This mountain town is an outdoor paradise you can actually afford
A town born of the railroad revolution in Colorado, Durango is home to 18,500 people today.
It’s dotted with ample breweries and restaurants while boasting easy access to the great outdoors in the southwestern corner of the Centennial State.
What was once a sleepy little town far from anyone's thoughts has since morphed into a popular tourist destination.
One of the main attractions? The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a steam train excursion that winds through canyons and wilderness in the San Juan National Forest.
Trains depart from the depot year-round. For the holidays, the Polar Express ride takes families on a magical journey themed around the popular children's book. The train's staff (chefs and conductors) and actors bring The Polar Express story to life as the train makes it journey through the snow-covered forest. The train runs Nov. 19 through Jan 3, with tickets available online.
DURANGO: HOME TO NATURAL BEAUTY
Besides the San Juan National Forest, Durango is home to some of Colorado's most interesting national monuments and parks, including Mesa Verde, Chimney Rock, Chaco Canyon, the Weminuche Wilderness, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and Four Corners National Monument. Its location makes it an ideal playground for all outdoor lovers.
40 miles outside of town are the historic cliff dwellings of the ancient Puebloans, known as the Mesa Verde Dwellings.
The San Juan National Forest covers nearly two million acres in the southwestern corner of Colorado, centered in Durango. The forest is home to wilderness, scenic byways, historic sites, and plenty of room to roam in the majestic San Juan mountains.
Outside Magazine has even named it a 'Best City' to live in for 2016, citing year-round activities like white-water rafting, leaf-peeping, hiking, skiing, and epic mountain biking trails.
Just opening for the season this week, Purgatory Ski Resort is a short, 25-mile jaunt outside of town.
The family-friendly resort boasts both steep skiing trails and wide-open cruisers for skiers and boarders of all levels. Enjoy the fresh powder across 99 trails and more than 1,600 skiable acres.
If you prefer to stay in town (and off the mountain), the Animas River Trail that runs through Durango stretches across seven miles, which can be enjoyed by dog-walkers, cyclists, and runners alike.
A STEAM-POWERED HISTORY
Originally a mining community established in 1880 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Company, Durango had plenty of water and coal to power the smelters needed to mine valuable gold and silver from its mountains.
The word Durango originates from the Basque word "Urango" meaning "water town" or “well watered place.” There is also a Durango, Spain and a Durango, Mexico.
However, centuries before locomotives and mining for gold, and even prior to the Ute Indians, the area known as Durango was home to thousands of ancient Puebloans.
These ancient peoples had lived - and then, mysteriously disappeared - from the area now known as Mesa Verde National Park in the 1300s.
Centuries later, the Ute tribes would use the abandoned Puebloan cities as shelter to hunt and fish in the lands.
During the height of the gold rush, thousands of miners and their families moved to Durango in the late 1800s.
The villages of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde wouldn’t be discovered again until 1888 by two brothers: Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason.
By the turn of the century, Durango had become a vacation destination, with the creation of the San Juan National Forest in 1905 and Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. The population of the city of Durango doubled to 4,686 by 1910.
Businesses also prospered, with doctors, saloons, and many newspapers, including the Durango Record.
Just before the turn of the century, in an incredible eight-month feat, workers blasted through mountains and built bridges over rivers to lay the tracks of the Silverton Branch of the Durango & Rio Grande’s San Juan Extension.
A railroad would increase how much ore could be hauled out of “Silver by the ton” (Silverton) and sent across the state.
Before the route was built, miners used pack animals to haul the ore across the Continental Divide.
The engineering feat of the Silverton Branch was recognized in 1968 as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Engineers.
After World War II and the Great Depression, Durango began to blossom as a tourist destination. Purgatory Ski Resort opened in 1965.
Fun fact: Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, an iconic 1969 film starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, was filmed along the Animas River and Narrow Gauge Railroad!
MAIN AVENUE: PLENTY TO EAT (AND DRINK)
A visit to Durango's Main Avenue downtown area offers plenty in the way of shopping and dining, too — and not just your run-of-the-mill mountain town Western food, either.
