Full moon rising over Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Photo: Prisma Bildagentur AG/Alamy Stock Photo
Colorado’s southwestern corner is far from the crowds of Denver and the rest of the Front Range, but the craggy scenery is just as stellar—if not better. The definitive mountain town of Durango is the perfect place to start. Nestled in the Animas River Valley, it’s a young, active city full of college students and outdoorsy types drawn to the endless hiking, mountain biking, paddling, and skiing options in every direction.
The historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has been chugging into the hills from downtown since the late 19th century. Restored Victorian coaches rattle across high river bridges during the six-hour, out-and-back trip to Silverton—at an elevation of 9,318 feet, it’s one of the highest towns in the country. (Keep an eye out for backpackers hopping off midway for the hike up to gorgeous Chicago Basin.) Trains run to Silverton from May to October.
For even more alpine scenery, drive north around the San Juan Skyway, a 370-km loop that crests four 10,000-foot passes as it snakes through the San Juan Mountains. Along the way, the All-American Road passes countless waterfalls, ghost towns, trout streams, and public hot springs. Standout stops include Victorian-era towns such as Ouray and Ridgway—where How the West Was Won and the original True Grit were filmed—as well as a short side branch to the celebrity ski town of Telluride.
The Skyway’s main attraction, though, is Mesa Verde National Park, 56 kilometres west of Durango, one of the world’s exceptional archaeological sites. Between A.D. 600 and 1300, inhabitants built about 600 massive cliff dwellings, essentially apartment blocks of stone protected by natural caves and overhangs. A few have been restored and are open to the public, offering a glimpse of ancient life on the high desert mesas.
How To Get There The closest major airport is in Albuquerque, a 3.5-hour drive away from Durango. The regional Durango-La Plata County Airport, 8.9 kilometres from town, is served by both United and American Airlines.
How To Get Around Durango has a local bus and trolley system, but otherwise a rental car is the only practical way to get there (346 kilometres from Albuquerque, almost 547 kilometres from Denver) and explore beyond town.
Where To Stay In Ouray, the Riverside Inn has one- and two-room cabins along the Uncompahgre River, some with kitchens and sleeping lofts. Durango’s less expensive lodging options are mostly chain hotels, but there is one place downtown that’s worth a look, if only to stop in for a drink: the 1887 Strater Hotel, where the antique atmosphere is so authentic it inspired Louis L’Amour to write Westerns. Wait staff in the hotel’s Diamond Belle Saloon wear Victorian finery.
What To Eat Or Drink Based in a 100 percent wind-powered “brew fortress” five kilometres south of downtown Durango, local favourite Ska Brewing serves Rudie Session IPA, Pinstripe Red Ale, and seasonal flavours like the unique (and tasty) Autumnal Molé Stout, brewed with cocoa nibs, spices, and three kinds of chilli peppers. Grab a brick-oven pizza at the Container of Food, two bright-red repurposed shipping containers in the beer garden out back. Ska Brewing is open daily, with live music on most weekend nights.
When To Go Summer is a great time to escape the heat that grips the desert country to the west and south. Spring and fall are more brisk, especially at night, but the weather makes side trips to southeast Utah and the Grand Canyon more feasible. Winter is ski season and can bring road-closing snowfalls.
Helpful Links www.durango.org, www.swcolotravel.org
Currency U.S. dollar
Don’t Miss At Mesa Verde, the National Park Service offers special guided hiking tours that offer an up-close look at ruins that visitors usually can see only from afar, including Square Tower House and Oak Tree House. Reserve tickets in advance.
Fun Fact Durango was a rough-and-tumble place during its 19th-century mining heyday. One source told how an early streetcar line closed after less than a year because “the crews were abusive and insulting to patrons, and the cars invariably pulled away from the railroad station before all incoming passengers could get aboard.”
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