There are few things I enjoy more than checking out a new destination. Getting to put my feet on the ground and roam around an uncharted-by-me place gives me a sense of adventure and fulfillment as I discover its highlights and sidelights, nook and crannies, and defining characteristics.
Because I love the mountain towns of the North American West, my expectations were high as I headed to this southwestern Colorado outpost for the first time, and Durango really delivered. Packed within this small city is a treasure trove of big (and bold, and nature-y, and wonderful, and authentic) options.
I can totally understand why my travel-writing compadres at Budget Travel included Durango on their 2018 list of the “Coolest Small Towns in America,” as I discovered a whole lotta cool as part of my touring this August.
My host was Marsha Wilson of Visit Durango, and the two of us spent three days exploring the area together. While Marsha is an industry veteran—having worked for multiple DMOs across the U.S. during her career—she’d just relocated to the city two weeks before I arrived to begin her job as Visit Durango’s sales manager. Marsha is a good traveling companion, and I really appreciated getting to know her and to see her begin to settle in to her new role.
Hers should be an easy settling process, though, as Durango seems like a very connected community. Not only were the tourism folks in tune with each other, they also are very connected to, and passionate about, their city.
While I had written about two of the area’s calling cards—Mesa Verde National Park and the Durango & SIlverton Narrow Gauge Railroad—it was a real treat to get to enjoy both in person.
Leading our Mesa Verde excursion was Denise Galley of Rivertrippers. Denise has lived in Durango for decades now, and she possesses a deep enthusiasm and passion for U.S. national parks. She also has an incredible knowledge of geology, which was an absolute asset as we explored Mesa Verde’s millennia-old rock formations and cave dwellings.
Seeing some of the park’s thousands of well-preserved structures built by the ancient Puebloans was a staggering experience. It was hard to comprehend how they navigated the steep cliffs and sheer rocks on a daily basis, let alone how they managed to tuck their homes in the seemingly-too-narrow spaces in the canyon walls.
The following day we took a ride with Durango & Silverton along the route that connects its two namesake cities. I’d heard longtime NTA member Carrie Whitley sing the praises of this legendary rail journey before, but getting to experience it live was fantastic.
Nearly every article you read on train travel touts how a ride “takes you back to a simpler time” and “allows you to hit pause on your daily life.” That had always seemed a bit contrived to me, but I can guarantee you when the whistle blew and the coal-fired locomotive sprang to life, the nostalgia was very real.
The route goes through the forests and mountains along the Animas River. While I had made the drive between Durango and Silverton—and enjoyed the gorgeous views from the highway—seeing the sights from the open-air rail car was an experience I won’t soon forget.
We were fortunate that the attendant in our car was another knowledgeable local, who was as quick to offer up facts about the railroad and the area’s flora and fauna as she was to share a story from a lifetime spent in Durango. Groups also should make time to visit the rail company’s museum at the downtown depot.
My final day of touring included a jeep ride through La Plata Canyon, a lunch stop at James Ranch, a tour across the road at Honeyville and a visit to Purgatory Resort, a four-season attraction that blends a range of outdoor activities—skiing chief among them—with a variety of room choices.
It is hard for me to imagine you could get more local or more authentic than Marsha and I did during our visit to James Ranch. Getting to hear the story of the family and their farm from Jennifer Wheeling—one of the James’ grown children—was very inspiring and would be a total home run for groups that are craving an only-in-Durango experience.
Jennifer detailed how their focus is on raising and offering only organic products, be they meats, cheeses or veggies. These and other farm-fresh foods are available at the on-site market and café, and they can be enjoyed at one of the picnic tables overlooking the river and the ranch. Live music and other special events are held throughout the year, and tours of the farm also can be arranged.
I got to stay at two NTA-member properties, the Hampton Inn Durango and the Strater Hotel. Both are located along Main Street, close to where the action is, and have plenty of amenities for groups. They offer two contrasting styles, as the Hampton Inn is an ultra-modern hotel, while the Strater, which dates back to 1881 and is a National Historic Landmark, is a throwback that oozes Old West charm.
Another serendipitous bonus was getting to attend a Tour Colorado meeting at the Bar D Ranch. Carrie heads up the organization, which focuses on promoting the state to the North American market, and it was cool to reconnect with some people I’ve met at Travel Exchange. The evening also was a great reminder of how supportive Durango and the state of Colorado have been to NTA over the years.
Following the meeting, we got to stay for the chuckwagon dinner and a show featuring music and storytelling by the amazing Riders in the Sky and the Bar D Wranglers.
More passionate locals being passionate about local things
During my time in Durango, I got to share a meal with the owners of two of the area’s historical properties, and got to hear a pair of incredible tales of dedication and preservation.
Our lunch stop on the day we rode the train included a visit with Jim Harper, president of the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton. As we sat in the airy, Western-themed dining room, he weaved a tale of a multi-year, multi-million-dollar renovation that completely transformed the 135-year-old property. It was clear he and his family had pored over every detail as they updated the historical hotel.
We heard a similar story the following morning from Kirk Komick, owner of the Rochester Hotel on Second Avenue in downtown Durango. Komick shared how he and his mom decided to redo the circa 1890s hotel that was a former flop house. Following its meticulous restoration, the property has been one of the main drivers that has led to Second Avenue becoming a bustling corridor for locals and visitors.
Any destination would be lucky to have people like Jim and Kirk (and their families) so passionately investing in their community.
Top photo: Mesa Verde National Park
Photo by Pat Henderson