Last month I loaded up my phone full of podcasts, topped off the gas tank in the Subie, and threw some gear in the back for a road trip to Silverton. I spend most of my outdoor time in Northern Colorado and I’ve been meaning to explore more of our beautiful state, especially after the National Parks adventure I did last summer to check out Glacier. There have been far too many times friends would ask, “Hey, have you been to this forest? Or these mountains?” and I would regretfully have to say no. So when the opportunity to spend some time in Silverton and the San Juan Mountains came up, I readily cleared my schedule and hit the road.
There’s an overwhelming sense of adventure that washes over me when I solo road trip. I don’t think I ever feel as free as I do when I’m heading into the unknown with a map, a trunk full of gear, and hours of listening and contemplation. That feeling begins to creep up on me, similar to a massage. After fighting tension and angst for a few hours, all of my muscles relax and I physically feel the weight lift from my soul. It is an incredible experience for me.
The drive from Fort Collins to Silverton is a solid chunk of time, but if you’re efficient, you can get there in a day. Leave town at 8:00am, stop halfway for lunch and fuel (I stopped in Gunnison), and get into Silverton by 5:30pm. It’s not an unbearable drive.
Speaking of food, you can read about my food experiences for this trip on Feasting Fort Collins.
But back to Silverton – the little town I knew nothing about before driving across nearly the whole state of Colorado to get there. Once you reach the San Juan Mountains, it begins to feel like driving in the glacier-carved mountains in Glacier National Park. The ruggedness contrasted by brilliant forest colors are stunning, particularly as you climb Red Mountain Pass with the unique rust-colored mountain tops. It’s breathtaking. While I was here in the summer the brilliant shades of green blanketing the canyons, the autumn colors are no doubt equally as spectacular. Abandoned historical mines spot the mountain sides, more than I’ve ever seen before. The history geek in me started to get really excited. And then I dodged more marmots running across the roads than I ever have in Colorado, too.
I pulled into Silverton – a tiny town lined with adorable old Victorian houses, remnants of mining history everywhere including a fascinating Red Light District, and not a paved road in sight. In fact, barrels mark the intersections for OHV traffic, which is pretty much how people get around in these parts. The whole town that only 700 rugged and hardy people call home was a registered historic district surrounded by pure Colorado beauty. I was in love.
My visit there was short, so I didn’t have a lot of time to delve into all of the history or hike and explore the mountains. But what I did do was hook up with Rock Pirates Backcountry Tours for a high alpine guided OHV ride. It was quite a ride, to boot!
After a carb-loaded breakfast, Rock Pirates got us set up with gear we headed straight from the shop on Polaris RZR’s to Animas Forks through the Alpine Loop. Fully built in 1873, Animas Forks grew into a bustling mining town with 30 cabins, a hotel, general store, saloon, and post office. By 1883, 450 people lived up there at 11,160 ft elevation, and the town’s newspaper the Animas Forks Pioneer was publishing. Mining profits began to decline, a huge fire destroyed the business district in 1891, and mills closed in 1910. Animas Forks became a high alpine ghost town by the 1920s. In 2011, the townsite was listed on the national register of historic places, and the remnants of the ghost town have been restored and protected.
It’s a really interesting stop along the way, giving you insight into the local mining history that established this area. You can check out the interior of the buildings (at your own risk) and read up on some of the details provided on interpretive signs. Some of them include wallpaper preservation and a few newsletter clippings from insulation in the Gustavson home.
Going up from that point is when the road got a little wild and a whole lot of fun. I sat back and enjoyed the ride from the passenger seat while my friend Charles drove the RZR, both of us laughing as we turned around tight switchbacks going higher and higher to the top of Engineer Pass at 12,800 ft. It was a such a fun way to soak up the fresh air and the sights of Colorado peaks (and beyond), all while getting absolutely covered in mud splatters and dirt. I don’t think it’s a real outdoor adventure until you come back covered in something – dirt, mud, sweat…
After a brief and super windy moment on Engineer Pass, we drove down and around to Cinnamon Pass at 12,640 ft. The land above the trees feels like driving on a snow-capped Mars, with the smallest little wildflowers growing from the barren landscape. Erick Loyer, one of the founders of Rock Pirates (and Ice Pirates in the winter) with his wife Lizzie, joined us on the tour. He pointed out specific 14er peaks and filled us in on a lot of the interesting stories these mountains hold. That’s one of the awesome benefits to having a tour guide on these adventures. However, you can also just load up the side-by-sides and hit the trails unguided. Each machine is set up with GPS so you can find your way and SPOT trackers in case of an emergency. Because all of Silverton is considered a wilderness area, they immediately call for helicopter rescue should those SPOT trackers give out the signal. So, they’re really on top of safety.
Riding down from the top of the San Juans was surreal passing all of the wildflowers in the peak bloom next to icy blue streams wrapping around weather-worn abandoned mines. We drove straight back into town, pulled up into parking spots in front of a brewery for lunch, still covered head-to-toe in dirt. This was an epic adventure, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.