Rugged mountains straddle it, a translucent river runs through it, and a 1.8-million-acre forest surrounds it: When it comes to natural settings, Durango, Colorado, seems to have it all.
Add to that a historic train whistling its way through and a nearby ski resort with a slightly ominous name, and you have the makings of a quintessential — yet unique — mountain destination.
Located in southwestern Colorado where the state converges with Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the Four Corners region, Durango is somewhat remote. And with a population of just 19,000 or so, it’s not a large city.
But it is big in many other ways. Take the San Juan Mountains, which rise all around the town, offering spectacular views in virtually every direction. And who can forget the “river runs through it” factor? The rush of the lovely Animas River can be heard and seen from patios, trails, and city sidewalks all over town.
In light of its many natural attributes, it’s no surprise that Durango sports an outdoorsy vibe. Breweries and mountain bike shops stand alongside historic hotels and museums.
While Durango may not be as well known as Colorado mountain towns like Aspen or Vail, its distinctly Southwestern (and Wild Western) culture makes for an unforgettable experience.
Here are some of the best things to see and do in Durango and the surrounding area.
Ride Through History On The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
Dating to 1880, when the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad founded the town, Durango is first and foremost a railroad town. The long, lonesome whistle of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad trains will likely be among the first sounds you hear on a visit to Durango.
The railroad originally transported miners. Today, it carries tens of thousands of tourists a year through stunning mountain terrain to the high-country town of Silverton, Colorado. After suffering a setback in the summer of 2018 due to the devastating 416 Fire, the train is now back in full swing.
The coal-fired train travels slowly as it makes the steep climb to Silverton, offering plenty of time for passengers to take photos, amble through the train cars, and stop for hot chocolate in the concessions car.
For an unobstructed view and a dose of clean mountain air, consider sitting in the open-air gondola — at least for one leg of the trip. But remember, the train climbs nearly 3,000 feet on its way from Durango (elevation 6,522 feet) to Silverton (9,318 feet), and the temperatures decrease accordingly. Especially if you’re visiting for the changing fall colors, remember to bring warm clothing, including a hat and gloves.
Hike The Animas River Trail
Providing an even closer look at Durango’s river terrain, the Animas River Trail follows the meandering route of the river for about 10 miles.
Along the way, the trail takes hikers and cyclists through the heart of the city. It also passes through a half dozen family-friendly parks and includes a series of picturesque bridges. Interpretive signs and creative sculptures are located along the trail route.
The city of Durango refers to the river walk as “the spine of the city’s overall trail network,” and hundreds of people use it for recreation and transportation every day.
Because the trail cuts through business areas, plenty of dining options are available nearby. For sweeping views while you dine, check out Serious Texas Bar-B-Q on South Camino del Rio, which features a large outdoor patio overlooking the river.
Refresh At A Local Brewery
What could be better for quenching your thirst after a day on the train or the trail than Durango’s thriving microbrewery scene?
The Durango tourism website lists more than a half dozen microbreweries, ranging from the “town meeting place” at Steamworks Brewing Company to the “100 percent wind-powered brew fortress” at Ska Brewing.
For a mashup of train, trail, and beer, Animas Brewing Company is located right along the railroad route and just a short walk from the Animas River Trail. Time your happy-hour visit right, and you could have a front-row-seat view of the train roaring past while you sip your beer on the brewery’s patio.
Float Down The Animas
Despite the town’s high elevation, Durango’s summers tend to be hot, with temperatures climbing well into the 80s from June through August. On those warm days, the chilly blue-green water of the Animas River offers a tempting respite.
And getting on the water is easy in Durango. Companies like Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours and Flexible Flyers Rafting offer everything from daylong rafting trips to short tubing or kayaking excursions.
Fishermen will also find plenty of variety — everything from casting a line into the Animas in the heart of Durango to setting off for the remote high-country lakes in the middle of the massive Weminuche Wilderness area.
Experience The Wild West In Historic Downtown
Like most old mining towns, Durango has a fascinating Western past, and it’s all on display in the historic downtown district.
The landmark 1880s-era Strater Hotel sits in the center of it all, surrounded by dozens of historic buildings housing shops and restaurants. The charming Animas Museum, operated by the La Plata County Historical Society, is located in the 1904 Animas City School building.
For a taste of fine dining at the site of Durango’s strangest shootout, check out the atmospheric El Moro Tavern on Durango’s Main Avenue.
Hit The Slopes At Purgatory Ski Resort
This ski resort’s unique name, Purgatory Resort, is said to date to the 1880s, when a witty farmer “adopted the moniker for a nearby creek, a tributary of the Rio de las Animas Perdidas (the River of Lost Souls), dubbed by Spanish explorers for a group who disappeared on the river during Durango’s early history,” according to the resort’s website.
The name stuck, and today it helps to set the resort apart from Colorado’s many other skiing and snowboarding options. Located 25 miles north of Durango, the resort offers 1,600 acres and 13 lifts.
Relax In The Hot Springs
For a bit of rejuvenation after all of Durango’s strenuous activities, head to one of the area’s famous hot springs.
The Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa (formerly Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs) offers 100- to 110-degree pools rich in calcium bicarbonate, sodium, and iron — all said to promote healing.
Pinkerton Hot Springs offers a more rugged experience, with no resort or spa available. Visitors to the Highway 550-area site will find a picturesque spot with a spring, but no swimmable pools.
For a day-trip option, head to the nearby Pagosa Springs, where deep geothermal hot springs feed several resorts and spas.
Follow In Ancient Footsteps At Mesa Verde National Park
For a glimpse into the world of the ancient Pueblo people, head 35 miles east of Durango to the Mesa Verde National Park, where 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, are protected.
A number of self-guided and ranger-guided tour options are available. The largest site in the complex is the Cliff Palace, which can be visited on a ranger-guided tour. It involves climbing five 8- to 10-foot ladders on a 100-foot vertical ascent.
Savor The Views Along The Million Dollar Highway
To take in the big picture of the area, consider embarking on a breathtaking drive along the San Juan Skyway and Million Dollar Highway — a twisting loop that passes through old mining towns as well as some of the area’s most spectacular scenery.
While the entire Skyway loop is a daunting 235 miles, a shorter option is the 50-mile trip from Durango to Silverton (about 100 miles round trip). Along the way, you’ll climb the 10,660-foot summit of Molas Pass and then begin your descent into Silverton.
Amidst the road’s twists and turns are countless stunning views of the San Juan Mountains.
Explore A True Mountain Town
Whether you drive or take the train, plan to spend at least a few hours in Silverton, a pretty little town that is billed as “the heart of the high country.”
At an elevation of more than 9,300 feet, the town has a somewhat remote feel. Still, it offers all of the basic tourist needs, including lodging, dining, and shopping.
If you arrive by train, you will likely have enough time to wander the streets of the historic mining town, have lunch, and check out Silverton’s informative museum, the San Juan County Historical Society.
Or, for a bird’s-eye view of the town, take a short walk up one of the nearby forest roads.
As you wait for your train back to Durango, relax with a sweet treat at the nearby Smedley’s Ice Cream Parlor & Espresso Coffee Shop.