Troy Hightower

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Colorado Mining Towns

The Colorado Silver Rush followed the ’49 Gold Rush in California almost 30 years later.  Silverton, nestled at a 9,300 foot elevation in a valley surrounded by soaring peaks of the San Juan Mountains, experienced the mining boom from the late 1870’s through the early 1890’s.

The Animas River rushes and tumbles through a narrow twisting valley 45 miles south to Durango, which was founded in 1880 to serve as a supply center for the Western mountain mining towns. The Denver & Rio Grand Railway started laying track through the steep-sided valley in 1881, and the line was completed in 9 months flat, providing transport for ore from Silverton to smelters in Durango.

Today, the steam engines of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad haul hundreds of visitors thrice daily on a three-hour journey through this beautiful river valley between the two towns. The steep gorge of the upper valley is rocky granite, and lower valley features towering red cliffs of iron oxide-rich sandstone streaked with buff and grey granite, topped with green forests of pine and fir.

Silverton maintains some of its historic mining town looks in architecture, buildings and dirt roads and wooden sidewalks, save only the main street, Greene. The Grand Imperial Hotel, Carnegie Library, Court House and Jail and Miners Union Hall have all been re-purposed for tourist uses, housing restaurants, bars, and gift shops of various sorts. The line out the door at Handlebar’s Saloon indicates a popular place with quality food, and a bar burger and brew proves to be excellent.

Durango also still has a bit of a Victorian mining-era character seen in period photos, with it’s buildings of red brick like the Strater Hotel, rough rusty sandstone, Ashlar granite and wood frame, but with an unfortunate overlay of almost disney-esque tourist bonhomie. We're there for a family wedding and have to make the best of finding the interesting in the greater mix of kitschy.  The Silverton trip is certainly one of those, as is the Animas river itself—a mecca for rafters, from highly challenging class IV rapids in early spring melt further upriver, to leisurely two-hour floats through smaller rapids right through town—which can still drench paddlers with icy water in the 90 degree July sun, as we discover.

Restaurants of all stripe dot the town, and we settle on dinner at Seasons Rotisserie and Grill, where a bar dinner of  house-cured Mangalitsa pork prosciutto rivals Spanish Bellota ham, and hoisin pork ribs are falling of the bone tender. 

After two days of wedding festivities at a ranch resort north of town, we bid fairwell to mountain Colorado and head west 40 miles to the high plateau and the stunning vistas of Mesa Verde towering over the plain.


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