The crossroads and unofficial capital of the Four Corners region, Durango embodies the diverse spirit of the Southwest. Kate Siber explores the small town’s charming streets and scenic countryside.
Most days, in Durango, Colorado, there comes a moment when the sonorous moan of an 1880s coal-fired steam engine fills the valley. It travels through the dry mountain air as if it’s not just a sound but something tangible, with weight and presence. This is a time to stop and listen. If you are on the phone, simply pause. If you are near the tracks, stand, watch and wave as the iron horse booms and rattles by. Even though the train labors through town almost every day, there is still undeniable magic to that mournful whistle. It reminds anyone who cares to listen of the storied roots of this 19th-century boomtown.
For centuries, this remote semi-arid river valley was the home of Ancestral Puebloans and small bands of Ute Indians, who still live nearby. But in 1860, prospectors found gold in the fortress of peaks that stretches north of town — and everything changed. After the Civil War, adventurous easterners and immigrants streamed into the mountains, constructing mines, boardinghouses, mills and trams. Durango sprouted in 1880 as the depot for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Co. and, situated at a relatively temperate 6,500 feet, quickly became a commercial hub for the region. Rows of tidy wood, stone and brick storefronts sprang up along Main Street and stately Victorian mansions rose along a grid of tree-lined avenues. Durango ballooned at a feverish pace, and saloons, general merchandise stores and multiple newspapers moved into the new buildings. By 1887, the Strater, the town’s grandest Victorian hotel, with multiple stories of red brick and hand-carved sandstone sills, presided over Main Avenue as a symbol of Durango’s roaring prosperity.
The precious metals of the mountains are now long gone — and so are the rugged frontiersmen and gritty fortune-seekers. But the atmosphere of adventure and possibility still remain. For such a secluded place — three hours from the nearest interstate and surrounded by farms, rangeland and wilderness — Durango surprises visitors today with its vibrancy. Perhaps it owes to the active nature of the citizenry or the preponderance of young people, many of whom come to attend Fort Lewis College and never leave. Amble around town on any summer evening and the happy vibe immediately becomes clear. Locals walk dogs, ride bikes and linger on benches eating after-dinner ice cream. No one looks sideways as cyclists decked in spandex pick up a bite to eat at taco stands like Nini’s and Zia, and hikers in sturdy boots quaff glasses of local Sutcliffe chardonnay on restaurant patios, watching the light fade over the mountains.
Thanks to numerous nearby farms and ranches — cowboys arrived around the same time as the miners — Durango chefs have no shortage of fresh ingredients to craft into inventive dishes. Eolus has some of the best burgers — James Ranch beef with perfectly crisp buns and truffle fries — and a rooftop patio with views of Perins Peak. One of the best restaurants in town, Seasons, serves a revolving menu with specialties like Colorado lamb sirloin accompanied by roasted local root vegetables. And East by Southwest is almost always packed with locals addicted to the restaurant’s Southwestern twists on sushi and signature mojitos. Durango even has its own hipster bar, El Moro Spirits and Tavern, which serves chorizo and crab Benedict for weekend brunch, all washed down with breakfast cocktails like Ramos gin fizzes and fresh housemade bloody marys.
Just as the old miners and cowboys loved their hooch, modern-day Durangoans support no less than six local breweries and two new distilleries, each with its own character. Sit outside on the deck with an Empress IPA at Steamworks; watch Main Avenue passers-by from Carver’s sidewalk tables while sipping a Colorado Trail Nut Brown; or head to the river to try a pint of Animas Ale in the industrial-chic tasting room of the newest beer-maker in town, Animas Brewing Co. It doesn’t so much matter what beer or brewery you choose but the attitude you bring: Don’t be in a hurry, and you’ll fit right in.
