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.
LETTING OFF STEAM
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. (Read on to find out about quaint little Silverton and what to do there when you arrive.)
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).
When it comes to size, Durango is a sort of Goldilocks town - not too big, not too small. In fact, Durango is just right.
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 classicallytrained 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 shootout 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 spirit of the old west. Wander around the self-styled living history museum to see the trinkets 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.
Photo: Cole Davis
Photos (this page top): DATO; (this page center and bottom) Brandon Hull / General Palmer Hotel; (opposite page): Rob McGovern/ Period Comms