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The Knox family of Florida was more than delighted by the scenery near Silverton, but they were stunned by the avalanche destruction they saw during a tour with Silverton Rock Pirates. They said it felt similar to hurricane damage. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

SILVERTON — The exceptionally snowy winter has created dangerous backcountry conditions that persist as southwest Colorado heads into its busy summer season. Remote mountain towns, including Silverton, are grappling to find a balance between supporting a booming summer economy, built on people exploring the high country on foot, bikes and off-road vehicles, and keeping all those visitors safe.

“The first priority is safety, but we don’t want to kill our economy by saying, ‘Don’t come here, it’s too dangerous,’” San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad said. “There are plenty of things to do here, but it’s not going to be time for your side-by-side until the end of the year.”

Avalanches ripped down mountainsides, exploding cabins, splintering whole forests of spruce and aspen trees and closing U.S. 550 for two weeks in March. The lingering deep snow has already led to the cancellation of one annual running event and some hiking trails are expected to remain under snow for the entire summer.

More than 20 feet of snow remained on June 2, 2019, in the wake of an avalanche that happened in Arrastra Gulch near Silverton back in March. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Alpine Loop — 65-miles of rocky, dirt roads linking Silverton, Ouray and Lake City — is typically open by now. But it may be July before county highway crews are done digging out snow and avalanche debris, San Juan County spokeswoman DeAnne Gallegos said.

DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, San Juan County spokeswoman and owner of Chocolate Dog, a wine, chocolate and art shop in Silverton, said she sends tourists to see the avalanche debris — as long as they have a 4WD vehicle. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Alpine Loop traverses the high-altitude Engineer and Cinnamon passes, features the ghost town ruins of Animas Forks and attracts a huge number of off-road enthusiasts each summer. Gallegos, who is also the executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, said her organization is asking visitors not to cancel their vacation plans, but to delay them by a few weeks.

“We are hoping to be back to normal by mid-July,” Gallegos said. “When you have a summer season of six months, one to two months makes a big difference for our economy.”

The heavy snows and record-setting avalanches that followed have transformed the landscape beyond recognition in some areas. The Rose Lime Kiln, a historic 40-foot tall brick structure along the loop above Lake City, was demolished by avalanche. The stream leading to a much-photographed waterfall near the trailhead to Ice Lakes, a popular hiking destination, is clogged with trees downed by a slide.

For the most up-to-date information on trail conditions and pass openings, go to the San Juan Mountains Association website: or call the Silverton Chamber of Commerce at 970-387-5654.

“I don’t think we will ever see (the waterfall) again in our lifetime,” Conrad said. “It’s gone.”

Snowstorms continued throughout the spring, and the SNOTEL site near 11,200-foot Red Mountain Pass, which measures the amount of snow on the ground, is still under 6 feet of snow. According to data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, this was the third wettest winter — 134 percent of average precipitation and just 0.8 inch from the maximum recorded since measurements began about 30 years ago for the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan River basins.

View from the sky is informs decisions on the ground

On May 25, San Juan County officials climbed aboard a helicopter to survey the snowpack of the surrounding peaks. After heavy winter snows, they were looking for signs that avalanche debris had formed dams, setting up the potential for flooding, and any large, new slide paths. And while they didn’t spot any major problems on the rugged mountains and gulches around Silverton, from the air they got a sense of just how much snow still blankets the San Juans.

“The big surprise is the impressive snow coverage,” said Jim Donovan, San Juan County Emergency Manager and director of the Silverton Avalanche School. “It looks like midwinter. There was a ‘wow’ factor looking at how much snow there was and how long it’s going to take to melt out.”

Tom Lucier points at different avalanche paths in Arrastra Gulch and explains Colorado’s notoriously unstable snow conditions.”We’re using the avalanche debris as a selling point for vacationers. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people,” he said. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Erick Loyer, owner Silverton Rock Pirates, an off-highway vehicle rental and adventure tour company, is making the best of the situation by offering tours of the avalanche aftermath. San Juan County Roads 2 and 110 are lined with towering piles of snow and broken trees — an impressive sight.

“We have said, ‘This isn’t what we are used to offering, but it is cool and totally unique and different,’” Loyer said. “We have given people different options and everybody’s choice has been to go out and see avalanche debris.”

At least one regional event has already been canceled due to the deep snowpack: the San Juan Solstice. In May, organizers decided to cancel the 50-mile trail running race based in Lake City. The event typically attracts 250 runners, plus their friends and family, and fills local hotels during the third weekend in June.

Race director Jerry Gray said the avalanche debris, dangerously high runoff in the course’s many creek crossings and deep snow on a nine-mile section of the Continental Divide Trail led to the race’s cancellation for the first time since it began in 1995.

“It is a big hit for the lodgers who are getting cancellations,” Gray said. “That was one of the reasons we didn’t make this decision lightly.”

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Silverton is holding its breath to see if the same fate will befall its own ultra-running race, the Hardrock 100.

The race, scheduled for July 19 this year, pumps about $380,000 into Silverton’s summer economy each year, according to Gallegos. That number is likely closer to $1 million, she said, if you factor in all the runners who come early to train on the area’s high-elevation, mountainous terrain, plus the Hardrockers who have bought homes and become a permanent part of the Silverton community.

Silverton, Colorado, an old mining town located an hour north of Durango now bases its economy primarily on tourism. (Nina Riggio, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Race director Dale Garland said the run committee will decide whether to cancel the Hardrock after a meeting on June 9. The only time the Hardrock 100 has been canceled because of snow in its 28-year history was in 1995.

“We don’t want to have somebody run over a creek and get on an unstable snow bridge and then it collapses,” Garland said. “At the end of the day it’s going to be about runner safety and can we safely conduct an event.”

While Silverton waits for Mother Nature to melt out the high country, Gallegos is staying positive. One year ago, the town was filled with smoke from the 416 wildfire and faced drought conditions that led officials to cancel the annual Fourth of July fireworks display. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Silverton’s summer lifeline, was shut down most of last summer by the fire and then mudslides.

“We have a different set of troubles this year,” Gallegos said. “We will have fireworks so there are a lot of blessings involved with too much snow. I would rather have too much water than go through the drought again.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @heather_sackett