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Why Durango is Colorado’s Hidden Gem

There’s something intoxicating about Colorado (and no, I’m not talking about the legalized green stuff!). The majestic mountains, fresh air, and laidback vibe draw outdoor enthusiasts to this natural haven. While Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and ski towns like Vail and Aspen get a lot of press, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. I have personally found that small, unheralded towns are where the people, food and places nurtures a tender side of your soul. That’s why I love Durango. With a population of about 18,400, this old wild west town boasts great outdoor adventure, history and culture. Here’s what to do in Durango.

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The Basics

Best known for…
Its roots as a small mining town. Founded in the 1880s by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, there’s many vestigial reminders of its past. Learn about Durango’s seedier history of miners, madams, mayhem and murders with Horsefly History tours. These intimate walking tours explore everything from historic main street to underground tunnels from the old mining days.

Where to stay
If you’re visiting a historic mining town, you might as well lean in. Book your stay at the Strater Hotel. This grand hotel dates back to 1887, and feels like it (with the exception of its modern-day conveniences, like indoor plumbing). Beautiful woodwork, stained glass, and masonry, plus a bona fide saloon that’ll have you expecting John Wayne to strut into the joint.

Outside of town, the O-Bar-O Cabins make for a quiet retreat. There’s a rustic vibe without being too rustic, meaning cozy beads and clean, stylish bathrooms, with lots of antlers for flair. With tall pines and a mountain stream running past your cabin, it’s western perfection.

Where to eat
Open since 1998, Ken and Sue’s continues to delight locals and travelers alike with updated homey classics, as well as dishes influenced by world cuisine. You’ll find things like a iceberg wedge salad; Aunt Lydia’s meatloaf with smashed potatoes; grilled mahi-mahi with Basmati rice, baby bok choy and garlic ginger sauce; black sesame seared rare tuna and more. If the weather cooperates, grab a table on their charming patio.

Durango is home to six craft breweries. Visit Steamworks Brewing Co. to sample to local Kölsch, Imperial IPA, Steam Engine Lager and more. Great sandwiches, pizza, burgers and salads, too.

Where to shop
Historic Downtown Durango has it all— kids’ shops and clothing boutiques, art galleries and vintage stores… not to mention cool old building that harken back to a bygone era. I love independent bookstores, so a stop at Maria’s Bookshop. is a must. In addition to globally celebrated literature, the staff hand-picks books with local significance.

The nationally-acclaimed Toh-Atin Gallery showcases fine art from Native artists. Think jewelry, weavings, pottery and vintage collection. Their collection of Katsinas—carved wooden dolls representing the sacred spirits—will inspire and delight with their delicate details and personality.

The Great Outdoors

It’s always sunny in Durango
This lovely town gets a whopping 300 days of sunshine annually. It’s easy to see why everyone spends so much time outside. You don’t have to be particularly outdoorsy to enjoy the natural offerings. The Animas River Trail, a paved route stretching seven miles through Durango’s Animas River Greenway, connects recreational areas, parks, the Durango Recreation Center, Powerhouse Science Center and more. Run it, walk it, bike it—it’s up to you!

Get wild
Love the great outdoors? Explore the Weminuche Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the state. This rugged terrain runs the gamut when it comes to elevation– deep into the Animas river gorge all the way to the tops of the Needle Range. From short and sweet hikes (the Piedra Falls trail runs about 1.2 miles round trip) to epic trails to high altitude lakes (like the 7.6-mile Highland Mary Lakes Cunningham Gulch Loop Trail), there’s plenty of ways to explore on foot.

You say Purgatory like it’s a bad thing
Located in the rugged San Juan Mountains just 25 miles north of Durango, you’ll find Purgatory Ski Resort. Come winter, explore 1,605 acres of terrain ranging from steep tree trails to wide-open cruisers. This family-friendly resort is regarded as one of the country’s best value destination for skiing. During the summer and fall, you’ll find awesome mountain biking, hiking, and even a mountain coaster. The Inferno features a two-person car, outfitted with a hand brake, so riders can take their time or go full throttle, winding through the trees.

Scenic drive
Spend a day on the Million Dollar Highway, a 70-mile strip of blacktop between Durango and Ouray. The road climbs up and over three separate passes: Coal Bank, Molas, and Red Mountain Pass. The breathtaking views make navigating all those hairpin turns and sheer cliff drops worth the anxiety. If you’re there late September through October, the fall colors dazzle.

History & Culture

Ride the train
Want to experience Weminuche Wilderness like they did in the 1880s? Hop aboard the historic Denver & Rio Grande Railway. Though it initially hauled freight as well, the railroad has always been promoted as a scenic route for passenger service. In addition to buying a train ticket, you can tack on adventure excursions, like zip-lining, white water rafting, horseback riding, ATV riding and more.

If you’re in town, check out the free Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum. The 12,000-square-foot museum features artifacts and historical information about the railway. Kids will love exploring the giant interactive train model, authentic cars and engines. I say anything to tire out the wee ones is time well spent.

Cultural significance
Durango puts you in close proximity to some of America’s most compelling first peoples, the Ancestral Pueblo. Spend a day at Mesa Verde National Park learning about the generations of people who built and lived in the cliff side cave dwellings. Want to get up close and personal? Take a ranger-guided tour. You must purchase tickets in-person. Details here.

Have you been to Durango? What do you love about it? Share in the comments!

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With a population of about 18,400, this old wild west town boasts great outdoor adventure, history and culture. Here’s what to do in Durango.

This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. We have been and still are frequent visitors to Durango. The area fly fishing is great, the “bicycle path” along the Animas River is tranquil and a great walk, Oscar’s has great hardy breakfast and the locals are friendly and helpful.
    Beautiful area served by major airlines and a worth a few days from Samantha’s favorite Santa Fe. Mike

  2. Ya fogot the hotsprings “pilgrim”! Great Mexican food also , and art galleries . You can take the Silverton Railway up and bus back , gorgeous scenery. Awe Sam you gave the secrets away , now theyll be tourbusses and Prairie Schooners.
    Hugs
    Len

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Why Durango Is Colorado’s Hidden Gem
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