For a look at the real Old West, without the need for a time machine, head to the town of Silverton. At an elevation of 9,318 feet at the northern terminus of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the town has a year-round population of about 500 and plenty of things to see and do for the more than 250,000 people who visit each year.
Founded on silver production in 1871, today the entire town is a National Historic Landmark District. In its heyday, Blair Street was such a notorious area of saloons and brothels that no less a character than Bat Masterson, fresh from taming Dodge City, Kansas, was imported to subdue the criminal elements. Today the original false-fronted buildings remain -- some in better shape than others -- but they now house restaurants and galleries, and are occasionally used as Old West movie sets. There are some fascinating shops and galleries here, along with plenty of places to buy tacky T-shirts, and I strongly recommend that you spend at least an hour just wandering around.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, the Silverton Gunfighters Association stages gunfights at the corner of 12th and Blair streets Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and holidays at 5:30pm. On Sunday from June through September, the Silverton Brass Band performs at 6pm on one of Silverton's street corners -- don't worry, you won't have any trouble finding them; just follow the music and the crowds.
You can get walking-tour maps of the historic downtown area; information on local shops, restaurants, and lodgings; plus details on the numerous outdoor activities in the surrounding mountains from the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, at the intersection of Colo. 110 and U.S. 550 (P.O. Box 565), Silverton, CO 81433 (tel. 800/752-4494 or 970/387-5654; www.silvertoncolorado.com). From July through September the chamber's visitor center is open daily 9am to 6pm; in May, June, and October it's open daily 9am to 5pm; and from November through April it's open daily from 10am to 4pm. (It's closed Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.)
For a step back into Silverton's Wild West days, head for the San Juan County Historical Society Museum, in the 1902 county jail at Greene and 15th streets (tel. 970/387-5838; www.silvertonhistoricsociety.org). Here you'll see memorabilia of Silverton's boom days, including lots of railroad stuff and a collection of Derringer handguns. Altogether, there are three floors of historic displays, including the most popular stop -- the original jail cells, a good place to snap a photo of that would-be convict you're traveling with. From this building, a tunnel leads to the mining museum next door, which re-creates the feeling of being deep in a mine, with displays of mining machinery, ore cars, and other mining memorabilia. There's also a shop that sells books on area history. The museum is open daily, from Memorial Day weekend through September from 9am to 5pm, and from 10am to 3pm from October 1 to 15. Admission is $5 for adults and free for children 12 and under. The adjacent San Juan County Courthouse has a gold-domed clock tower, and the restoration of the Town Hall, at 14th and Greene streets, after a devastating 1993 fire, has won national recognition.
The Old Hundred Gold Mine (tel. 800/872-3009 or 970/387-5444; www.minetour.com) is located about 5 miles east of Silverton via Colo. 110, offering an underground guided tour that takes 45 to 50 minutes and starts with a ride 1,500 feet underground in an electric mine train. The tour continues with a walk through lighted tunnels, where you see drilling and mucking demonstrations. There's gold panning aboveground, plus a gift shop, snack bar, and picnic area. Cost is $17 for adults 13 to 59, $8 for children 5 to 12 (children under 5 held on a lap are free), and $15 for seniors 60 and older. Reservations are not necessary; the temperature in the mine is about 48°F (9°C), so a sweater or jacket is recommended. The mine is open from early May through mid-October daily from 10am to 4pm, with tours on the hour.
Expert and advanced skiers and snowboarders have discovered Silverton’s newest attraction, Silverton Mountain Ski Area, which opened in early 2002 and has been booked solid ever since. Located almost 7 miles north of Silverton, the ski area has one double chairlift that accesses more powder than most skiers have ever seen. The base is at 10,400 feet, with a peak lift-served elevation of 12,300 feet and a fairly easy hike to the summit at 13,487 feet. This area is for experts only; intermediates will be outclassed by every run. Both guided and unguided skiing is available (guided-only skiing from mid-Jan through Mar), and the season usually runs from Thanksgiving through April. The day rate for unguided skiing is $49, and rates for guided group skiing are $99 to $139 a day. Single guided runs are $35. Private guided skiing is also available. For current hours, required equipment, and other details, contact Silverton Mountain ([tel] 970/387-5706; www.silvertonmountain.com).