Sky High Summer Fun in Western Colorado
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MORE MOUNTAINS MEANS MORE THINGS TO DO. And no place in the Lower forty-eight States has more mountains than 9,318 foot high Silverton. It is arguably America’s most mountainous mountain town.
Silverton is the only settlement located actually within (rather than on the periphery of) the extraordinary San Juan Mountains—the largest mountain range in the American Rockies with the highest mean elevation range in all of North America. The San Juans are relatively remote from the major metropolitan areas of the American Southwest, essentially buffering their majesty from overuse. More mountains + less people = more fun.
Exploration of huge tracts of jagged alpine wilderness aside, there is plenty around Silverton to keep adventure travelers, family trucksters and casual tourists alike busy for an entire summer. Summer isn’t just one season here, though: It’s three! Sugar Season, Midsummer, and Indian Summer. Each offers a different climate, different scenery, and a different array of recreational activities.
The firm sugar snows of spring don’t begin to melt significantly in the San Juans until the middle of May, a process which typically surges through June and into July. Though the peaks are blinding white and creeks foam crimson with muddy runoff in the afternoon, the valleys are green, the days are long and the skies a deadly blue. This is one of the driest times of year in Silverton and the season that backcountry skiers, alpine mountaineers and technical whitewater enthusiasts live for. Since mid-April, the intrepid road crews of San Juan County have been plowing open as much of the 750 miles of ice-entombed jeep trails as the subsiding avalanche conditions will allow. Imagine jeeping to one of several 12,000 to 13,000-foot passes through tunnels of snow where the only other folks you are likely to see are a few truckloads of shirtless skiers and snowboarders having tailgate parties as they watch their cohorts ascend and schuss these balmy Southwestern Alps.
Summer, as most imagine it, begins July Fourth weekend—the biggest party of the year in Silverton—and ends Labor Day weekend. By far the busiest time of year here, it is also the rainiest as the Southwest’s monsoon flow guarantees at least a short thunderstorm most afternoons. Despite the possibility of rain and the very real danger of lightning strikes that goes with it, Silverton in midsummer perhaps has the best hiking in the country, not to mention the excellent mountain biking, horseback riding and fishing.
Four National Forests, a BLM recreation area, the largest area of peaks and tundra in the continental United States, and 750 miles of jeep trails to access it: it’s the next best thing to being in Alaska with a helicopter, although no place competes with the San Juans when it comes to wading through hip-high tides of multi-colored wildflower profusion. As if some of the most varied and complex protrusions of geology on Earth weren’t enough to satisfy the eyes!
Dirt bikers, ATVs, modified trucks, and novices driving SUVs that have never before touched dirt can sometimes dangerously crowd the narrow and precipitous backcountry roads at this time of year. Pracice proper off-highway etiquette or go with a guide service. Or forget driving, hiking, and everything else as you sip a beer and take in the staggering views from the deck at the top of the Silverton Mountain Scenic Chairlift, the highest summer tramway in North America. Watching armored, world-class mountain bikers free-fall from the summit of Silverton Mountain’s one-of-a-kind extreme downhill bike trails might scare most folks as much as any jeep ride.
The passing of Labor Day ushers out the dust-dealing crowds and the dust-killing storms, although early season snow often dusts the high peaks, further accenting the quiet explosions of color as the aspens perform their brilliant act of alchemy. Indian Summer. Foliage Season. Whatever you call it, most call it their favorite time of year in the San Juan Mountains. All the activities of midsummer still beckon. But the fishing is feistier, the photos more frameable, and the overall mountain experience shimmers with a relaxed clarity that’s absent in the thunder, dust and 13,000-foot-high traffic jams of July and August. However, backcountry travelers should keep this thought firmly fixed in their survival mechanisms: Check the weather reports! It only takes one good early season snowstorm to turn a perfect Indian Summer into eight long months of winter. Don’t let you or your vehicle get stuck out there.
No matter which time of year you visit Silverton or how you plan to enjoy the twisting, jagged, immense backcountry of the San Juan Mountains, maximize your time best by taking full advantage of Silverton’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic locals. Remember, these are the most extensive and impressive mountains in Colorado, so save this part of your vacation for last or just spend all of it here. Once you’ve experienced the San Juans, just about anything else will seem anticlimactic.
Page top: Silverton Mountain Ski lift. Courtesy Silverton Mountain
Left: Kayakers head under the falls at "Burke's Curve' near Silverton. ©Kathryn Retzler
Bottom right: Fall hike at Velocity basin. ©Carolyn Wilcox.