Nestled down in the southwest corner of Colorado, far from the madding crowd of Denver, #Durango is a charming and thoughtfully curated mix of old and new. Steam trains and saloon shootouts sit side-by-side with fantastic farm-to table dining options, delicious beer, creative cocktails and outdoor activities in a landscape so beautiful it will make you weep.
Durango is probably the most “western” town in Colorado. It looks and feels like an old west town, you can wander the same streets where shootouts (quite possibly at high noon) literally took place, and you can stay in hotels that look like they would have back in the early 1900s when they were built (less the TVs and air conditioning, of course). And when it comes to size, Durango is a sort of Goldilocks town - not too big, not too small. In fact, Durango is just right.
Built by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway and officially incorporated in 1881 to serve as a supply depot for the millions of tons of silver and gold ore that were mined from the San Juan Mountains, Durango remains connected to the appropriately named Silverton by the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad - as it has for well over a century. These days, the vintage steam-powered locomotive carries thousands of passengers a year as it meanders for two and a half hours through the stunning alpine landscapes of the San Juan National Forest and along the Animas River, gaining almost 3,000 feet in elevation, before arriving at its long-term terminus.
In addition to its main journey to #Silverton, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has several themed journeys throughout the year including the Great Pumpkin Patch Express, a Peanuts-themed adventure for kids, and the Annual Fall Photographer’s Special, among others (visit durangotrain.com for full details).
The #train also seems to have a peculiar effect on adults, making some of them giddy with excitement, particularly when the trains whistle blast or it rounds a bend and the front becomes visible from the back.
Acclaimed travel writer Paul Theroux said in his book “The Great Railway Bazaar” that he had seldom heard a train go by and not wished he was on it. Well, the D&SNGRR may not compare to the journeys in his book in terms of length, but when it comes to history and scenery, the little train that could, certainly does - we think Theroux would agree.
BLENDING PAST AND PRESENT
While the Narrow Gauge is a Durango icon that brings people from across the state, country and the world to the southwest corner of Colorado, it doesn’t define the town. In fact, Durango has effortlessly blended the region’s western history and beautiful natural landscape with a modern and sophisticated southwest vibe giving rise to a unique place that gives all kinds of people all kinds of opportunities to craft their own Durango experience.
At the heart of Durango, both literally and figuratively, is the Main Avenue Historic District, a 34-acre area that has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980. It is here where you can stand on a street corner and see what makes Durango special and how past and present have come together: Stand on the corner of Main Avenue and College Drive and you will see a historic hotel founded by a Civil War General opposite a mobile creperie started by a classically-trained French chef.
For those who do travel here for a taste of the old west, the Diamond Belle Saloon on Main Avenue is a fun place for a quick bite or a drink thanks to the ragtime piano player and the old west schootout reenactments. And that period entertainment couldn’t be in a more appropriate place.
Opening just seven years after the town itself was founded, the Strater Hotel cost Cleveland pharmacist Henry Strater the princely sum of $70,000. The historic building has undergone several renovations of varying degrees but each one has remained true to the spirti of the old west. Wander around the self-styled living history museum to see the thinkets and bits of old west memorabilia.
If you do decide to stay in one of the grand rooms you will be in good company as the hotel has hosted some notable names over the years including Paul Newman, Robert Redford, The Grateful Dead, Marilyn Monroe, and then-Senator John F. Kennedy when he was on the campaign trail in 1960.
One block south on Main Avenue is the other grand property in town: the General Palmer. The co-founder of the Durango and Silverton Railway, William Jackson Palmer was a Brigadier General in the Civil War (he was also awarded the Medal of Honor) as well as a noted industrialist and philanthropist. Rooms at the AAA Four-Diamond Hotel in the heart of the town’s historic district are perhaps a little more modern than the Strater, but the hotel is no less grand. Rooms overlooking Main Avenue offer a great opportunity for people watching.
At the end of the block is the narrow gauge station and beyond that is the D&SNG Railroad Museum. Ostensibly a museum about the narrow gauge, the 12,000-square-foot homage to the region’s history has antique trucks, tractors, a covered wagon, an Indian motorcycle, full-size steam locomotives, vintage coaches and an 800-square-foot model railroad that depicts the 1950s operations of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. There is also an immigrant car, so called because they were designed to provide inexpensive transport for immigrants (they were also sometimes called colonist cars). Be sure to ask curator Jeff Ellingson about the immigrant car and its spectral inhabitant, Kate. Better still, join him on the Haunted Durango Train Museum Experience. Fees apply for guided tours but otherwise entrance to the museum is free.
