MINI TOUR: Down in Durango
Urban charms and the Wild West in small-town Colorado

By Eric Lindberg


Glenwood Canyon
© Eric Lindberg

It’s just before eight on a summer morning and downtown Durango is barely stirring. A few tourists wander the sleepy streets with steaming cups of coffee, all heading toward a dark plume of smoke billowing over the weathered brick buildings. As I join them, a shrill whistle cracks the quiet. Heeding the warning, we quicken the pace and move toward the smoke, the noise, and pending departure.

Most tourists up this early are probably heading to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad station, where the train leaves twice each morning during the season for the 45-mile run to Silverton. Unlike drowsy downtown, the station swirls with action. Passengers pace the tracks and snap last-minute train photos. In a timeless tableau, grown men and small boys crowd around the steam-hissing locomotive as the engineer polishes headlights and checks the engine.

By 8:10 a.m. everyone is aboard. The whistle screams, steam blasts out from the engine, and minutes later we pull away right on time. As the train slips past town and crosses the broad valley leading into the San Juan Mountains, it’s time to lean back and enjoy the ride. Rail journeys are one of life’s sweet spots, and this trip up a rugged river canyon into the San Juan Mountains ranks up there with the best.

Following the Animas River, the train begins climbing toward its final destination of Silverton. But I won’t make it that far. Around the halfway point we slow and lurch to a stop at a tiny station along a meadow. Twenty of us debark, trading steel rails and a steam engine for a quieter, more carbon-friendly means of propulsion. Instead of coal, this next ride requires little more than our weight to fly over the woods and water of this remote valley. We’re going zip-lining.

No roads lead to the Soaring Tree Top Adventures zip line course; the only way to get here is by train or helicopter. I’ve signed up for an all-day tour along the Animas River that features 24 spans, totaling more than a mile and a quarter of zip line cables along the route.

"Rail journeys are one of life's sweet spots, and this trip up a rugged river canyon into the San Juan Mountains ranks up there with the best."

Safety briefing completed, I position myself on a platform high above the forest floor, strapped, clamped and cinched into a harness that will be my best friend for the rest of the day. Clipping onto the overhead stainless steel cable, I lean back, lift my feet and sail out over the forest. Pines and firs whip past, and for a few blissful moments I fly.

Buoyed by adrenaline, my first ride whizzes by in a blur and the end comes disappointingly fast. But with 23 more lines still to come, there’s little time for a letdown. The rest of the day just gets better as we zip and zing across hillsides, through tunnels of aspen trees and, after lunch, back and forth 10 times over the Animas River.

But there’s more to the area than steam-powered locomotives and soaring through the trees. Tucked away in the southwestern corner of the state, the surrounding geography is more high-desert than alpine. Durango is quintessential Colorado, a lovely, small-town setting that offers a taste of big-city culture minus the traffic jams and crowds. Driving through, it’s soon clear why Durango frequently shows up on those “best places to live” lists. It’s pretty and easily navigated. And a river runs through it.

Like many small Colorado towns, Durango slows down in winter. But by May, the Animas River twists itself into a wild watercourse for river runners, flowers bloom along the biking and hiking trails, and the town transforms into a warm-weather Mecca for outdoor adventure. For the next five months, rodeo, bicycle races, beer festivals, art shows, live theater, coffee festivals, Oktoberfest and more fill the calendar. But life wasn’t always so orderly here.

Founded in 1880, Durango was for many years, as observed by humorist Will Rogers, “out of the way and proud of it.” Its colorful history is packed with Wild West antics: shootouts and robberies, saloons and brothels, and other assorted mischief. Durango was a Saturday night town for cowboys, ranchers, miners, scoundrels and anyone with a paycheck in his pocket.

