Let’s be fair: Most people know of Durango in southwest Colorado from its well publicized and well-run Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad ride.
But it is a place steeped in Western history and culture. For instance, more than 80 movies have been filmed in and around Durango including:
How the West Was Won
The Sons of Katie Elder
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
National Lampoon’s Vacation (yes, really)
The Ute tribe had made southwest Colorado home for centuries. Today, the Ute Mountain Reservation, consisting of over 553,000 acres across New Mexico and Colorado, is a prosperous self-governing nation.
But it was gold and silver that brought settlers from the East 150 years ago. After a 45-mile rail line was completed between Durango and Silverton to serve the mining camps, things really took off.
Your grandparents may have learned of Durango from Western frontier author Louis L’Amour, who sometimes featured it among his 100 books. For a decade, the L’Amour family stayed at the 1887 Strater Hotel every August.
Why we like it
You can’t beat the atmosphere. As a true Western boom area, a downtown stroll brings you into a safe and walkable retail business district filled with historic buildings. Situated on the Animas River with around 19,000 people, Durango has enough retail and culture to satisfy anyone’s need for such things; but you can feel connected to downtown, neighbors, and the region at the same time.
The weather is remarkably comfortable for a mile-high city. Durango often misses the triple digit desert summertime weather, averaging less than 90 degrees—downright pleasant by desert Southwest standards.
The result? It’s an ‘outdoor town’ with the area widely known for its many hiking and bicycle trails and river rafting.
Winter lows of around 12 degrees require some bundling, but only if you stay still…and few visitors do. Durango is home to the famed Purgatory Mountain ski resort, where average snowfall is more than 260 inches per year. That draws thousands of skiers and snowboarders all season long.
Then there’s the dining—it turns out Durango is a true foodie destination, and is believed to have more restaurants per capita than San Francisco! Sure, there’s the ever-present southwest style cooking, but the town is also big on grilled meats and steakhouses, Italian, and even Asian Fusion.
Better still, Durango is home to five breweries, (yes five!) and has both wineries and even a cidery. A favorite among the craft cocktail crowd is The Bookcase and the Barber, a true speakeasy where you have to offer the daily password to enter. (Check their Facebook page for the day’s password.)
But what about the train?
As early as 1900, tourism began to take prominence over the local mining industry, thanks to easy access by rail. The San Juan National Forest, the Durango Hot Spring, and more quickly drew tourists from all points.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (durangotrain.com) operates daily excursions between Durango and the one-time rough-and-tumble mining town of Silverton. Powered by honest-to-goodness steam locomotives, the 45-mile journey spends much of its time paralleling the lovely Animas River as it climbs the craggy terrain.
Gazing out the train’s windows, you could find yourself only a few feet above the rippling river, or hundreds of feet above Cascade Canyon with spectacular mountain views.
The D&SNGRR operates several classes of seating for its trips. You could live it up in Presidential class antique coaches, or Deluxe or even a Standard coach, where guides keep you informed.
Tip: Choose an open-air gondola car if bringing children who won’t want to miss anything.
This is authentic rolling stock, with several of their cars manufactured in the 1880s, now restored for daily use. They sway and rattle on the tracks, just as the did 120 or more years ago.
Are you a train nerd? The railroad has several century-old steam locomotives manufactured by American Locomotive Company (ALCO) and Baldwin Locomotive, with one still burning coal.
The D&SNGRR puts on special journeys as the seasons change, with two of the most popular being an autumn leaf excursion and a Polar Express winter trip through the snowy mountains. Both are breathtaking.
Be sure to set time aside to wander through the free museum, adjacent to the Durango station, for up-close examination of rail memorabilia in the roundhouse.
Tourism photos courtesy of Nick Kogos | Visit Durango