Immerse yourself in the Old West. Durango seems hidden away, much like the enchanted town of Brigadoon, for it’s easy to miss. First, you have to want to get there. You don’t stumble on it accidentally when trying to drive to Salt Lake City or Albuquerque. Then the town center is beyond the curve in the road where Highway 160 from the west and Highway 550 from the south meet and merge for a few miles. Unless you deliberately head for original old Durango, you just might overlook it. Don’t. There’s too much real charm, too much real Old West to drift on past, even if you’re ultimately bound for the ski area, the national forest or Mesa Verde National Park, all of which are nearby and deserve exploration.
Will Rogers said, “Durango is out of the way and glad of it.” It’s still out of the way, but not that far. Paved highways and magnificent scenery take you there from Denver in six hours in good weather. Once you’re roaming the main part of Durango, leisurely sample an array of attractions that belie the town’s yearround population of some 16,000. First is the Durango & Silverton Railroad, the impetus for the creation of the town itself. Then there’s historic Main Street, where boutiques, restaurants, one-of-akinds and art galleries abound. Add a couple of local museums and you’re pretty much living history. Downtown has almost as many restaurants per capita as San Francisco, the restaurant capital of the western United States. Local resident Shelley Walchak mentions her favorite, Chez Grand-Mere, on Depot Place. Although not inexpensive, it’s the best French restaurant she’s visited in this country. Then, in addition to many outstanding New Mexican and Mexican establishments, there’s the Ore House, on East College a block from the depot, patronized by the late activist author Edward Abbey.
VARIETY FROM THE BEGINNING
Humans visited the region long before the settlement of Durango. Paleo-Indian hunters (12000 to 8000 B.C.) followed buffalo herds and left traces of their existence. In the mid-19th century, a treaty removed the Ute tribes, and prospectors searching for gold and silver trekked here. Service industries such as retail operations, agriculture and ranching supported mining operations. Durango was established in 1880 as the railhead for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad line, to move goods and mine products economically. The boom was on until the price of silver crashed in 1893, and easily accessible gold played out.
At that point Durango could have become a ghost town, but it never died. In the 1890s the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings were discovered nearby, giving an impetus to tourism. Helping to diversify the local economy was the establishment in 1905 of the San Juan National Forest.
The addition of Purgatory Ski Resort as well as the expansion of Fort Lewis College, originally for Native Americans, into a four-year liberal arts institution continued to stabilize the area.
A thriving cultural community draws people from around the entire region, who cross the Four Corners and state borders whenever an interesting activity beckons. Visual and performing arts, folk crafts, Native American displays and demonstrations — something’s happening every week. You don’t have to travel far, and frequently you can walk to visit activities like these:
• The Durango Arts Center — includes a gallery, museum shop, performances and educational exhibits.
• Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall — a state-of-the-art facility with an array of musical productions, individual performers, opera, musical groups and musicals.
• Durango Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Visitor Center — an excellent place to learn about the habits and needs of fish. Fun to visit during a feeding at the show ponds.
• Animas Museum — housed in an historic 1904 school building, the only history museum in Durango, fun for kids as well as grown-ups.
• Durango Children’s Museum — upstairs in the Art Center, its 1,000 square feet are full of hands-on fun and learning.
• Durango Nature Center — off the main highway and nestled along a river, a wonderful opportunity to learn about and experience more of outdoor Colorado.
Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge RailroadOf course, the pride of the town is the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, just off Main Street. In continuous operation for more than 125 years, the locomotive now hauls only human visitors back and forth to the neighboring enclave. The coal-fired, steam-powered locomotives are 1923-25 vintage, maintained in original condition. The train’s coaches and open gondola cars offer passengers Colorado’s finest scenery. The trip takes about two and a half hours. From 1940 on, Hollywood has used the train as a set for numerous movies, including Around the World in 80 Days and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Special events coming up this fall include the Oktoberfest downtown, a three-day Cowboy Gathering in early October (music, poetry, storytelling) and Singing with Santa and Tree Lighting in late November. At other times of the year, check for Music in the Mountains, the Durango Film Festival and the Iron Horse bike race to Silverton.
