The plan was to stay at lower elevations until it got too damn hot then I would head for the hills. The hills of Colorado. Which are actually mountains. But you knew that. I hope.
I had wanted to do some more exploring of Utah and hit at least one more National Park before going to Colorado, but that didn’t happen. Zion was all I managed to see of Utah in 2016 and I’m fine with that. Just means I have to go back!
Because I had been so successful at slowing down in 2016 it was getting a wee bit warm in the Beehive State, so a decision was made to haul ass from the current location at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to Colorado.
After a less than exciting drive through northeast Arizona (damn there is a lot of nothing there!) we (I was still traveling with Kelly) got as far as Durango, Colorado before we had to find a place to stay.
The free camping options in the immediate area are lacking. As in there are no official ones. So we checked out a pay campground in the National Forest. Full. Then we checked the fairgrounds in Durango. Full due to a carnival. Um, OK, what do we do now?
You can overnight at many Walmarts throughout the country, except where it’s not allowed (usually because of city ordinance). Durango has one of those Walmarts you aren’t supposed to overnight at because the city says it’s not legal. Fine. But I had read somewhere that you could actually stay there, so I called up the store and sure enough, overnight camping is allowed because the city ordinance isn’t enforced.
Sweet! My staying at Walmart cherry was finally going to be popped! I was finally joining the club of those that have overnighted at Wally World.
One night was plenty. I’m sure I’ll be staying at a Walmart in the future, but I’m not rushing out to do it again.
The Road There
Other than a quick trip up the front range of Colorado my first summer on the road (2014), I had spent zero time in Colorado. I hadn’t spent anytime in the legendary mountains of Colorado, but I’d heard plenty of good things about them. To say I was excited to get my first taste of them would be a mild understatement. And I wasn’t disappointed. Not by a long shot!
Getting to Silverton is fun. It sits at about 9,300 feet. Durango is about 3,000 feet lower. Doesn’t sound too bad. Until you do it.
Not only do you spend most of the trip going from Durango to Silverton climbing up, up and then up some more, you go over two mountain passes. The lowest one is at 10,640 feet. The higher one barely misses 11,000 feet. So, yeah, you reach some pretty impressive elevations on the way to Silverton. Welcome to Colorado!
Just west of town is a road that leads to several camping areas. Some paid, but most free. Anvil Campground is where we stayed for the 16 nights we were at Silverton.
Surrounded by towering peaks that still had snow on them when we arrived, Anvil has access to off-road trails, places to walk, and more nature than you can shake a stick at. Elk. Moose. Beaver. Deer. The hills were alive!
I first learned about Anvil Campground from my friends Kevin and Kym, who I hadn’t met at this time but was stalking via all the “appropriate” channels. Despite the stalking, Kym was nice enough to give me the low-down on Anvil, so I kinda-sorta had a clue what was there.
Mineral Creek runs right next to the campground. One branch of the creek that is, with the south fork running down the main valley. Normally Mineral Creek isn’t much to write home about, but this time of the year the snow melt made for an impressive amount of (dirty) water flow.
Silverton, Colorado is an old mining town, with both silver and gold being mined in them there hills. There is evidence of mining activity everywhere you look. High up in the mountains. Down low in the town (if you consider 9,300 feet low).
Fewer than 1,000 people call Silverton home. It literally has one paved road with the rest being fairly well maintained gravel.
People arrive in droves on summer weekends. During the week plenty of tourists abound. Despite this, Silverton has a great feel to it. Definitely a nice place to explore and spend some time.
There is something magical about Silverton. I feel in love with the area. It’s in the middle of nowhere yet is surrounded by some of the most majestic scenery imaginable. It ranked right up there with one of my favorite Colorado places I visited this summer.
One of the ways the tourists arrive in Silverton is via the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which oddly enough, runs between Durango & Silverton.
Three trains a day arrive during the peak summer months and I spent a bit of time enjoying the comings and goings of these steam engine beasts.
The trains “park” right on one of the cross streets in town. You can walk up to them. Experience them. And watch up close and person their arrivals and departures. Very cool to experience even if you aren’t a huge train lover (but who doesn’t love a good steam train?).
Ouray is another mining town (shocking, I know!) that is located north of Silverton. There was nothing special that drew us to Ouray itself. It was the journey that was attractive, as is often the case in life.
Colorado is full of places that I’ve heard about. Some are worthy of the tall tales I’ve heard whispers of, while others aren’t worth the paper their tales were written on.
