High off my discovery of wet canyoning in Ouray, I navigated the awe-inspiring Red Mountain Pass in route to Silverton. Unlike Ouray, which seems very settled in its personality, Silverton is undergoing various changes and could be ushering in a new wave, at least in part, thanks to new residents and some fresh takes on old establishments. Here’s what going on in Silverton:
There’s still a disagreement about the direction the town should take.
Some residents want growth and change; others don’t, and yes – that’s a good thing. Small town politics are never easy, but it’s important to point out that destinations who receive push back against tourism typically stay authentic longer than ones that embrace it with open arms. Take Molokai in Hawaii, for example, and compare it to some of the other Hawaiian Islands.
Regardless of which side of the progressive coin you land on, the split situation itself is a good one from a traveler’s perspective. It ensures that any change will be incremental, that the town, even as it evolves, will have a good chance of keeping its character – it might open a new brewery or a new hotel, but it won’t become a different place overnight. That’s a promising sign for everyone involved, visitors and locals alike.
Right now, they’re creating the present by re-purposing the past.
So far, most of the “new developments” in town are in the form of re-purposement rather than new construction. The Avon Hotel, known as an old miner’s hangout and complete with an authentic, old-style saloon, recently re-opened after 25 years of vacancy. The Wyman Hotel, while seemingly out of place in Silverton with its uber-modern design (walking in off the trail, its pristine white sheets, designer rugs, and pink curtains seemed too nice), occupies an old corner building on Greene Street that was built in 1902 and once housed a gas station. The Notorious Blair Street is currently being revamped to make the old new again – improved street lights, walking paths, and a performance center to complement the historic buildings: saloons, gambling halls, and brothels.
This is the sort of thing I speak of, small, reasonable change where everyone wins – the past is preserved, sometimes re-purposed, but not steamrolled. By spending money to restore the historic sections of Silverton, the town can attract visitors and maintain its personality simultaneously.
Increased comfort and modern offerings could encourage more overnight visitors, which could take the focus off single-day tourism, which might be a good thing in the long run for Silverton.
Right now, tourism in Silverton lives and dies by one thing: The train. Three hundred days a year, more than 1,000 people are brought to Silverton from Durango via a tourist train. The train stops in Silverton for a couple hours, then turns around and goes right back to Durango. It does this a couple times per day, with approximately 500 guests per train.
On one hand, mass tourism such as this seems like an okay solution for a town split on tourism – they arrive, walk around, have lunch, then get back on the train. They don’t hang around town, but still impact the local economy.
The downside of this is that it encourages fleeting businesses – that is, businesses are created not because they are supported by the local population, or repeat business, but because they cater directly to day-trippers who need certain things, like food and drink, served quickly and efficiently. While there are some exceptions, this almost always results in mediocrity – when you don’t depend on repeat business, you don’t sweat the small stuff (take a look at any cruise ship port in the world, for example).
Chatting around town with Silverton locals, at bars and in outdoor shops, I learned that many restaurants in town were places they would never dine. That’s not the kind of thing you want to build your town around.
But this most recent push of “development” in Silverton features new projects and modern offerings that could change things. From the Avon and Wyman hotels to the Golden Block and Avalanche breweries, these “modern” attractions will help to draw, increase, and diversify overnight traffic, which could, in turn, change some dynamics of the town. A visitor that stays for multiple nights is now all of a sudden a potential repeat customer, and is more likely to dive deeper into the local businesses of the town, supporting places who specialize in quality, not convenience.
There are still many secrets to be discovered.
Anyone who has been to Silverton knows that it’s a small town in a big wilderness. Even though you might be able to explore the town in one day, and even though places like the Ice Lakes Trail are growing in popularity, the forests and mountainsides surrounding Silverton have hardly revealed themselves to the world. There is more to discover in the wilderness around Silverton than a local can complete in a lifetime, much less a visitor in town for a couple days, from hiking and biking to fly fishing and off-roading.
First timers should start with the basics: A trip to Animas Forks, a visit to the Silverton Avalanche School, a hike up around Kendall Peak. But to get into the good stuff, to find out where all those random dirt roads lead, you’ll have to pick the brain of a local.
OHVs are allowed, but they don’t stand out.
OHVs – also known as off-highway vehicles – have become controversial in Colorado (and many places in the Western United States). Many towns have banned them from using local paved roads, and some people loathe motorized recreation altogether on principle.
But Silverton has embraced the OHV crowd. It allows them to drive upon the town’s roads, creates mountain trails for them to explore, and offers support to their clientele via specialized outdoor shops and tour operators.
From my perspective, some towns are better set up to handle them than others. I can’t imagine Ouray allowing them – something about that town seems unfit for it – but it works for Silverton. Half the roads in the town are unpaved anyhow, and there’s enough room in the surrounding wilderness for hikers and vehicles to coexist. It does not appear that the OHV crowd will, reasonably speaking, threaten the natural enjoyment of anyone in Silverton.
While I am a hiker at heart, I did take a guided, informational Rock Pirate OHV ride through the nearby wilderness, and it taught me a thing or two about their appeal. I can see now why people love their capabilities, and why OHVs will continue to be a big part of Silverton’s future. If you’ve never given it a chance, Silverton is a good place to try.