If you stay in town, Walchak suggests you get your exercise on the Animas River Trail, five miles of hard surface along the beautiful Animas River. The north end of this popular route is the intersection of 32nd Avenue and East 2nd Avenue (across the river from City Market North). It travels south through several city parks and across five bridges to the south end. You can walk, jog or bike as briefly or as long as you like. Walchak recommends two well known hotels for a pleasant as well as historic night’s sleep. Both are on Main Street and have reasonable rates. Try the Strater Hotel, 699 Main Ave., (800) 247-4431, www.strater.com, where Western author Louis L’Amour had a room, or the General Palmer Hotel, 567 Main Ave., (800) 523-3358, www.generalpalmerhotel.com.
A trip to Durango is only the beginning. If you’re in the southwestern part of the state, go ahead and extend your stay. Durango is situated along the most scenic road in America — the San Juan Skyway. Day trips along the highway reach the old mining town of Silverton and western neighbor Cortez. The drive alone is worthwhile. Fall brings brilliantly colored aspens and snow-capped peaks. Walchak says, “Everywhere you look, there’s a view, peacefulness.” Silverton, a tiny community, lies 45 miles and thousands of vertical feet away. It appears never to have left its beginnings in 1874. With many of its original buildings intact and very little recent development, the entire town has been designated a National Historic Landmark. It’s a favorite destination for train fans and history buffs, not to mention shoppers.
All the surroundings near the train depot are devoted to stores housed in original cabins and buildings. Several historic hotels have reasonable rates for lodging. Add the San Juan County Museum, the Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour and the Mayflower Mill, showing how metals are processed from rock, and you can while away an afternoon or several days. Because of its location near forests, rivers and mountains, Durango is popular with sports and nature enthusiasts. Lots of bicyclists, kayakers, skiers and runners, amateur and professional, live here or visit regularly. Durango has been rated one of Outside Magazine’s top 15 sports towns as well as Best Mountain Biking Town of 2006. The nearby ski and resort area, once called Purgatory, now known as Durango Mountain Resort, lies 25 miles north of Durango. In summer and fall, try the Alpine slide, miniature golf, free naturalist tours and horseback rides. Or go for the unusual: Hike with a llama who carries wine, cheese and lunch. In winter’s ski season, slated for Dec. 1 to March 30, select from snowshoeing, ski biking, cross country, snowcat and tubing, in addition to downhill skiing on 85 trails. Snowboarders can fly at the Paradise Freestyle Arena or the Pitchfork Terrain Garden.
Prefer a more natural approach to nature? San Juan National Forest and several wilderness areas are also nearby. Nature’s unending benevolence permits these wonderlands to be reborn year after year, even in the face of devastating forest fires, such as the one in 2002. These areas contain campgrounds, hiking trails, horseback riding and other delights. The best is last — Mesa Verde National Monument. If you can, scurry on in before Oct. 14, when the Visitor Center and a number of cliff dwellings close for the season. (Everything reopens in late May through summer.) The No. 1 showpiece in the state, Mesa Verde’s unique ancient Pueblo Indian buildings and ruins take your breath away. Best known for the towering and elaborate stone villages in canyons known as “cliff dwellings,” representing only the last 100 years or so of its occupation, the Park also includes other architectural relics of structures used over 700 years (600–1300 A.D.)
Mesa Verde was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978. Do not try to make it a quick side trip, for the drive from Durango on decent but winding roads takes about 1.5 hours. You can camp or make reservations at the Far View Lodge.
• Find a calendar of events at www.creativelinks.com/index.html.
• Other general information at www.durango.com and www.durango.org.
• Information, lodging and reservations: 1-800-463.8726, Durango Tourism Office.
• San Juan National Forest information at www.fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan/.
• Immerse yourself in the myths of the Old West with several classic Westerns from Louis L’Amour, who wrote at the Strater Hotel. For sale anywhere in town.
• Mesa Verde National Park information at www.nps.gov/meve/.
By BONNIE MCCUNE