Durango is one of seven iconic Western towns featured in our 2017 Best of the West issue.
Long before Durango and its natural movie set slice of southwestern Colorado would come to star in generations of western classics like Viva Zapata!, How the West Was Won, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and City Slickers, the biggest little railroad town that could was born ready for its close-up.
The city got its official start in the 1880s (preceded by Ancestral Puebloans inhabiting the Animas River Valley for millenniums) as a railroad junction for the neighboring Gold Rush boomtown of Silverton. The
exotic-sounding name? That came from Durango, Mexico, picked up by a traveling 19th-century Colorado territory governor who’d noticed a striking physical resemblance between the two bewitching mountain regions.
Many moons and mining fluctuations later, Durango and its famous narrow-gauge railroad continue to chug and thrive. So has its Main Avenue lined with historic Old West landmarks. And an eco-tourism magnet spurred by surrounding San Juan National Forest, nearby Mesa Verde National Park, and one of the best hiking, biking, fly-fishing, skiing, rafting, and horseback riding “secrets” in the lower Rockies still resisting Aspen-ization.
“I know you probably hear ‘friendliest place in the West’ a whole lot at Cowboys & Indians, but I’m telling you Durango is truly that place,” says third-generation local and Buck’s Livery owner Ben Breed, who has been guiding horseback trips for decades through his San Juan National Forest backyard and was raised on stories about his grandparents and great-uncles and -aunts moving here from Oklahoma in covered wagons. “Durango has evolved over the years — new faces and all — but by and large, this is a place that really sticks to its old mountain-town traditions and Western roots,” Breed says. “To Durango-tangs like me, that’s a big salvation.”
Breed’s favorite thing about Durango? That’s a tough one. “There’s so much to see and do and marvel upon here. It’s just the most beautiful place with that nearly perfect Southwest mountain weather, which rarely disappoints,” Breed says, adding, “I don’t know of any small town like this that hosts as many parades and big Western celebrations.”
Or horseback trips for folks who want a real Southwestern Colorado riding experience — nothing nose to tail about it — featuring a lookout point beyond description.
“It’s about 40 minutes from my stable,” Breed says. “You’re staring straight out at the Needle Mountains with this giant view of Purgatory Flats and Cascade Creek running straight through the middle of it. It’s tough to put into words. You really just have to see it to believe it.”
Shortlisted as one of the world’s Top 10 Most Exciting Train Rides by the Society of American Travel Writers, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is the town’s top-draw time machine — a coal-fired, steam-powered locomotive plying the same tracks as the area’s original 1880s miners, cowboys, and settlers. The 45-mile, 3½-hour ride (one way) winds past precipitous canyons and spectacular 14er peaks along the Animas River Valley from Durango (elevation 6,512 feet) to Silverton (elevation 9,305 feet). Reserve well ahead.
What’s our favorite way to explore Durango’s stunning backyard? On a horse, of course. Veteran local outfitter Buck’s Livery (26 miles north of town, near Purgatory Resort) has been guiding trail rides, pack trips, hunting and fishing expeditions, and winter sleigh rides through select areas in the San Juan National Forest and Weminuche Wilderness for repeat guests since the early 1980s.
TAKE A HIKE
A quick drive from downtown Durango to Junction Creek Trailhead brings hikers to a favorite local spot and also the terminus of the 486-mile Colorado Trail, which starts in Denver. High-five through-hikers and keep it manageable on an 8-mile sampler (round trip) along a mountain stream and up a short (steep) set of switchbacks to the area’s big payoff overlook at Gudy’s Rest.
For a top Old West steakhouse with vintage southwestern Colorado ambience and some good local yarns if you want one, enter the Ore House. (“You have to ask them if they’ve ever had a horse or mule in there,” Breed nudges. “All I’m gonna say.”) For tasty chuck wagon barbecue and a live cowboy music ’n’ comedy chaser, head to the Bar D Chuckwagon Supper Show, a summer crowd-pleaser tucked in a woodsy area just north of town.
SEE THE RUINS
The ancient Anasazi pithouses and cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park — home to 4,000 Ancestral Puebloan sites inhabited between A.D. 600 and A.D. 1300 — are just 35 miles west of Durango. Hands-on attractions at the World Heritage Site include the enormous Cliff Palace, the intricate Long House, and the acrophobia-inducing Balcony House, all open for guided tours between spring and fall.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
Durango’s “whitewater rodeo” Animas River Days (June 3) hosts some of the country’s top paddlers and shoreline crowds of kayak and canoe racing fans along the raging Animas River flowing right through downtown. The town’s summer festival-of-festivals Durango Fiesta Days (July 22 – 30) enters its 82nd year with a street parade and pro rodeo events at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. Come on back in early October for fall foliage and the equally colorful Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering (October 5 – 8), featuring a top lineup of musicians and cowboy poets performing at the historic Henry Strater Theatre.
More info: durango.org