The Million Dollar Highway is definitely one of places that is worthy of its legend. This stretch US 550 between Silverton and Ouray is spectacular. It’s spectacular because of it’s beauty. It’s spectacular because of the shear drop offs that exist in certain spots – one false move and you plunge hundreds of feet to your demise.
Seriously, the Million Dollar Highway can only be truly appreciated in person. I was fortunate enough to drive it multiple times during my summer long stay in Colorado, both in the north direction and south. Towing my trailer (both ways) and not towing my trailer. In sun and in rain (driving the highway in the rain while towing – yeah, that was “fun” especially traveling south when you are on the drop off side).
Ouray itself was cute. Another in a long line of old mining towns turned tourist destinations that Colorado is beyond full of. The couple of hours we stayed there was about right. No, we didn’t experience the hot springs the town is famous for. I don’t really do the community pool thing, though a community pool that is actually a hot spring might be worth a try.
Clear Lake is one of the many great drives in the Silverton area. This particular location involves nearly 3,000 feet in elevation gain via a goat path masquerading as a Forest Service road. In theory the route ends just above 12,000 feet at a fairly spectacular alpine lake. I say in theory because we didn’t quite make it.
One day we decided to make this trek in my Jeep. One would think that in early June the route would be clear. One would be wrong. Around 11,500 feet we were stopped by an impassable snow bank. Right as we were coming out of the tree line. Of course.
We headed off on foot for a bit, but we were still too far from the actual lake to hoof it all the way. So we settled on looking at Clear Creek cascading down some falls in one direction and breathtaking views of the valley below the other way.
Clear Lake proper would have to wait for another day.
Ice Lake Trail
Ice Lake trail was recommended by Kevin and Kym, the same friends who suggested Anvil Campground. The trail is farther down the road that takes you to Anvil Campground. Waaaaaay back in the valley. Back where there is zero cell service (OK, that describes about 90% of Colorado).
We decided to see how far we could get on the trail one evening. With Kelly’s dogs in tow. We got as far as the creek crossing. A combination of late hour and Kelly not wanting to cross slick narrow logs carrying dogs caused us to turn around. One more adventure for another day.
Animas Forks Ghost Town
Early into our stay at Anvil Campground I was contacted via Instagram by Jeff and Alicia who ended up joining us. OK, they technically were in the next campground over, a whopping 20 feet away across the creek.
One day while Kelly was off gallivanting with a guy who eventually turned into her boyfriend, Jeff, Alicia and I went off adventuring down a dirt road (also describes about 90% of Colorado) to the ghost town of Animas Forks.
Red Mountain Mining Area
I might drive a Jeep, but it’s only 2 wheel drive so it isn’t a “real” Jeep. I’m constantly reminded of this by my loving friends who happen to own “proper” 4 wheel drive vehicles. That doesn’t stop me from taking LJ (Lady Jeep – a term of endearment coined by some of these loving friends) places she really has no business going. Something I tend to do far too often. I have yet to pay the price of this foolishness.
Colorado is famous for its off road trails. The area around Silverton is full of some of the more famous off road routes. Even I’m not foolish enough to take a 2 wheel drive vehicle over such routes as Engineer Pass or Ophir Pass, but have no problem exploring other “milder” places. I asked one of my full time RVing, off road vehicle wielding friends for some route suggestions in the area (he has one of those fancy books that show such routes – something I can’t be bothered to get since I only have a Lady Jeep).
The Red Mountain Mining Area is the one route he suggested that I actually attempted to explore. Red Mountain Pass is due north of Silverton and on the Million Dollar Highway on the way to Ouray. It’s also home of a heavy concentration of old mines and a great place to explore. If you have dry road conditions and a proper 4 wheel drive vehicle – neither of which applied to me on this trip.
I chose to do the route from the south to the north. A wise decision considering after I peaked at around 11,500 in elevation I started coming down some incredibly slick mud roads (thanks to the snow melt). No way in hell could I have actually gone up the other way.
The snow melt made for some interesting water crossings, where I just put my foot into it to gain momentum. If I was a religious man I would have been saying some words looking for divine intervention. Since that stuff doesn’t actually work, I relied on pure luck. And it was my lucky day, managing to get through some spots I shouldn’t have been in.
Eventually I got to a spot I couldn’t get past so I turned around and found a shortcut to US 550. Later, as I was consulting Google Maps, I saw where I took the wrong turn and could have continued on. Just as well as I had pushed my luck with Lady Jeep enough for one day.
Silverton, you hold a special place in my heart. So much so that I spent a couple more weeks in your presence on the other end of summer. But that story is for a later time…