It’s out of the way and glad of it,” cracked Will Rogers. Nestled in the Animas River Valley between the desert and the San Juan Mountains, Durango is not all that inaccessible these days and draws lots of people for its irresistible mix of history and activity. This railway town of 17,000 residents, founded in 1881, is known for its wealth of outdoor offerings, its proximity to Mesa Verde National Park and its restored railway through the mountains to Silverton, which you might recognize from the hair-raising robbery scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Students attending Fort Lewis College give Durango an upbeat air and keep dozens of ski, mountain bike and camping stores in business. The Durango Mountain Resort has 1,200 skiable acres and 85 trails on Purgatory Mountain, and bragging rights to more sunshine than any other ski resort in Colorado. Kayakers tackle Class II and III rapids on the Animas River, which flows right through the centre of town (more thrilling rapids are not far away).
To top it off, Durango is known as one of the hottest mountain biking towns in the West, starting with its hosting of the first-ever national mountain bike championships in 1990, now held annually around the country. Hundreds of miles of trails wander through the nearby hills. The 18-mile Dry Fork Loop on the edge of town is part of the statewide Colorado Trail.
Mosey on over to the Strater Hotel and step into a time machine. Wild West legends Bat Masterson and Butch Cassidy both stayed at this handsome four-storey redbrick Victorian hotel, built in 1887. Louis L’Amour wrote a few of his Western novels while checked into room 222 or sitting in the Diamond Belle Saloon, still the town’s hot spot after all these years. Live ragtime music wafts from the bar, decorated with crystal chandeliers and plush velvet curtains.
Adjacent to the Strater is the Mahogany Grille restaurant, where the Chocolate Avalanche dessert is reason enough to come for dinner. Locals stave off winter cabin fever during Snowdown, Durango’s wild winter celebration, complete with kayak races in the snow.
The biggest draw for all ages is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. In operation since 1881, it once took mining supplies, workers and precious minerals to and from Silverton. Now it carries tourists along the 45-mile route in Victorian coaches, crossing narrow bridges spanning roaring white-water canyons along a 3,000-foot ascent. En route is the luxurious Tall Timber Resort, accessible only by train or helicopter. In the middle of nowhere, it has an extraordinary setting, impeccable service, rooms with stone fireplaces and use of hot tubs alongside the pristine river.
Durango is also the most common starting point for the San Juan Skyway, which crosses five mountain passes. The 236-mile loop heads through the beautiful San Juan Mountains north to Ouray and Silverton and the Million Dollar Highway before turning back to town via Telluride, Rico and Cortez.