A tiny town in a picturesque valley at over 9,000 feet, Silverton seems frozen in time, a place out of the old history books. Established as a mining settlement in the 1870s, the entire town is a National Historic Landmark, with its Victorian-era buildings, historic railroad station, and abandoned mines. You’ll enjoy a stop in Silverton if you are interested in the history of the American West in the late 1800s.
If you prefer the outdoors, you’ll also find Silverton worth a stop. Surrounded by tall mountain peaks, the town offers plenty of hiking trails and opportunities for outdoor activities in all seasons.
But no matter your interests, you’ll love the natural beauty of this tiny town, surrounded by the gorgeous peaks of the San Juan mountains. And no season brings out the best of it like fall.
At this high elevation, the town and surrounding mountains showcase the stunning colors of the season. Bright yellow and golden aspens mixed with the deep green of the pines stand out against the stark sheer rocks above the treeline. At this time of the year, even just driving through the town on your way from Durango to Ouray on the Million Dollar Highway is a treat for the senses. But if you have time to explore, here are a few activities you can do in Silverton in the fall.
1. Stroll Down Main Street
Step back in history as you walk among the Victorian-era buildings on Main Street while enjoying the gorgeous mountains showcasing their autumn colors. For a break from the outdoors, walk into the specialty gift shops, or stop for a cup of coffee and tasty pastry in one of the coffee shops lining the street. Try one of the funnel cakes; they taste as good as they smell.
Walk across the street to the historic train station and look at the old-fashioned steam locomotive if it’s in town, then stop at the Grand Imperial and walk into the largest building in town.
2. Step Back In Time At The Grand Imperial Hotel And Saloon
A must-visit landmark in Silverton, the Grand Imperial Hotel, completed in 1883, was once headquarters to the county seat and home to the post office, bank, mine offices, a doctor’s office, a general store, and the Silverton newspaper. The third floor was the Grand Hotel.
As the mining operations ceased in town, the Grand Hotel, renamed Imperial Hotel and later the Grand Imperial Hotel, took over the entire building.
Antique Victorian-style furniture, huge paintings, ornate mirrors, and an antique grand piano greet you in the lobby. An elegant staircase leads to the upper floors and old-fashioned wooden double doors to the saloon.
Stop for a traditional American meal at the Restaurant and Saloon, even if you don’t stay at the hotel overnight. The old-fashioned elegance of the wooden bar and original historic tin ceiling make you feel in an older era. In the afternoons, watch — and listen to — live music played on the antique piano in the dining hall.
3. Walk Over To The Train Station
The train and the town grew up together. Or rather the railroad helped establish Silverton as a town, as opposed to just a mining settlement, when it arrived in 1882. Though originally built to haul silver and gold from the mines in the area, the passenger trains kept the railroad in business, since people realized how gorgeous the scenery is along the line.
The train station features historical buildings housing gift shops, restaurants, and a pastry shop along the sides of the two tracks. When the train pulls in, the town comes to life, as tourists from Durango disembark to spend a few hours browsing through the gift shops and stopping for a meal.
4. Ride The Narrow-Gauge Railway Between Durango And Silverton
The ultimate wild west adventure, riding the historic railway between Durango and Silverton is a great way to enjoy the gorgeous scenery of the San Juan mountains in the fall while riding in a historic train pulled by a steam engine. You’ll see people boarding the train in period-specific clothing. While on the train, they will tell you stories of the old West from the perspective of a historical character.
Since the train arrives in Silverton in the afternoon and leaves after a few hours, making it a perfect day trip from Durango, it is a bit trickier to enjoy it if you plan on boarding it from Silverton. You can drive to Durango in the morning, take the train back to Silverton, and return to Durango for the night.
5. Take A Walk On Notorious Blair Street
At the train station, turn onto the dirt road paralleling Main Street. You are on the notorious — and infamous — Blair Street, the historic red-light district of the old mining town. The prostitutes who worked this stretch were considered a necessity in the old town. They led hard lives and were judged by society, yet they saved lives during the 1918 flu epidemic.
Once filled with bordellos, saloons, and gambling halls, Blair Street is quiet now, though its old buildings still stand. A walk along them is another opportunity to reflect upon history, but also to enjoy the autumn colors of Silverton’s natural surroundings.
6. Walk To The Old Train Depot, And Spend Time By The Animas River
Walk past Blair Street toward the old train depot. Old train cars line the abandoned lines, along with the deserted Depot building. Walk inside to see the old ticket office and an exhibit of minerals they used to transport with these trains.
At the old train depot, you’ll find easy access to the Animas River. Sit by the rushing river with the mountains in the background showcasing their gorgeous autumn colors. Or, walk the Animas River Trail on its banks.
7. Visit The San Juan County Mining Heritage Center
Walk to the end of Main Street, and past the historic Town Hall, you’ll find the San Juan Mining Heritage Center and Jail. It’s more than you would expect to find in a tiny town like Silverton. You start the tour by walking through the restored county jailhouse dating from 1902, and you’ll learn about minerals from the surrounding mountains through the displays. But the highlights of the museum are the underground tunnels, mining cars on a track, mining machinery, and other artifacts in the museum’s Environmental Exhibits.
8. Take The Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour
To get a close-up view of a miner’s life in a real historic mine, take the Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour. You’ll wear a hard hat and ride in a vintage mining cart .33 miles underground, deep inside the mountain. There, you’ll see old mining equipment and colorful minerals and crystals on the tunnels’ walls. Outside, learn how to pan for gold, and walk away with pieces of silver, gold, or copper, if you find any.
You will be underground for about 45 minutes, and it is cold inside the tunnels (under 50 degrees). And the mine is at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. So if you are claustrophobic or prone to altitude sickness (or are already experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness), skip the tour.
But don’t skip the drive to the mine. Enjoy the scenery, filled with golden aspens and evergreens, and the view of the Old Hundred Boarding House perched on a cliff above the mine, dating from 1904.
9. Drive Over To The Animas Forks Ghost Town
A true mining ghost town dating from 1873, the Animas Forks Ghost Town still has a few buildings standing that you can explore. At 11,200 feet elevation, the town was home to about 450 people in 1883; they even had a newspaper. But, like most mining towns, it only lasted until mines stopped working in 1910. The residents left, and by 1920 it became a ghost town.
You’ll enjoy this drive best in a high-clearance vehicle. About 12 miles of the road is dirt, rough in some places. It starts at the end of Silverton; follow the road to the right at the fork. You don’t have to drive all the way out to the ghost town to enjoy the scenery, though. Enjoy the surrounding mountains and the abandoned mines along the way.
10. Take A Hike In The Gorgeous San Juan Mountains
The wilderness surrounding Silverton is filled with trails for all hiking levels, though you won’t find easy access to them from the town. But if you drive out of town a few miles, you’ll find a few trails worth a hike. Molas Lake and Little Molas Lake on the way to Durango are two of my favorites, featuring easy enough trails around the lakes.
11. Drive The Million Dollar Highway
Drive it toward Durango and stop at the viewpoint above town for a gorgeous view of Silverton. If you time your trip right, you can watch the train chugging along the Animas River. Drive it toward Ouray and stop at Ironton Ghost Town for a view of dense aspen forest and enjoy its autumn gold colors. Consult our list of eight things to know about Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway as you plan your trip.
Pro Tip: At an elevation of over 9,000 feet, be aware that you might experience altitude sickness in Silverton, especially if you are prone to it. Take things slow, stop often, and make sure you drink plenty of water.