beginning essentially at the Mayflower Gold Mill and following County Road 52 west. The climb is short and intense as it follows an ancient tram system that was used to haul pay to the mill. There are many offshoots but I follow a northern OHV tail off of County Road 52 to an old mine near Little Giant Basin.
Maggie Gulch is located north of Cunningham Gulch on County Road 23. This short ride offers an extremely intense climb that is also shared by OHV enthusiasts. I only take the ride a couple miles to a right-hand branch in the road that terminates at an impressive waterfall.
Forest Road 585
Forest Road 585 begins just a mile or so east of town and offers access to a half-dozen campgrounds, OHV trails and several hikes. The road is rather busy but we found it too offered nice riding from South Mineral Campground to U.S. 550 and back again.
Scenic Drive is a gobsmacking ride immediately west of town that looks down on Silverton like it’s a toy model Swiss village. The ride is easy and I typically rode it two times over lunch to get in a good workout, but the real reason you ride here is the view. It literally escapes my ability to crystallize into words the views you can drink in here as you look down onto this town stuck in time. Steam engines puff away, entirely unimpressed with the fact that we’re well into the 21st century, tourists ebb and flow through the many shops and restaurants and San Juans look on in silence.
What Could Go Wrong
I’m not generally a pessimist but I feel like most of the RV channels and blogs I read don’t always own up to the realities of full-time camper living. Below are some of the issues we experienced.
Allow me to make this completely clear. The weather in Silverton is terrible.
If you choose to spend your time here be forewarned that it rains much of the time and temperatures often hover around freezing, even in summer. It pays to get your activities done as early as possible as rain and hail move in around noon. I found myself in a fairly intense situation at Ice Lake and wound up with early symptoms of hypothermia as I did not bring a thick enough rain jacket.
Since we’re in a deluxe Airstream and we live in the desert, rain for us is a treat so we deeply enjoy the experience.
I work in technology for a living as a software architect and I can say, unequivocally, technology sucks. In particular, allow me to vent my rage upon on my Buffalo RAID 5 1TB NAS. That piece of crap crashed last year and sucked down a decade’s worth of photos at and around Silverton.
I’ve thought for so many years how I could write a cool travel blog, share my experiences and my dazzling photography until one morning I awoke to found I’d lost it all – despite Buffalo’s claims that this NAS it would give you warning of a drive failure because RAID is a redundant solution. Not so much.
Though not directly related to Airstreaming, I personally recommend Microsoft OneDrive over on-premises storage solutions. This is a cloud storage product that costs $100/yr for 1TB or storage, you get 5 Office 365 licenses and it’s always backed up, always on and always safe. Plus you can also configure your Android and Apple devices to automatically upload your videos and photos, make albums and share stuff with your friends.
Alas, we will of course, make our way back to Silverton and enjoy its goodness as the sting of lost memories fade and new ones are made, but I will never forget that betrayal Buffalo visited upon me.
I have to reiterate one more time – Silverton is not for everyone. The weather can be terrible and temperatures cold. In exchange, however, you can explore a savage countryside barely tamed by the 21st century and lose yourself in a myriad of exploratory pursuits that will leave your head spinning. Silverton has the it factor in so many ways I can only hope this blog leaves slightly more than just a faint impression and explains to the world why this really is our favoritest place in the world!