Sometimes the summer heat in Las Cruces makes you want to pack up and visit someplace cooler any place cooler! In July, I visited a spot that not only has a more temperate summer climate, but offers tree-covered mountains, a vibrant river, historic buildings, and lots to do: Durango, Colorado.
I went there with my friend Kelle Hoskins to take part in the Rocky Mountain UkeFest, a ukulele festival held there each July, but knew little about the town hosting the event. I was enchanted with Durango from the moment the highway dipped and gave us our first glimpse of the city. Once we got past the edge-of-town chain stores and businesses and into historic Durango, it was clear to us why we were warned to make our reservations early for this popular destination nestled into the San Juan Mountains.
We weren’t the first to discover the area’s allure. Before the Spanish traveled through here (and labeled rivers and mountains) in the late 1700s, the Ancestral Puebloans and later the Ute had called this home. In 1860, gold was found nearby and adventurers hoping to strike it rich headed for southern Colorado. Nearby Silverton became the center of the mining boom and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad needed to reach it. Durango was actually a planned railroad town built as the local hub in 1880. (Much like the history of Las Cruces and Mesilla, the little town of Animas City was approached by the railroad and asked to donate land for a depot. Animas City turned them down, Durango was built and thrived. Animas City was annexed into Durango in 1848).
Durango was a smelter town from 1882 until 1930, then again from World War II until 1963. Agriculture also grew as an industry and in the 1920s, tourists discovered this beautiful part of the country. Starting in 1950, Hollywood filmmakers found themselves drawn to this enchanting part of southern Colorado. The first film made there was A Ticket to Tomahawk starring Marilyn Monroe … and the railroad. Among the 18 other films shot in the area are Around the World in Eighty Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and City Slickers.
Today, tourists flock to this region rich with history and adventure. The narrow gauge railroad built in the 1880s is still there, but rather than transporting silver ore and materials, it carries tourists as the Durango and Silverton Railroad. Those interested in the area’s early history can visit nearby Mesa Verde National Park’s Ancestral Puebloan structures. Adventurers can kayak, raft, or fly fish in the Animas River, mountain bike, hike, rock climb, go horseback riding or zip lining, take a jeep tour, or ski at Purgatory Ski Resort in winter.
The railroad is a huge tourist draw. About 200,000 people a year take a ride on the train, which offers a variety of choices for visitors, including speciality events such as a Polar Express train, a Peanuts Great Pumpkin Patch Express train, and a fall photographer’s special. If you head up there this month, August 18 – 20 is Railfest, featuring a murder mystery train ride and much more. You can also book adventure excursions or hotel packages. More information in on their website, durangotrain.com. You can visit the station, museum, and gift shop in Durango even if you don’t take a train ride.
Without being an adventurer, you can lose yourself in the historic district, exploring shops and galleries, restaurants, and historic hotels like the imposing Strater, built in 1887 by a pharmacist as a first-class lodging venue. The beautiful Victorian architecture has been lovingly maintained and you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time when you enter the lobby. You can even call up to a visitor’s room using an old crank telephone.
The Strater was such a draw that Western writer Louis L’Amour stayed there with his family every August for over ten years starting in 1966. He’d spend his time either writing part of his Sackett series in his room over the Diamond Belle Saloon or hiking in the nearby mountains. A number of his novels are set in the area, including Mustang Man and Reilly’s Luck. If you book early, you can stay in his room.
The Strater and many historic building are made of brick and stone. Not only are the materials durable, but resist fire, an important consideration to the city after a fire in 1889 that damaged seven blocks on Main Avenue.
The historic part of Durango is very walkable and if you stop by the high-tech welcome center on Main Street, they’ll give you walking tour guides and plenty of other information. Our first day in Durango (remember that ukulele festival?) included a workshop in the tree-shaded Buckley Park, followed by a free community concert that evening, which was part of a summer series hosted by Fort Lewis College. Hundreds of folks, locals and tourists, brought chairs, blankets, and picnic baskets to hear the Leftover Cuties perform their unique style of music. It was a great way to kick off our weekend adventure in Durango.
We chose to walk to the park after we discovered that parking all over Durango is metered. In fact, we didn’t drive the car again until the day we left because every place we visited was within easy walking distance. Plus, when the highs are only in the upper 80s, it is cool enough to enjoy an afternoon stroll.
Strolling, of course, works up an appetite and in our too-short visit, we had time to try out a few local restaurants. We had lunch at the Diamond Belle Saloon at the Strater and were greeted by a waitress in an 1800s saloon girl costume. Although the saloon itself didn’t open until 1957, the attire is appropriate for the hotel’s era. The food was tasty and the service prompt, as we were lucky enough to catch the restaurant between the lunch and dinner rushes. Another day we had lunch at someplace a little more exotic: the Himalayan Kitchen, where we left satisfied after a delicious — and affordable — meal from their Indian/Himalayan buffet.
On Saturday evening, Kelle and I decided to try the largest restaurant in Durango, Steamworks Brewpub, which is celebrating their 20th year. It seats over 200 and was packed when we arrived, so we scooted onto the last stools available at the bar. Of course, Steamworks features a wide assortment of their own beers. We enjoyed the one we tried enough to bring a growler home for my husband.
I ordered nachos that were enough to feed three of my closest friends while Kelle had blackened trout on a bed of mashed sweet potatoes with a side of corn maque choux. She declared it be outstanding. The couple next to us at the bar ordered Steamworks’ signature dinner: the Cajun boil, which (for one) includes half a pound of Alaskan Dungeness crab, a quarter pound of wild Texas shrimp, a quarter pound of Gosar Ranch Andouille sausage, new potatoes, and cob corn tossed in a spicy Cajun seasoning. It is served by placing a large sheet of paper on the table and dumping the contents of the pot onto it. Our neighbors dove into their meal with gusto and proclaimed it delicious.
Another dinner was enjoyed at Gazpacho’s, a Mexican restaurant, which was close to our hotel. It looks small from the front, but has plenty of seating and offers what you’d expect, including Hatch green chile. For breakfast, we visited Durango Bagel, also very close to our hotel. Kelle splurged on a bagel with lox and cream cheese that would have been at home in New York.
Lodging in Durango during the summer busy season can get pricey, but you have a range of options both in the historic downtown area and in the newer sections of town. If staying at a place that is steeped in history is your style, try the Strater Hotel, the Leland House, or the Rochester Hotel. We opted for the nearby Best Western Rio Grande because we could get a room with two queen beds. It has an indoor pool and offers free breakfast and happy hour with complimentary beverages. Most of the chain hotels have something to offer in Durango, or you can rent a cabin or a condo.
Because our long weekend in Durango was packed with ukulele festival events, we didn’t get to go white water rafting, take a trip on the Durango & Silverton Railroad, hike (other than through downtown), explore the agri-tourism opportunities, or do many other things I’m itching to do when I go back next year for an extended visit. (We also didn’t try the newest big business in the area: recreational marijuana, although we spotted several dispensaries where it can be purchased.)
There are a number of special events on Durango’s calendar this fall, from the La Plata County Fair August 10 – 14; San Juan Brewfest August 27; Fall Gallery Walk September 16; Todd & Nedd’s Durango Dirt Fondo for mountain bike riders on September 17 and 18; The Fall Stampede September 17; and the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering September 29 through October 2. So, if the mountains are calling and you find you must go, there will be plenty to keep you busy. And you’ll be nice and cool, too.
When you go:
Population: 17,557 (2013 census)
Travel time from Las Cruces: Seven to eight hours
Durango Welcome Center
802 Main Avenue
801 East Second Avenue
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
479 Main Ave
699 Main Avenue