Nowadays the town is tamer but much remains from those frontier times. The historic district is filled with Victorian buildings, its brick and sandstone architecture now home to restaurants, coffee houses, art galleries, brewpubs and one of the state’s best little bookstores, Maria’s Bookshop. But stroll the streets and squint just a bit while admiring the fine brickwork and decorative flourishes, and it doesn’t take much to imagine the place before tee-shirt shops and knick-knack boutiques arrived, back in a time when men walked through town with guns at their sides.

After dark, visitors can relive the past in comfort at one of four historic downtown hotels: Rochester Hotel, Leland House B&B, General Palmer, and the Strater Hotel. Along with an interior décor that transports guests to a Durango long past, each comes with an added bonus; they’re all within earshot of the steam whistle as the morning train departs for the high country.

Durango is proof that small towns can have culinary aspirations beyond fast food joints and chain eateries. Ken and Sue’s on Main Street has been a dining hotspot for many years, enticing locals and visitors with an extensive wine list and diverse entrees like pistachio nut-crusted grouper and Thai shrimp. Just off Main Street, Cypress Café is an oasis of Colorado-inspired Mediterranean fare with dishes ranging from dolmas and moussaka ravioli to stuffed poblano pepper with dried fig, fontina cheese and sundried tomato cream sauce.

With four craft breweries producing an artful array of pale ales, porters, stouts, pilsners and other specialties, Durango has earned its place on the national beer-brewing map. They take beer seriously here, and there’s no better place to experience the town’s brew culture than at Carver Brewing Company. Seated on the sunny patio, I order a sampler tray of suds with my meal. The Saturday lunch rush is over and owners Michael Hurst and Aaron Seitz drop by to discuss craft beer making and survival in a small town.

“Lots of people want to move here but finding a good job isn’t easy. If you want to live here, you have to figure out how to do it. We thought, let’s start a brewery!” Michael explains how four breweries can survive in a small town. "It’s friendly competition; we call it 'co-opetition.' The four of us buy supplies together for more buying power."

Durango is quintessential Colorado, a lovely, small-town setting that offers a taste of big-city culture minus the traffic jams and crowds.

After an hour with these guys I’m convinced that the art of brewing beer rivals the complexity of winemaking. Sipping my way through their sampler menu is like a journey through a fruit market as I taste hints of grapefruit, banana, raspberry, black cherry and peach. With more than 85 different beers offered throughout the year at Carver alone, there’s little chance that beer aficionados will grow bored.

Each Saturday morning from May through October hundreds of locals pour into the parking lot of the First National Bank where the tantalizing aromas of fresh-baked goods, hot coffee and breakfast burritos mingle with the scent of flowers, herbs and handmade soaps. Along one side a jazz band dishes out cool rhythm. The Durango Farmers Market is in full swing.

This popular weekend ritual embodies the town’s community spirit. The Durango Farmers Market is committed to locally grown and produced goods, and everything at the market has been made in the Four Corners area. Vendors such as High Desert Foods use all organic ingredients and locally grown products whenever possible to create decadent delicacies like apricot amaretto muffins, strawberry rhubarb pie and deep chocolate pound cake.

But its biggest draw may be the ambience; the market feels like a neighborhood block party. Friends meet for coffee and pastries before perusing the stands for artisan cheeses, fruits and vegetables, honey, flowers and herbs, baked breads and desserts, wool clothing, tamales and other enticements.

As the town socializes and shops, a live band plays through the morning. Music might be a classical string quartet, or Middle Eastern jazz fusion, or perhaps an Eastern European klezmer-style group. The resulting blend of friends and neighbors, music and local business is pure Durango, and there’s no better place to experience the close-knit community vibe. This is small-town Colorado at its best.

With the nearest interstate highway more than 160 miles away, Durango still feels “out of the way and proud of it.” Life is slower here, and the beauty of the surrounding country has enticed many a visitor to linger, play and explore a piece of Wild West history. A few of them return and stay for good. The rest of us count ourselves lucky just to drop by for a visit.

Eric Lindberg (www.ericlindberg.com) is a freelance writer and photographer based in Lakewood, Colo.

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