DRINKING & DINING
Photos (clockwise from top left): Carver Brewing Co, El Moro Spirits and Tavern, Ska Brewing, Steamworks Brewing Co, Animas Brewing Company, The Bookcase and Barber
Colorado is blessed with an abundance of fantastic produce (Palisade peaches and Olathe corn to name but two), and the veritable bounty of eating establishments of all shapes and sizes in Durango, from humble street food to fine dining - and everything in between - put it all to good use. In fact, a few years ago, Durango was said to have overtaken San Francisco as having the most restaurants per capita.
There are options here for everyone, but it is the impressive number of places that go above and beyond by offering locals and visitors everything from farm-to-table dining and inventive cocktails that wouldn’t be out of place in Napa or Manhattan. In short, gastronomes will find themselves spoiled for choice.
For a great pre-hike breakfast, Carver Brewing is a good choice. Comforting staples done well and served in generous portions. Anything that comes with a hash of some kind is going to satisfy even the greediest in your party.
EL MORO SPIRITS AND TAVERN
A reincarnation of the original El Moro Saloon, it was here that on a frosty day in January 1906 a confrontation between Sheriff William Thompson and Marshall Jesse Stansel over the enforcement of gambling laws in front of the saloon ended with Sheriff Thompson dead. Today El Moro is a great place for a cocktail or a glass of wine before dinner as well as being a great place for dinner itself. The menu is not vast, but it is carefully curated and offers a range of dishes, some that nod towards the history of Durango (the scotch egg and root vegetable shepherd’s pie), others that are locally made (the fermented lamb summer sausage), and others that are simply the best products available including cheeses and cured meats from Europe.
SEASONS OF DURANGO
Just down Main Avenue is Seasons of Durango, another welcoming restaurant that serves excellent food. The farm-to-table menu uses as many local products as possible, many of which are then cooked on a grill or on a spit fueled by local oak. As the name suggests, the core of the Seasons menu changes every season. Dishes to try include spit-roasted free range half chicken with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetable succotash and the grilled pork loin chop with fingerling potatoes.
The Ore House is a sort of wolf in sheep’s clothing, so to speak, but in the best possible way. From the street, the Ore House looks unassuming, quaint and very appropriate for
a town like Durango. Even inside it is modest with a warm, family-friendly vibe, but when you open the menu you’ll find there is something of a happy incongruity. That isn’t to say the decor and vibe isn’t welcome, it very much is, it’s just that the menu has been designed (and, as it turns out, is executed) by people who really know their onions, so to speak. The steaks are why people come here, and for good reason, but the sides - the brussels sprouts, the crab mac and cheese with hatch green chili, and the asparagus with bearnaise - turn a meal into a feast. And don’t forget drinks. The Ore House has great cocktails and a wine list that is, at the time of writing, 16 pages long.
11TH STREET STATION
Casual eats are the order of the day at 11th Street Station, a collection of seven food trucks that come together around Ernie’s Bar, a converted service station that stood for more than four decades from the 1920s. Drinks and food range from craft beer, coffee, tacos, pizza, sushi and even Indonesian cuisine.
Well-known to locals, Michel’s Corner is run by Frenchman Michel Poumay. The creperie would be described these days as a food truck, and it is, but as it predates the food truck movement, it would be fair to describe it as a pioneer of sorts. Crepes have a reputation as a somewhat bland vehicle for whipped cream and strawberries, but Michel’s crepes are a revelation and his Mennonite-built mobile creperie is a bona fide dining hot spot. The pulled pork and pan-fried goat cheese crepe expertly combines the sweet and tangy flavors of the main ingredients while the caramel apple and walnut crepe is perfectly sweet. The corner itself is a lovely place to spend an hour or so thanks to the cascading flowers that fill the square in summer; from mid-October Michel adds French onion soup to the menu which is surely going to be magnifique.
CREAM BEAN BERRY
If ice cream is more your thing when it comes to desserts, look no further than Cream Bean Berry. The scent of house-made waffle cones fill the air at this artisan ice creamery. The salted caramel is superb.
