Durango, Colorado: 16,887 population, 6522’ elevation
With nearly two million acres of the San Juan National Forest beckoning, outdoor fun is available year-round in the Durango area. Within an hour of the historic downtown area you’ll find excellent mountain biking, road biking, hiking and trail running, Class 1-5 whitewater paddling, downhill skiing, backcountry skiing, backpacking, and four wheeling.
The San Juan National Forest includes three officially designated wilderness areas providing access for those who love the backcountry:
● Weminuche Wilderness, nearly 500,000 acres, near Durango and Silverton
● Lizardhead Wilderness, about 50,000 acres, near Telluride
● South San Juan Wilderness, about 160,000 acres, near Pagosa Springs
The San Juan Skyway, a 232-mile driving loop from Durango, follows the famed Million-Dollar Highway to Silverton, Ouray, and Ridgway, then picks up other roads on the way to Placerville, Telluride, Rico, Dolores, Cortez, Mancos, and ends up back in Durango.
The renowned Colorado Trail starts on the edge of town and welcomes hikers, bikers, and horseback riders on the 500-mile route between Durango and Denver.
Within about two hours of Durango you’ll find eight fourteeners, from Cass 1 Handies Peak to class 4 Sunlight Peak.
Durango’s weather is typically mild, with summer highs rarely above 90° and little precipitation. Monsoon season from around July 4 through the end of August can bring in summer rains, but it’s been sketchy for a few years. Winter lows rarely dip below 0° and daytime temps are comfortable from the 20s to the 40s and sometimes 50s. Durango averages 18” of rain and 67” of snow annually.
Local Adventure Vibe
Durango folks are active! Bike and ski shops abound, and Jeeps and Subaru wagons are everywhere. With all that national forest land and trails to use it’s no wonder. Most awesomely fun outdoor activities can be done—and done well—around Durango.
People like to have a good time, too! Durango’s winter festival, Snowdown, takes place in late January and has been rated as one of the top winter festivals in the US by Outside Magazine. Of course there’s live music, abundant alcohol, and silly outfits and costumes as people cope with long winter nights by dancing and carousing.
Durango’s history as a mining town is interwoven with the present, as some Forest Service roads trace their origin to routes used by 19th century miners. Those roads and trails now provide access to hikers, bikers, and four wheelers all around Durango.
Durango offers the opportunity to enjoy at least a couple fun adventures per day, if you want. Go paddling on the Animas River, which runs right through town, in the morning and then go for a hike or a trail ride after lunch.
After adventures, many folks meet at one of excellent brewpubs or coffee shops.
Many people know Durango because of the historic Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad that runs between Durango and Silverton. The train once carried millions of dollars worth of precious metals, and now it carries passengers. If you’re going into the wilderness, you can take the train to and from your dropoff point, leaving a car in Durango or Silverton.
Thanks to the train, Durango also boasts the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, a 50-mile bicycle race from Durango to Silverton over two 10,000’ passes. The race traces its roots back to 1971 when local bicyclist Tom Mayer bet his brother Jim, a brakeman on the train, that he could beat the train to Silverton. Tom won the bet and the next year started the race with about 35 riders.
Durango has also been featured in several popular films. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed in the area, with the famous jump scene into the Animas River taking place near Baker’s Bridge north of town.
The grueling Hardrock 100 mountain run starts and ends in nearby Silverton, with participants enduring 33,000’ of elevation gain and often challenging weather conditions.
Food & Drink
Durango’s historic downtown offers a wealth of choices, including three historic hotels and dozens of restaurants. The General Palmer Hotel, Rochester Hotel, and Strater Hotel take you back to the booming mining days of the 19th century and are a fun stop for a drink.
Steamworks Brewing has a humongous space downtown and copious brews and food options. Their patio space and sidewalk seating are welcome bonuses.
Derailed Pour House on main street offers their unique take on southwest cuisine and frequently has live music inside, as well as sidewalk seating and a patio so you can stay cool after your adventures.
The Ore House celebrates Colorado mining history while serving steaks and seafood. Think old school and cozy.
El Moro Tavern on Main Street has an eclectic menu in a relatively dark and warm space. You might be surprised by some of the choices here and they’re delicious.
