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Durango and The San Juan Mountains
Getting to Denver, CO from the Midwest requires driving one of the worst routes in North America; I-80 through Nebraska.
From eastern Iowa its about 11 hours give or take to reach the Front Range but having to suffer through the busy, truck congested interstate through barren and desolate central Nebraska, is one of the worst driving endeavors one can partake in.
To be fair, western Nebraska is actually quite pretty. It has a desert feel with bluffs and small cliffs jutting out of the landscape. Though the eastern and central parts of the state are abhorrent and make expensive plane tickets seem suddenly more budget friendly.
From Denver, many travelers elect to stay in The Front Range region that reaches north to Fort Collins and south to Colorado Springs. While a very scenic region of the State, The Front Range has become increasingly overpopulated through the last 15 years and along with it, the cost of living. The ruggedness that once characterized the region has given way to overcrowding, homelessness issues and even crime.
Though if you drive another 5-7 hours southwest to Durango, in La Plata County, explorer’s can find a beautiful mountain town of about 19,000 with abundant opportunities for adventure.
Durango is the seat of La Plata county and was once home to the Pueblo and Ute Indians before attracting white settlers in the 1860’s.
In 1887, the Strater Hotel was built by a young man named Henry Strater, a pharmacist. This hotel is the clear icon of the downtown Durango on Maine Avenue today.
With help from his family, Strator built the four-story brick hotel at the cost of $70,000 and it opened in 1888. Henry Strater didn’t run the property but leased it to H.L. Rice, and under his management, the hotel soon became known as “the place” of social gathering. Strater’s family occupied a small part of the building. Today, the Victorian Strater Hotel continues to serve guests and is a prominent downtown landmark, located just two blocks north of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Duranglers- Fly Fishing
Durango is famous for its world class fishing and has verified Gold Metal Waters. In order to qualify for this designation, the area must be able to produce a minimum of 12 (14+”) trout per acre, 60 pounds of standing stock, and be accessible to the public. Durango’s Animas River has a four-mile strip of Gold Metal Water between Lightner Creek and Rivera Crossing. Expect rainbows and browns as you’ve never seen. Snag your fishing license from the local Duranglers shop or let them take you out for a full guided day.
Visit Durango Coffee Company
This is by far the best Coffee Shop in Durango and of all Southwest Colorado. Located downtown on Maine Avenue, this is where all the locals gather in the morning for a wake up mug. The atmosphere is signature San Juan Mountain region, with photos of the surrounding range adorning the walls of the shop, along with books from local writers and guides for the region. Established in the 1980s, Durango Coffee company has been roasting unique coffees with beans coming from around the world and has direct connections with farms in Colombia and Brazil.
Explore Mesa Verde National Park
Located about thirty five minutes west of Durango near Hesparus, Mesa Verde National Park is the home of the ancestral cliff and mesa dwellings of THe Pueblo people. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Pueblo began building their civilization and culture here just after the fall of Rome in Europe and inhabited spectacular and elaborate cliff towns up to around the year 1300.
Situated at near 8500ft in elevation, the air here is thin but the surroundings are rugged.
With over 4000 archeological sites in the Park, there are also a few great hiking trails, like The Prater Ridge Trail. The cliff dwellings themselves can only be entered with a Guide or Park Ranger
Purgatory is the place to be during Winter in Southwest Colorado. It may not have the runs like Vail or Breckenridge, it still possess 92 trails and 11 chairlifts. The name Purgatory originates from a witty farmer who lived in the area during the late 1800s and adopted the moniker for a nearby creek, a tributary of the Rio de las Anima Perdidas (the River of Lost Souls), dubbed by Spanish explorers in reference to a group who vanished on the river during Durango’s early history.
- The Base Elevation is 8,793 feet (2,680 meters)
- The Summit Elevation is 10,822 feet (3,299 meters) (That’s over two miles high!)
- Vertical Drop is 2,029 feet (618 meters)
- Skiable Area is 1,525 Acres (617 hectares)
- Our Annual Snowfall at Purgatory is 260 inches (660 centimeters) (That’s over 21 FEET!)
- We can cover 250 acres (21% of the mountain) with our Snowmaking
- We have 11 Lifts serving 92 runs and can get up to 15,050 people to the top of the mountain per hour.
In the summertime, the resort turns into a mountain biking haven, with the trails transforming into rugged cross country routes. The lifts are still available to access the higher part of the mountain.
Climb Mt. Wilson
Mt. Wilson claims an impressive 4,025 ft of prominence from a low saddle at Lizard Head Pass (10,222 ft) that stretches for almost 33 miles to its’ line parent (proximate), Uncompaghre Peak. It is also one of Colorado’s western-most fourteener and consequently, furthest from Denver.
Mt. Wilson and the surrounding wilderness pose massive vertical relief from the thick aspen forests of the low valleys to the almost near vertical cliffs of the alpine.
The ridge line over to “El Diente” is amazing and the singularity of the ridge line from Wilson Peak to Gladstone Peak (named for a British PM, William E. Gladstone, 1809-1898 by a small group of four climbers of whom three were British) is enthralling.
Climb Engineer Mountain
Engineer mountain is just under 13,000 ft and is a beautiful peak just a few miles north of Purgatory ski resort and a little south of Silverton. This is a very popular hike among locals
With about 3,000ft of elevation gain, this is a fairly challenging hike rounding out at 11 miles round trip. The first six miles include a fair share of switchbacks before breaking above treeline where there are beautiful wildflower meadows from June until early autumn. The meadows and aspen trees are also where the potential hazards begin. The sun can be quite strong in the summer time and June and July thunderstorms are common. The route is quite narrow towards the top and requires scrambling along a narrow ridge with plenty of loose scree that can be potentially hazardous if you are inexperienced or dont have good balance.
The old mining town of Silverton, nestled in the valley of San Juan county at over 9000ft in elevation, is now a National Historic Landmark District. Miners discovered gold here in the 1870’s and this attracted hordes of ambitious young men trying to make their fortune.
Today the small town is full of shops, restaurants and bars and historical buildings with relics from America’s post civil war, westward expansion.
You can visit the San Juan County Historical Society’s Mayflower MIll and County Jail.
Silverton is very close to the trailheads of some of Colorado’s most stunning 14er mountains.