As for what to drink, well, it’s Colorado, so you can be sure that your beer mug will runneth over with some of the finest beer anywhere.
Ska Brewing was founded in 1995 and is one of the largest
in the state by output (although you wouldn’t believe it by the size of the facility - go on a free tour and see for yourself). The tap room has almost two dozen beers, including small batch creations from the experimental Mod Project. Environmentalists will also love this place. The company’s efforts to go green include a rooftop covered with solar panels, bar top and tables made from recycled bowling alley lanes and walls insulated with recycled denim jeans.
STEAMWORKS BREWING CO.
Steamworks Brewing is one of the oldest brewpubs in the state having been founded in 1996, and it’s a very popular spot for groups and families. They have a drink special every day including Pint Night on Thursdays - $3 a pint all day. If you’re looking for something familiar and different at the same time try the Prescribed Burn, a light German ale conditioned with habañero, poblano and hatch green chiles.
ANIMAS BREWING COMPANY
From the old to the new, Animas Brewing Company is the newest brewery in town. Located right next to the train tracks, their beer is good and they offer the old mining classic, pasties.
DURANGO BREWING COMPANY
One of Colorado’s founding breweries, the brew pub and kitchen offers an ever-changing selection of small batch ales and lagers.
THE BOOKCASE AND BARBER
For those that want a little more theater with their libations, look no further than The Bookcase and Barber. This fully functioning barber shop hides a delicious secret behind the bookcase. Find the password to be granted access to the secret flapper-cum-Gatsby bar beyond the bookcase where you’ll find some of Durango’s (and no doubt the state’s) finest cocktails, too - a mix of reinvented classics and original creations. The prohibition era is in full swing at this really fun local haunt.
DURANGO CRAFT SPIRITS AND HONEY HOUSE
There are also two distilleries in town - Durango Craft Spirits and Honeyville House Distillery, the latter of which offers Colorado Honey Whiskey.
After all that wandering around downtown indulging in all manner of gastronomic and cultural delights, you may feel like it is time to enjoy the rest of Durango which means hiking, biking, SUP-boarding, and alpine coasting.
There are literally hundreds of miles of #hiking and #mountainbiking trails that are a short drive from downtown, and autumn is the best time to get out thanks to cooler weather and the changing foliage. Overend Mountain Park is just one mile from downtown. With 300 acres that will appeal to mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners, it is easily accessible and great for getting your heart rate up. Try Hogsback Ridge, it’s a local classic.
All of Durango’s trails are built and maintained by local nonprofit group, Trails 2000, which hosts an interactive trail map, trail descriptions and trail condition reports at Trails2000.org.
During the warmer months Purgatory #Ski Resort transforms into an adventure playground with all kinds of activities including an alpine slide, a bungee trampoline, the Purgatory Bike Park, scenic chair lifts, SUP boarding and kayaking on Twilight Lake, and Purgatory’s latest addition, the Inferno Mountain Coaster, an almost one-mile long roller coaster with nine switchbacks, a 360 degree loop, 300 feet of vertical drop and reaching speeds up to 25 mph.
For those who want to get out and really earn that beer or cocktail, there are lots of mountain bike trails of varying lengths and levels of difficulty nearby. The Squarker Trail is an easy-moderate trail that is just under three miles long. With a modest 151 foot ascent and accessible from downtown, this is nice gentle ride. For something a little more challenging, the Animas Mountain Trail is just under six miles (three miles up and three miles down) and is considered to be moderate-difficult with an ascent of just under 1,500 feet. This also starts and ends right in town. For other trails visit the excellent mtbproject.com.
Back in town, those looking for a more sedate Durango experience might want to browse or even peruse the boutiques and art galleries that are dotted around town. For local arts and crafts there over a dozen art galleries, museums and cultural attractions. Swing by the Durango Arts Center, or the Powerhouse Science Center if you have kids in tow.
Durango is a Coloradoan gem hidden in plain sight. Many people know it yet have never been, but it is easily accessible from the whole of western Colorado and Durango-La Plata County Airport has multiple daily flights to Denver as well as daily flights to Phoenix and Dallas.
For more information visit durango.org
Read the full article in the Autumn, 2018 issue of West of 105, available for free here.