Carver Brewing is also on Main Street and is the second-oldest brewpub in Colorado. A great atmosphere, sidewalk seating, and great pub food make this an easy choice.
Looking for sushi? On College Drive you’ll find East by Southwest, sort of a fusion restaurant that serves fantastic sushi and steaks.
South of the historic district, Ska Brewing offers up some unique brews such as their Modus Mandarina, brewed with orange peel. Tasty! They have a cool venue as well, with the kitchen built in a storage container and a patio full of outdoorsy folks most of the time.
Places to Stay
Durango is a popular tourist destination, so lodging options are plentiful.
Discover your new favorite camping spot near Durango. The perfect campsite is waiting for you. Search over 1 million listings, reviews, and tips from campers like you at The Dyrt. As for campsites, check out our favorites:
The Lightner Creek campground is located just west of town, accepts pooches, and provides wi-fi.
The Junction Creek campground puts you close to the Colorado Trail.
If you need an RV site, the Alpen Rose campground north of Durango on Highway 550 can provide it.
The Durango Running Club traces its roots back to the late 1970s and now hosts weekly group runs in the warmer months as well as a few races. The Narrow Gauge 10 Mile Run takes place every Memorial Day weekend and was first held in 1978, making it one of the oldest continuously held running events in Colorado. The popular Steamworks Half Marathon takes place in late June and welcomes runners of all abilities with its fast and flat course along the Animas River.
The Durango Wheel Club is, you guessed it, a club for road, cyclocross, and mountain bike enthusiasts. Their Facebook page looks to be most current, though they don’t list any events for 2021.
You won’t find anything like Half Dome around Durango, but there is plenty of fun to be had. Head to the Animas Mountain trail system on the north side of town for bouldering on Sailing Hawks.
X-Rock is a popular choice and is just outside town on the north side. You’ll have many choices, including bouldering, sport, trad, and crack climbing.
Cascade Canyon offers several routes rated 5.11-5.12. Head north on Highway 550 past Purgatory ski area and Cascade Village.
Hermosa offers some of the best local climbing on the West Coast Cliffs, Pinnacle, and Hang em’ High routes and is typically not crowded. You’ll find both traditional and bolted routes, as well as the largest roof routes in the area.
Hiking around Durango offers dozens of options, including easy in-town hikes and hikes rated as “very difficult.”
The Haflin Creek Trail #557 is a 3.9-mile point-to-point hike with an average 14% grade, but you can start at the top and enjoy the long descent and some views of the Animas River Valley.
A bit farther north is the 7.3-mile Steven’s Creek Trail #728, rated “difficult.” It intersects with the Missionary Ridge Trail, in case you want a longer hike.
Just west of downtown and the Animas River you’ll find Overend Mountain Park and a slew of short trails such as Perins Gulch Trail and Spirit Trail. Pretty easy, accessible in a moment, and fun!
If you’re looking for backpacking fun and feeling ambitious, try Emerald Lake. This 24-mile round trip hike along the Pine River Trail culminates with a six-mile uphill slog, so you’ll be ready for a break when you reach the lake. Find yourself a campsite at the north or south end of the lake and rest, relax, and enjoy.
Ice Lake Trail is a heavily trafficked loop trail located near Ophir, Colorado. This is a beautiful trail with awesome views all the way up. Very difficult if you aren’t used to the elevation, as there is so much climbing. Waterfalls, creeks, colors galore, and the most insanely colored lake you will ever seen!
Backcountry skiers will have a blast in the Durango area. The Silverton area has several routes, including Coal Creek. Pick a line from the Coal Bank Pass Ascent and head northeast, ending up at Highway 550.
Purgatory Resort runs snowcat trips and has access to over 35,000 acres of backcountry. Guests typically enjoy 8-10 500-1500’ runs per trip, and have expert guides along for pointers.
The Mountain Bike Project lists 71 trails within Durango. Some of those are short spur trails, but it’s possible to stitch together some longer routes to your liking.
Located right in town, the Grandview Ridge and Horse Gulch Loop will have you riding mostly singletrack on the 16.1-mile, intermediate/difficult route. If you’re staying in Durango, you can easily ride to the Horse Gulch trailhead and off you go!