Artists and writers like Louis L’Amour have long understood the unique draw of this area — its colorful history, spectacular scenery and blessedly sunny, dry climate. That’s why so many galleries and artist studios now inhabit the old historical storefronts on Main Avenue. On a leisurely stroll, meet artists working at Studio &, a bright, airy collective space in which artisans both create and exhibit their work, from prints and paintings to jewelry and sculptures. On either ends of Main, the Diane West and Sorrel Sky galleries exhibit sophisticated local paintings, sculptures, and finely wrought jewelry and baubles. In between, shops sell Native American jewelry, Southwest-style home furnishings and local antiques. And don’t miss Maria’s Bookshop, a thriving independent bookstore with creaky floorboards and an exposed historical brick wall. The shop is fiercely beloved by both residents and visitors, who peruse books for hours and attend free readings by local authors.
Perhaps because so many of Durango’s first residents were risk-taking nonconformists, there is still a sense of live-and-let-live openness that pervades the culture. Whether you are a fourth-generation Durangotang, a brand-new transplant or a wide-eyed visitor, you are virtually expected to follow your bliss. For many, that can be found in the stunning beauty of the mountains and deserts — landscapes that have always defined this place and its people. But you barely even have to leave town to get a taste of the nature that surrounds and sustains it.
Unlike other mountain towns, Durango is not confined by its topography. The lattice of well-kept Victorians sits in a generous valley flanked by Florida Mesa to the east and the comely spikes of the La Plata Mountains to the west. The Animas River empties from the mountains, switchbacks through farmland, and tumbles straight through town, forming a vibrant artery for wildlife and humans alike. During spring runoff, between April and June, rafters and kayakers catapult through Class III and IV rapids in the downtown whitewater park where Olympians have trained. On mellow summer days, paddleboarders ply the serene oxbows north of 32nd Street, tubers lazily float the riffles below, and families gather by the shore to swim and play on small sandy beaches. (Don’t miss the local ice cream bicycle, Cream Bean Berry, which sits on the bike path and dishes homemade flavors like salted caramel and balsamic strawberry.) Come evening, fishermen wade into the river’s pools to cast for rainbow and brown trout as daylight lingers until 9 o’clock. At these moments, it’s not uncommon for an observant walker on the seven-mile river path to spot herons flapping between trees or nesting bald eagles swooping down to take a drink.
The proximity of the natural world fuels this town, and right from city streets trails wend into the hills, attracting dog walkers, hikers, runners and mountain bikers. On Animas City Mountain, hike up cactus- and juniper-lined switchbacks for views over town or to Sailing Hawks to explore a garden of giant boulders beloved by rock climbers. From the terminus of the 486-mile Colorado Trail, stroll along a gorgeous creek studded with perfectly clear pools and stands of towering pines. Or right from the southeast side of downtown, head to Horse Gulch to mountain bike singletrack along craggy ridgelines with views over the mountains, cliffs and forests that embrace Durango. Although you’re within a stone’s throw of city streets, deer, foxes, bears and even the occasional wildcat frequent these trails. Sit still for even a few minutes and hidden life will likely reveal itself — along with the grounding serenity of these expansive landscapes and huge Western skies.
Immerse yourself even deeper by venturing into nearby Weminuche Wilderness, the largest wilderness in Colorado and a kingdom of spectacular granite peaks, sprawling meadows, conifer and aspen forests, and alpine lakes. Whether you wander it for a day or a week, with a backpack or on a horse, the Weminuche unveils its beauty in ways both quiet and monumental. Experience the peace of a whispering trout stream high in the mountains, the improbably brilliant colors of a field of blooming wildflowers or the eye-popping granite faces of sheer mountains.
Often, it’s in the quiet moments driving the roads that lead to or away from town when the allure of Durango becomes most apparent. Turn the radio off and absorb the landscapes in silence — the reddish mesas and buttes, luxuriant pine and aspen forests, pastures, meadows, and piercing summits that soar into Colorado’s trademark blue sky. No matter how long you’ve been here — your whole life, many years, or a day — you’ll understand how these wide-open places inspire feelings of freedom and possibility that built and still fuel an entire town. Perhaps that’s why so many people visit — and why so many feel the siren song to return.