Nestled at the foot of the San Juan Mountains, Durango provides a perfect base camp for exploring Southwestern Colorado. Driving over Coal Bank and Molas Passes from Durango to Silverton or skiing down a run of champagne powder at Durango Mountain Resort, you’ll understand why some call the San Juan Mountains “America’s Alps.” While the surrounding areas offer much in the way of outdoor activities, Durango itself is filled with enough attractions to keep visitors busy. Check out the Resource bar for WeKnowColorado’s recommendations.
How to get to Durango
Getting to Durango will most likely require renting a car. Besides, once you see how many things there are to do in the nearby mountains, you’ll be glad you have your own mode of transportation to explore them all.
The closest international airport is in Albuquerque, New Mexico, about three and a half hours south of Durango. The city is also about a six-hour drive south of Denver. However, travellers do not need to commit to a long drive in order to visit Durango as there is a small regional airport located approximately 19 miles southeast of downtown. The Durango-La Plata Airport offers daily, direct flights from Denver and Phoenix, Arizona. The airport is serviced by Frontier Airlines, United Express, US Airways, and American Eagle. Shuttle and Taxi Services operate out of the airport, as do five rental car companies: Budget, Enterprise, Avis, Hertz, and National.
Durango boasts a wide array of hotels and travellers of every budget level will be sure to find something that meets their lodging needs. From budget motels to historical hotels and intimate bed and breakfasts, Durango has it all.
Many of the familiar national motel chains have franchises in the area, including Best Western, Comfort Inn, and Days Inn. Durango’s DoubleTree Hotel is particularly nice because it is located right on the Animas River with many rooms overlooking the river. The hotel is also within walking distance of historic downtown Durango.
Guests wishing to stay in a historical setting have several wonderful options. The General Palmer Hotel is situated off of Main Ave. Built in 1898, the General Palmer will transport guests back to the Victorian era with exquisite period décor. The hotel offers free WiFi, off-street parking, and is within walking distance of most downtown attractions. Travellers be advised, however, the General Palmer Hotel sits in close proximity to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tracks and depot. You will hear the train!
The Strater Hotel is another historic landmark in downtown Durango located right on Main Ave. Constructed in 1887, the hotel is full of history. Like the General Palmer, the Strater is furnished in the Victorian style and, like the General Palmer, it is located close enough to the train tracks that guests will hear the whistle blow. The Strater Hotel also provides fine dining and entertainment opportunities, including melodrama and vaudeville at the old Henry Strater Theatre and cocktails at the modern Office Spiritorium. The hotel’s Mahogany Grille offers farm-fresh food in a Victorian setting. The old blends with the new on a menu that includes trout, elk, and bison, along with more exotic faire such as the miso glazed steak and grilled swordfish. Reservations are recommended.
Visitors can experience a piece of the Old West at the Diamond Belle Saloon, also attached to the Strater. The Diamond Belle maintains the atmosphere of a ragtime piano bar with bartenders and waitresses wearing period attire. While there’s a bullet hole above the bar, things have settled down and patrons can enjoy food and drinks and even live music while soaking up the unique charm of this historic bar. That charm does include staged gunfights from late May through mid-October, but it’s all in good fun.
There are an abundance of Bed and Breakfasts, cabins, and mountain lodges located in the surrounding area. The Gable House is a lovely B&B located on 5th Ave. downtown, as is the Apple Orchard Inn, which is situated north of town. There are also many campgrounds in the beautiful San Juan National Forest.
For a city with a population of only 16,000, Durango, Colorado boasts an impressively diverse culinary scene with funky diners, microbreweries, and gourmet bistros.
Both the College Drive Café and the Durango Diner are local institutions that serve delicious breakfasts and lunches. Located on College Drive and 6th Ave., the College Drive Café serves standard breakfast fare with a Southwestern twist. Green chile and chorizo feature in several of the restaurant’s specials, such as the Anasazi Benedict and Southwest Omelette. The Durango Diner also prides itself on its green chile, so much so that they also sell it by the jar. Both places are definitely worth checking out and cater to those who avoid spicy food as well.
Durango, like most Colorado towns, has more than its fair share of microbreweries. One of then oldest is Carver Brewing Company, which has been open since 1986. Carver’s brewpub serves three meals a day, with an assortment of American and Mexican dishes on the menu. The brewery produces an impressive range of products, with everything from lagers to brown ale, and a raspberry wheat beer. Lovers of dark beer should try their delicious Iron Horse Stout, named after Durango’s famous train.
In terms of fine dining, Durango has several gourmet options. Several of the hotels are attached to restaurants, notably the Strater Hotel with its Mahogany Grille. Other restaurants sit on either side of Main Ave. or are within easy walking distance of downtown. WeKnowColorado has several favorites for fine dining in Durango. Check them out below.
Ken & Sue’s tops the list for an all-around wonderful dining experience in Durango, Colorado. Located on Main Ave. between College Dr. and 7th Ave. (less than a block away from the General Palmer Hotel), Ken & Sue’s has a diverse menu of contemporary cuisine. The restaurant offers creative dishes, often with an Asian or Mexican touch. For example, try the sesame seared rare tuna appetizer, which is served with pickled ginger, wasabi, and an Oriental-style slaw. Another delicious appetizer is the lobster quesadilla with grilled tomato and red pepper salsa. Other specialties of note include an herb-seared chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, and a filet mignon served with potato lasagna. Be sure to try Ken & Sue’s house infusions and don’t miss the incredible Molten Chocolate Cake for dessert. Ken & Sue’s has many gluten free options on the menu, including the cake.