Animas City Mountain on Durango’s north side is one of those places that has it all. The Animas Mountain Loop is a 5.7-mile ride with both shaded riding in the trees and fast riding through open spaces. You can start with a steep ascent or take the switchbacks for an easier start. Several trails and varied terrain make for a great day!
Segment 28 of the Colorado Trail, Kennebec to Junction Creek, is rated “difficult” and is also a blast! Drive or ride @18 miles up Junction Creek Road and pick up the trailhead for the ride back to Durango, around 22 miles, mostly descending but with a few climbs. Check out the waterfall at Flagler Fork Creek and remember to take in the views now and then.
Trail running will obviously share trails with hiking and mountain biking aficionados, and with 70 trails close to Durango, you’ll have many to choose from. In addition to the routes mentioned above, the Squawker trail is a fun loop around Ft. Lewis College that offers great views of the valley and also connects with the Horse Gulch trails.
Carbon Junction on the south side of town takes you from the parking area off of Highway 550 up a short section of switchbacks to the mesa, where you can enjoy the views, usually without many other people about.
For a different experience, the Dry Fork trail west of town, off Lightner Creek Road, gives you mostly forested single track and a gentle climb. You can do the four miles out and back or use the Colorado Trail segment and Hofhein’s Connector as a loop.
Thanks to the mega-abundant San Juan National Forest and old mining trails and ghost towns, the Durango area is a four-wheeler’s paradise.
Animas Forks is a defunct mining town and is near Silverton. It’s a busy tourist destination, but is also fascinating and worth the effort. Accessed by a rough gravel road, you’ll see plenty of cars getting beat up on the way to the town. Standing in rough-and-tumble Animas Forks, think of how tough people used to be. Amazing.
From Animas Forks you can get into the real fun, and the high country. After Animas Forks, you just pick a road/trail and go. Maggie Gulch, Minnie Gulch, and Cunningham Gulch are fun excursions, and you can check out the Eureka campground if you’re not boondocking.
Getting into more difficult terrain, try Imogene Pass. This 18-mile 4-hour excursion is the highest pass in the San Juans at over 13,000 feet and connects Ouray and Telluride. Expect moderate to difficult terrain, and obviously you’ll need a high-clearance rig. You’ll need to check trail conditions in advance, as deep snow can linger well into summer.
And now for the big dog: Black Bear Pass. This difficult 13-mile “road” runs from Highway 550 at Red Mountain Pass into Telluride and sees its share of vehicle damage and rollovers. Sound like fun? Best if you have some experience.
Paddling around Durango revolves around the Animas River, but there are several other options. Flowing out from the high peaks of the San Juans, the Animas offers a trip for every skill level. Near Silverton the river offers Class IV-V whitewater and plenty of fun. Between Trimble and 32nd Street in Durango is a pleasant Class I-II section that most people can handle in a canoe, kayak, or raft.
Downstream from there you’ll encounter some Class III sections, so if you’re unskilled you might want to go with a rafting outfitter. It’s a great idea to learn skills and the river before you commit to paddling on your own.
Reminder: as it’s snowmelt, the water is always cold, so dress accordingly.
One of the great things about paddling in Durango is the proximity: the Animas runs right through town, and Lake Nighthorse, another fun venue, is just a couple of miles west. At the lake, you can put in with your own craft, or rent a standup paddleboard.
Another paddling option is to take your craft to one of the high mountain lakes, such as Electra Lake near Engineer Mountain and Twilight Lake near Purgatory Resort. Both are for paddling and fishing only, so no powercraft allowed. Of course, those adventures are easy to combine with fourteeners, hiking, mountain biking, and four wheeling!
Best guided adventures
We’ve mentioned several guided adventures so far, such as rafting and backcountry skiing. Another popular option is guided jeep and ATV tours, offered by several companies in or near Durango. You can choose mild sightseeing trails in open-top Jeeps, as well as backcountry fun all over the National Forest. Tours of Mesa Verde National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are also popular and include transportation, lunch, and a knowledgeable guide. Such a fascinating place!
That’s a lot of info for one post, but this list just touches on the wealth of adventure fun in the Durango area. There are plenty more options for those who want to dig a little deeper, stay active, and have fun outdoors!
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