Silver City, New Mexico, an off-the-beaten-path gem crammed with preserved historic structures, is accredited by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street America program, ensuring the quality and integrity of its story.
Long-forgotten people lived in the area for thousands of years, leaving hints of their existence discovered in archeologic digs. The valley that is now the town’s historic main street was an Apache settlement in the 1500s. Three hundred years later, in 1870 the Spanish claimed the area and built missions and trading forts, naming the town St. Vincent of the Marsh. Seven years later, silver ore deposits were discovered, and the sleepy community was never the same, evolving into a mining boom town renamed Silver City.
Between the raids from Apaches fighting for their homeland and outlaws such as Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy following the scent of money for silver sales, the town became one of the most dangerous Wild West cases in the United States.
Silver City is the gateway to another treasure: the Gila National Forest with 3 million acres of forested hills, majestic mountains, steep canyons, and hot springs — the perfect place for outdoor activities. Nearby is the Gila Wilderness, which neighbors the beautiful, isolated Pinos Altos Mountains — the perfect place for outlaws to hide.
During a month-long road trip through New Mexico, I took a leap of faith and a serious detour to the town of Silver City. The two days I scheduled for it were not near enough time. This Grant County town of only 10,000 residents hosts more than 50 art galleries speaking to the richness of the culture, starting with the Native Americans. The beauty of the location and the many things to do in this quaint Southwestern town mean it won’t be my last trip to Silver City.
1. Sleep And Relax At The Bear Mountain Lodge
As a member of the Nature Conservancy, I had known about this unique lodge for many years. The original owners of Bear Mountain Lodge donated the entire ranch to the Nature Conservancy to protect endangered plants and stop erosion damaged by cattle ranching. The buildings were sold to a private family who has beautifully restored the adobe ranch house into a stunning lodge.
The ranch also has trails, a meditation labyrinth, a barn full of chickens, and a cranky donkey that lets you pet him once in a while. Their farm-to-table breakfast was always creative and delicious, served on a porch facing the forest. Silver City is about 5 miles from the lodge.
Pro Tip: Take a pair of binoculars on an early morning hike before breakfast, when remarkable birds are the most active. New Mexico is one of the top bird-watching locations in the U.S.
2. Relive History At The Silver City Museum
The city takes pride in its history, even when the boom turned into a bust. Housed in a stately brick Victorian home, the Silver City Museum maintains an excellent array of more than 50,000 artifacts, documents, and photographs spanning the entire timeline of human habitation in the area. Special exhibits come and go along with programs by celebrated authors or artists, all promoted on their website calendar.
Pro Tip: Located at the mouth of historic downtown Silver City, follow the path of colorful murals on stores and sidewalks to the town’s center.
3. Stroll Through A Distinctive Ambience
Forgotten when the silver vein ran dry and the Old West town almost became a ghost town, the citizens of Silver City saved their home by preserving instead of destroying, earning the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street designation.
Using historic buildings to host businesses that blend the historic character to their advantage, Silver City attracts unique artists, artisans, and chefs. Mining equipment stores became hiking and cycling equipment stores, and saloons became craft brew pubs. Traditional tasty farm-to-table restaurants and vintage ice cream parlors never left.
I can’t resist highlighting a few of my favorite places in downtown Silver City:
- Makers Market is an area full of handmade crafts, homegrown herbs, and organic foods.
- Birdwell’s Vintage Vibes, an old-fashioned ice cream fountain with a side room full of antiques, is where I gulped the best chocolate shake ever.
- Cholla Cholla Art, located in a funky adobe house, is among the numerous art galleries in the area.
Pro Tip: The historic district is numerous blocks long. and good walking shoes are recommended. Don’t miss a store — their historic interior architecture is interesting no matter what they sell.
4. Take Home A Chunk Of The Wild West
Silver City is known throughout New Mexico for its antique stores. People fill the streets on weekends, searching for treasures that highlight the nostalgia of the Wild West.
The Clay Festival is a favorite annual event organized by two local clay artists named Coralee Mercado and Rita Sherwood. Emphasizing the Native American history of the area, the festival is usually held in July. Artists offer pottery workshops, and vendors display hundreds of new and old clay pots, some for sale.
Pro Tip: Don’t hesitate to bargain during the weekdays when less crowded.
5. Watch A Classic Movie at Silco Theater
The theater began in the early 1900s as a live playhouse relying on local talent. Torn down and rebuilt in 1923 to reflect the economic success of silver and copper mining, the theater was renamed the Silco Theater (derived from silver and copper).
Evolving with the good and bad times, the theater was once a furniture store, a mini-mall, and a thrift store. With grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Mainstreet Program, the theater’s wonderful art-deco style was restored, reopening in 2016 offering first-run movies, old movies, and occasionally a locally made documentary.
Pro Tip: Tickets can be purchased online, but arrive early to get a good seat.
6. Don’t Ditch Big Ditch Park
Nestled in a valley, the original main street lined the valley floor and became the perfect place for water to flow, flooding Silver City often. After two gigantic floods within a few years of each other devasted the town, leaders decided to act. They built a new main street on higher ground which is now Broadway, along with bridges and rock wall stabilizers. Soon after, a dam was built, and the unpredictable river became a lovely creek.
Today, a remarkable green space along the creek runs parallel to Broadway, with benches to rest under shade trees. The path is a pleasant walk that passes the Silver City Visitor Center and a re-creation of the nearby cabin where Billy the Kid grew up.
Pro Tip: Music festivals are occasionally held on the path. Check the Silver City website for a calendar of events.
7. Hop Into The Little Toad Creek Inn and Tavern
Being a small college town, home to Western New Mexico University, it is no surprise that Silver City has lively places serving craft beers. A good example is the Little Toad Creek Inn and Tavern. Flavorsome beers made at their brewery are a big hit; however, the amazing hamburger placed before me that did not last longer than my mug of beer was not bad either.
Pro Tip: The tavern is located at the end of the Big Ditch path and is a perfect place to end the day.
8. Explore Ancient Cliff Dwellings
You must allow a day for a hair-raising drive up a mountain along a serpent-style road to a well-preserved cliff dwelling overlooking the valley. Once you arrive at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument visitor center, there is a short hike up the mountain top. Hidden from view, the cliff dwellings are well worth the effort.
For thousands of years, nomads used caves above the Gila River as temporary shelter. The Mimbres Mogollon and Salado Native Americans were the last, and by the 1300s, the cliffs were abandoned. They left behind walls with niches and natural closets, stains from fires, platforms possibly used as beds, and many more interesting features carved into the rock walls that are debated as to their use.
Pro Tip: Take the tour offered by national park staff, who offer amazing insight into the what, why, and how.
9. Attend A Fun Festival
A town full of artists equals a town full of creative people, who love to create unique reasons to have fun and show off their talents. Here are a few:
- Silver City Blues Festival, a Memorial Day weekend music festival with well-known musicians from around the U.S.
- Tour of the Gila, an endurance bicycle race up a mountain often called the Gila Monster, is held in October.
- Gila River Festival, held in September, offers art and guest speakers that address the many ways water weaves everyone in the Gila River watershed together.
If You Go To Silver City
Nestled in the Gila National Forest at an elevation of almost 6,000 feet, the weather will change throughout the day. Four distinct seasons are experienced, with the coldest nights averaging 33 degrees in the winter and the hottest days in the summer averaging 85 degrees. The average snowfall is 6 to 7 inches, not enough for winter sports but enough for beautiful holiday scenery.