Further down Main Ave. is Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, which serves American dishes with an Italian twist. For instance, their antipasto platter comes with house-cured pancetta, an assortment of olives and cheeses, as well as anchovies. Season’s also serves delicious steaks, Colorado lamb burgers, and free-range chicken. The restaurant stays true to its name and offers specials that reflect seasonal flavors. If you are there in the fall, check out their Peach Ice Cream, made in-house from Colorado peaches.
Durango even has a sushi restaurant. East By Southwest, on 2nd Ave. off College Dr., offers fresh sushi and Mexican-Asian fusion. Most of the sushi rolls will be familiar to fans of the cuisine, though many will have a taste of the Southwest with chiles and corn added to the traditional Japanese ingredients. Check out the Thai Sweet Corn Cakes with cucumber and peanut relish or one of the many different curries. East By Southwest is a truly unique restaurant.
Things to do
Durango itself is located in the Animas River Valley, but there is world-class skiing available in the San Juan Mountains nearby. The Durango Mountain Resort (DMR), formerly known as Purgatory, is 25 miles north of town. The ski resort has 85 trails serviced by 11 lifts on over 1,300 acres and reports an average of 260 inches of snow a year. DMR is considered to have some of the best snow in the state with varied terrain and has runs suited to skiers and snowboarders of all levels. The resort offers lodging, dining, and has shuttles that run from the airport.
The San Juan Mountains have plenty of trails for snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, and other winter activities. These mountains typically receive heavy snowfalls, making them a great place to explore in the wintertime. However, always be aware of weather conditions and the risk of avalanches.
In the summertime, visitors to Durango can enjoy beautiful hikes through the San Juan Mountains. Although some popular trails can draw crowds, with hundreds of miles of trails scattered throughout the San Juan National Forest and Weminuche Wilderness, hikers can easily leave civilization behind and find solitude. These mountains offer thick wildflower displays, especially in mid-July. The native aspens provide wonderful fall colors beginning in early to mid-September.
Dutch Creek Trail (#516) accessed off Elbert Creek Road above the Durango Mountain Resort is a fairly easy hike terrain-wise for the first 3.5 miles, though it starts at 10,000 feet, which may take some getting used to. The trail offers spectacular views of the La Plata Range to the west and the Needles Mountains to the east.
The drive along Highway 550 from Durango to Silverton will give you staggering views and provide you with the opportunity for several worthwhile hikes. Foremost amongst these is the West Lime Creek Trail (#679), which has its trailhead off of Highway 550 about 39 miles north of Durango, about 1 mile north from the low point between Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass, on a hairpin turn. The trail, which starts at 9,800 feet, follows the creek for several miles. There are several waterfalls on West Lime Creek in this section and the trail provides hikers with a view of most of them.
The Animas River Trail provides visitors with an opportunity for a scenic hike within the city limits of Durango. This hard-surfaced trail follows the Animas River for approximate 7 miles and connects twelve city parks. Hikers can enjoy the Colorado sunshine while exploring the length of Durango with ease. The Animas River Trail is popular with cyclists and is wide enough to accommodate both pedestrians and bicycles. The five bridges over the Animas offer lovely views of the river and the multitude of tubers and rafters that float the river in the summer. The Animas River Trail also leads to the Durango State Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Museum. The hatchery, built in 1893, raises four species of trout: area-native Colorado River Cutthroat, Snake River Cutthroat, Rainbow, and Brown trout, as well as Kokanee Salmon. Visitors to Durango’s hatchery can view raceways holding small fry and ponds holding lunkers. It is open every day, year round from 8am to 4pm and is free of charge. Travellers can also visit the nearby Wildlife Museum where displays feature information about animals native to Southwest Colorado. The museum is also free of charge, but is only open May 15-September 15, 10am to 4:30pm Monday-Saturday, 11am to 3pm Sundays.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
One of the more popular attractions in the Durango area is the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This historic rail line has been running for 130 years and takes passengers on a spectacularly scenic route through the San Juan Mountains. The steam-powered locomotive still runs on coal and will give visitors an Old West feel. In fact, the train has starred in such classic Westerns as How the West Was Won and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The railroad offers refreshments in the concessions car at the center of the train and there are restrooms at the rear of each of the enclosed standard coaches.
While the train is itself an attraction, the real star of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is the stunning scenery. The route takes passengers from Durango’s elevation of 6,512 feet up to Silverton’s elevation of 9,305 feet. Along the way, the rails follow the Animas River through an impressive canyon and offer breathtaking views of peaks exceeding 14,000 feet. The route is particularly beautiful in the fall when the native Aspens turn to gold. The full trip to Silverton takes about 3 ½ hours and includes a two-hour layover in Silverton. Silverton is a pleasant town boasting Victorian-era architecture, particularly along Greene & Blair Streets, which have been designated as a National Historic District. The town offers shopping, many fine restaurants, and a museum. There is also a tour of the Old Hundred Gold Mine.
Be sure to visit the railroad’s website for special deals and information regarding the Cascade Canyon Winter Train, which runs 26 miles of the 45 mile route with heated coaches.