#TravelTuesday: Destination Durango, 5 Summer Days in Ski Town

by Sue Durio on July 17, 2018 in Travels,
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It’s summertime in Durango.

The snowmelt is gone, and the ski racks have given way to bike racks and kayaks loaded on cars passing through this historic town at the gateway to the San Juan Mountains. It’s an active outdoorsy person’s playground where the hardest part about planning a summer visit is not in finding something to do, but in deciding among so many options. If you are new to these parts of southwestern Colorado, here’s a five-day summer sampler of our favorites.

Day One: Take in a Hike

Durango is home to literally thousands of hiking trails, from gentle one-mile loops good for getting acclimated to the 6,500-ft. elevation, to longer and more challenging routes like the Animas Mountain Trail.

Durango is home to literally thousands of hiking trails. After a day in the outdoors, treat yourself to a soak in a natural mineral spring pool at Trimble Hot Springs. Courtesy photo

If your group includes both active hikers and less ambitious walkers, try the Potato Lake trail just north of Purgatory Ski Area. About three miles along the trail, the pristine alpine Potato Lake – also known as Spud Lake – makes for a stunning picnic stop. Plan ahead, with a stop en route there at James Ranch, for to-go sandwiches or fresh cheeses from the farm. While the hike itself is mild, the road to access it is narrow, can be treacherous and requires four-wheel drive. Regardless of the trail you choose, always be prepared for rapidly changing weather conditions. On the way back into Durango, treat those aching muscles to a soak in one of Trimble Hot Springs’ two natural mineral spring pools.

Day Two: Hit the River

After a good night’s sleep, you’ll be ready to ramp up the adrenalin with a rafting trip on the Animas River. Numerous outfitters offer experienced guide services from half-day to three-quarter-day trips. Water levels and rapid ratings tend to be higher earlier in the summer as snow melts. After a safety briefing with your raft’s captain, you’ll load into an eight- or ten-person raft to see Durango from an entirely different perspective as the river winds through town. If you’re lucky, you can watch local emergency personnel practicing their swift water rescue skills while you enjoy a gourmet picnic lunch riverside. While raft trips are suitable for all ages, at high water levels, younger riders may be shuttled around the larger Class III rapid. In early summer, a wetsuit and booties may be in order. And don’t forget the sunscreen.

Numerous guide services offer rafting day trips on the Animas River. Photo Mild2Wild

Even though, let’s face it, your raft guide did most of the work, you’ll be ready for a hearty dinner. Clean up and head to the Sow’s Ear, in the Silverpick Lodge at Purgatory Resort. Enjoy locally sourced “rustic refined” specialties while you take in breathtaking mountain views from the dining room’s four picture windows. You’ll forget that just a few hours ago you were working an oar with all your strength and hoping to navigate the next set of rapids upright.

Day Three: Ride the Rails

No trip to Durango is complete without experiencing its iconic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. After all, Durango was founded as a Denver and Rio Grande Railway “company” town in 1880, becoming home to the railroad’s station and yard facilities.

The historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad passes through untouched wilderness on its 45 mile route. Photo by Mark Durio

This coal-fired, steam-powered historic train follows the 45 miles of rails originally laid in 1882 between the mining town of Silverton and Durango. You can choose from round-trip train tours that include lunch and shopping time in historic Silverton, or take the train one way and bus the other. Either way, you’ll be treated to some of the most magnificent mountain and back-country vistas imaginable. While inside seating is available, opt for the open-air railcars where you can almost touch the waterfalls.

With the train depot located in the heart of Durango’s historic district, step off the train at the end of the day and grab a cocktail while taking in early live music shows at the Balcony Bar & Grill on Main. Then enjoy some of Durango’s farm-to-table culinary scene at Seasons, just down the street, or at Ken and Sue’s. But be warned: these popular spots are small and book up, so make reservations in advance.

Day Four: All-Terrain Adventure

After your relaxed day three, it’s time to amp it up. Get an early start into Silverton for breakfast at the iconic Brown Bear Café. Pick up your ATV from one of numerous outfitters (reserve ahead), and hit the road for the 65-mile Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway. The entire route is four-wheel-drive only, and you’ll be glad you are buckled in with plenty of road power.

Creek crossings and waterfalls are common on back country ATV and hiking trails. Photo by Sue Durio

Along the trail, you’ll pass by numerous ghost towns, over two 12,000-ft. mountain passes and along countless waterfalls and wildlife sightings. Elevation changes and unpredictable Colorado summer weather dictate dressing in layers. Bring blankets, rain gear and a bandana to keep dust out of your face. Return your ATVs by dark; then call ahead on the drive back to Durango to order a pizza to go from Old Schoohouse Cafe. This unpretentious place has been a local’s favorite for two decades.

Day Five: Biking Around

Take the energy level down a notch with a leisurely bike ride around town. Bike rental outfitters near Main Avenue provide easy access to the Animas River Trail, a seven-mile paved recreational trail that hugs the river as it meanders through town. Several bridge crossings offer great photo opps.

Mountain bikers can ride the Purgatory Ski Lift up to enjoy downhill rides on ski area trails. Lessons also are available. Photo by Mark Durio

Not into biking? Throw a line in or just sit enjoy the views at Lake Nighthorse, which opened this spring to recreational use. Later, wind back to the shopping district for souvenirs of your trip, where you can find everything from local pottery to fly fishing supplies. Top off the day, and toast Durango until your next visit, with a local brew and burger at Steamworks Brewing Company, a few blocks off the main drag.

Cover:Engineer Peak is a popular 12,000-ft summit to conquer, whether on foot or by ATV. Photo by Mark Durio

A freelance writer and marketing consultant since 2000, Austin-based Sue Durio has helped dozens of businesses uncover what makes them unique and valuable to their customers.