Ken & Sue's, for example, whips up creative Asian-fusion dishes; The Living Tree Live Foods Salad Bar is tasty organic spot with a Kombucha-on-draft system; the Cyprus Café has award-winning Mediterranean dishes; and Grassburger serves up only grass-fed beef burgers and locally-sourced food.
Michel’s Corner Crepes brings the French culinary staple to the mountain city, serving up both sweet and savory creations from its tiny truck parked on Main Avenue.
On a sunny day, the patio seating truly makes you feel like you’re in a small cafe in France!
11th Street Station is a hip new spot in town that calls itself a “culinary collective.” On the corner of Main Avenue and 11th Street, the updated restaurants, pubs, and coffee shops are housed in old repair shops and fuel stations. Ernie’s Bar anchors the spot, with locally-owned food trucks parked all around the block.
There's also plenty of options for Western food, such as Lady Falconburgh's Alehouse & Kitchen, the Lone Spur Café and Ore House (147 E. College Dr.), to name a few.
El Moro Tavern lays claim as the site of “Durango’s Strangest Shootout," which took place in 1906.
The then-sheriff, William Thompson, raided the saloon in the midst of a poker game. He ran into the street after the raid, contraband in hand, where he promptly got into a duel with the city marshal. Guns were drawn, and the sheriff was shot. Yikes!
Today, El Moro is much more modern, offering high-end dishes like Korean Wagyu Skirt Steak and Chocolate Zinfandel Pate.
Durango has something for wine - and beer - lovers alike. Four Leaves Winery offers custom, made-on-site wines, and Jean Pierre Bakery & Wine Bar serves French breads and pastries amid antique decor.
Not your average barber shop… at all. The Bookcase and the Barber holds a secret for you - if you know the password. Yes, you can actually get a haircut, but rumor has it a secret speakeasy lurks beyond the bookcase… (wink wink).
Plus, the city has six (yes, six) breweries: Carver Brewing Co. and Durango Brewing Co. on Main Avenue, as well as Animas Brewing Co. and Steamworks Brewing Co. on East 2nd Avenue. The Brew Pub and Kitchen (117 W. College Dr.) and Ska Brewing Co. (225 Girard St.) are a couple other options.
Carver Brewing is southwest Colorado's first microbrewery, established in 1988 as the owners of Carver Brothers Bakery transitioned their use of yeast from breads to brews.
Main Avenue holds true to its historic roots with restored gems like the Diamond Belle Saloon inside the Strater Hotel, which calls itself one of the most famous original ragtime piano bars in the Old West.
The bar and restaurant embraces its history by offering all kinds of historic entertainment inside the city’s oldest, and finest, hotel, built in 1887.
Also along Main Avenue are all the fun mountain shops you'd expect, such as Dreams of Tibet gift shop, Out of the Blue and Shirt Off My Back t-shirt stores, Blu Boutique women's clothing store and Kids Rock, a children's clothing store.
Magpies Newsstand Cafe is a quaint spot to sip a smoothie and pick out the perfect card for your next birthday or wedding. Or, just enjoy a coffee and a good book!
Speaking of good books, Maria’s Bookshop stocks thousands of titles for when you want the tactile experience of a good, old-fashioned bookshop.
Maria’s has events in-store, too, like storytime for the kids and reading groups. You can also see local art on exhibit in between the bookshelves.
Art galleries are also in the mix in Durango's downtown area, as well as the nearby Rendezvous Donuts and Durango Bagel shops (yes please!).
One more place to check out: Durango's Powerhouse Science Center (1333 Camino Del Rio) on the western edge of town is a former power plant that's been converted into a museum offering interactive energy exhibits for adults and kids.
Compared to Denver, Durango's median home price is relatively affordable, standing at $377,500 for all-size properties, according to Trulia.com.
According to online site RentJungle.com, one-bedroom apartments in Durango rent for $915 a month on average, and two bedroom apartment rents average $1205. Compare that to about $1400 on average in Denver.
Special thanks to Durango Tourism Board for helping us get so many photos of the city!