March 25, 2018
San Juan Mountains, Scenic Adventure
Story by Story by Samantha Tisdel Wright and Kathryn R. Burke
All content © San Juan Publishing Group, Inc, All rights reserved.
LOST IN A HIGH and stunning glacier-carved wilderness that will leave you, quite literally, breathless—San Juan County has the highest mean elevation of any county in the United States! And her mountains have been voted a “Top 10 Adventure Destination” by National Geographic, Outside and Skiing magazines.
Moreover,”Silverton has more year-round access to more alpine back country than any town, anywhere, including Alaska,” notes local Michael Constaintine, who has spent considerable time in Alaska and many other alpine regions around the world.
Scenic LakeMolas LakeWhen exploring the high country around Silverton, your two biggest decisions will be: where do I go, and how do I get there? Both offer a multitude of choices.
You don’t have to be a mountain goat or extreme athlete to experience this alpine wonderland;the San Juans are criss-crossed by a 500-mile network of some of the country’s best four-wheel drive roads, linking Silverton to surrounding towns by jeep trails winding through gleefully mountainous scenery. Rugged hikers take a staff and head on up. Mountain bikes are a little easier way, since you can sit down. And stop frequently to just look so you don’t ride right off the trail. To really take in the views, though, try a guided tour, and when you’re comfortable with driving the terrain, rent a Jeep®. If you choose to take a guided tour, your driver will be happy to cater to whatever your interest may be: mining ruins and ghost towns, geology, wildflowers, alpine lakes, and waterfalls. These people are experts on the history and highlights of the area, and can’t wait to share their stories with you. A guided tour is the best way to experience the scenery, at least for your first trip, so your eyes can be on the views and not on the steering wheel and road. The area’s best 4X drive touring company, Switzerland of America (SOA) based in nearby Ouray, makes several trips every day (during the season) to Silverton and San Juan County’s most scenic trails.
Rental Jeeps® are also available in Silverton. Both Red Mountain RV and Silver Summit RB Park rent two- and four-door Wranglers. If you opt to drive yourself, you might keep in mind the humble advice on a sign that once was posted at the outset of Black Bear Pass: “You don’t have to be crazy to drive this road…but it helps.” (Black Bear, by the way, is best done with an experienced tour guide and most companies will not allow you to take their rental equipment on that trail.) When you return, celebrate by buying yourself one of the tee-shirts that proclaims: “I survived Black Bear!” Without doubt, you will have earned it.
Not all trails are as hairy as Black Bear, however, and many, such as the road to Clear Lake, above Silverton, offer incredible vistas, carpets of wildflowers, plummeting waterfalls. And of course, there are plenty of ghost towns and mining relics to make you want to stop and explore. All-terrain-vehicles and dirt bikes are tailor-made for high country exploration, too. The San Juans offer plenty of scenic trails. Bring your own, rent one, or take a guided tour.
Whatever your choice of transportation – foot or wheeled, PLEASE STAY ON THE TRAILS and please DO NOT PICK THE WILDFLOWERS. The tundra and the flowers are fragile. Once gone, they cannot be replaced. Please be a resposible traveler and help us preserve the wilderness for future generations—even those that follow you by only a day!
If you’re not a motorhead, consider hiking or biking. Gloriously scenic San Juan County is a great place for both. If you prefer to go quietly, but with a little less effort, guided horseback tours are also available.
Regardless of your preferred mode of transport, you’;re in for an unparalleled visual treat when you decide which trail to travel. The choices are as splendorous and varied as a field full of wildflowers. The Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail both wend their way through the Weminuche Wilderness to the south of town.
Animas ForksGhost towns and remnants of the mining boom days are connected by a series of underground tunnels and above ground trails, some of them topping 12,000 feet! Be sure to bring your camera. Even a little instamatic point-and-shoot will do, but for the semi-serious or professional photographer, this is serious scenery. You’ll want your best photographic equipment and plenty of film or memory cards. Burke’s Custom Tours for Photographers and Artists offers professional photographic guidance and a portable history lesson as tour guides take you into the San Juan Mountains and walk you through Silverton and neighboring Ouray. If you’re looking for a thrill, check out the “downhill free riding” at Silverton Mountain, an extreme back country ski area six miles northwest of Silverton—ride the chairlift up, fly your bike down. Helmet not optional. The chairlift is open for scenic rides all summer, carrying passengers up Storm Peak to the breathless elevation of 12,300 feet (bring a jacket). There is a “beer garden” up top, consisting of a small shack and some simple benches, but this seems dwarfed, and extraneous, compared to the wild glory of the scenery all around you.
So however you go and wherever you go in Scenic San Juan County, you’ll be making visual memories that will last a lifetime.
Page top: High above Lake Como. Carolyn Wilcox
Scenic Alpine Lake. ©Don Porter
Molas Lake at Twilight. ©James Burke
Golden Horn Vista. ©Roger Young
Animas Forks. ©Kathryn R. Burke
The Silverton Magazine was published by San Juan Publishing from 2000-2010. All content is copyright, in perpetuity, San Juan Publishing, Group, Inc. All rights reserved. For reprint permission, contact the publisher.