Quirky and out of the way, this town oozes adventure and winters are on fire
By Brandon Mathis
Long known for its carefree nature and eclectic blend of true grit and hedonism, Durango, Colorado, sits on the heels of two distinct landscapes – the mountains and the desert. Drive west and sandstone towers erupt across the desert floor and red rock canyons unfold. Drive an hour north and the San Juan Mountains burst over the skyline.
What this means is that driven locals are adept at embarking on any number of adventures at any given time. With a mild climate pushing 270 days of sunshine a year, for those who are ready, even in the winter it’s anything goes. You can wrap up a snowy epic trip in the San Juans and have your toes in the desert sand a few hours later.
But even if you don’t want to drive, there is plenty here for recreationalists of all types.
“In Durango, you can walk out your front door and go backpacking, mountain biking, trail running, climbing, or kayaking within minutes,” said Margaret Hedderman, a writer and director of marketing for local outdoor gear shop Backcountry Experience. After hiking across New Zealand on the Te Araroa Trail, Hedderman has been exploring the Four Corners. It’s a part of the country where the landscape takes dramatic turns with a little windshield time.
“And that’s not to mention what’s within a three-hour radius,” she said. “The proximity and availability of outdoor recreation is incredible, so it’s no wonder why so many people choose to make this their home.”
A winter day in Durango
Grab breakfast at Carver Brewing Co. on Main Avenue, a chic bakery-turned-brewpub with a fantastic menu.
Head north to Purgatory, Durango’s darling ski area. At 1,600-plus skiable acres, it’s no giant by Colorado standards, but this rolling mountain and its 12 lifts can be straight up off the hook on good snow days. Ideal aspen and conifer glade skiing on cascading terrain with views that don’t quit make Purg a no-brainer for fun. Thanks to one industrious local, the mountain is home to an impressive amount of custom log features in the trees, so get your jib on off the lift. Or book a cat trip with Purgatory Snowcat Adventures. With one of the biggest permitted areas in the country, there is plenty of terrain to slay. Powder. Guaranteed.
If you’re looking for something a little more off-piste, then look west to the La Plata Mountains or roll on north into the San Juan Mountains where the easily accessible backcountry is considered some of the best in the nation. You’ll see why as you carve around bends in the Million Dollar Highway section of U.S. Highway 550 – from Silverton to Ouray – is named for the million dollar views. But don’t get out of your car without avalanche gear and a good idea of the current snow conditions. All that skiing is in some touchy terrain. Know Before You Go, check in with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center about the conditions for the northern and southern San Juan zones or hit up any number of guiding outfits in the area like Kling Mountaineering or San Juan Mountain Guides.
For cross-country skiers and snowshoers, head for Andrews Lake or Molas Pass Winter Recreation Area, where miles of trail are laid out and it’s easy to find your own adventure.
Fat bikers can find trails in any direction in Durango since this historical cycling community keeps cranking all winter long. Head to Overend Mountain Park, named for local resident and cycling legend Ned Overend who helped secure the acreage from being developed, or spin over to Horse Gulch on the southeast side of town, and swing by Velorution Cycles at the trailhead.
“It definitely qualifies as ‘out your back door,’” said Alec Mayes about trail access during Durango’s winter months. Mayes is mechanic at Velorution, a shop in town specializing in fat biking, an activity he said has more versatility than other winter trail endeavors. “(Fat bikes) can do more technical singletrack stuff. Where the snow ends, your ride doesn’t have to.”
Time things right for the Silverton Whiteout. Or if you’d rather stay skinny, the road riding is also world class year-round.
You better run
Like any mountain town filled with passionate athletic die-hards hell bent on having a daily epic adventure for lunch, Durango sees a bit of this-trail-isn’t-big-enough-for-the both-of-us, but increasingly everyone is getting along. Case in point: Trail runners love fat bikers, especially in winter because they do a great job packing down the snow on some of the city’s quintessential singletrack.
“I’ve been out at 6 a.m. and a fat biker got there before me. and I’m like, ‘Sweet,’” said Joey Schrichte of Durango Running Co. “There are so many people that don’t ski. They’re going to whatever trails are open in the winter and they are (trail) running.”
Climbers often find warm temps in the sun at local crags like East Animas or Golf Wall, but even at higher elevations the sun warms the limestone routes in Cascade Canyon, where you can climb rock in the sun and ice in the shade. If you’re a go-getter, rise early and grab a route at the incomparable Ouray Ice Park, scenic day trip over three mountain passes: Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain. Don’t scoff. Die-hards do it every weekend. Or if a white-knuckle ride over Red Mountain Pass isn’t for you, head up just outside Silverton and sample a selection of natural alpine ice. Bring your grit. You’ll need it.
Durango is located in the in the southwest corner of Colorado in a region known as the Four Corners, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet.
Population: About 18,500 (according to 2018 U.S. Census stats)
Economy: Tourism, education, health care, retail service and technology
Median household income: About $60,000 (according to 2017 Census stats)
Media home price: $422,000.
Climate: Known for its sunshine (about 266 days of sun each year, more than two months more of sunshine than the national average). Durango gets about 80 inches of snow each winter, with far more at neighboring higher elevations.
Grand Junction Regional Airport: 14 miles
Albuquerque Sunport: 158 miles
Denver International Airport: 249 miles
Durango/La Plata County Airport: 14 miles
Albuquerque: 214 miles
Denver: 337 miles
Salt Lake: 390 miles
Phoenix: 455 miles
Los Angeles: 775 miles
Dallas: 860 miles