Outdoor sports and adventure, as well as historical and cultural attractions, make Durango one of the best places to visit in Colorado, for all types of travelers. A walk on the narrow-gauge Durango & Silverton railway through a canyon and the beautiful mountain scenery to the old mining town of Silverton is one of the most popular activities. You can also find plenty to keep you busy wandering through the historic city center, with many of the remaining buildings from the late 1800s. In winter, the nearby Purgatory Ski Resort offers some of the best Colorado skiing. In summer, hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting and other outdoor activities dominate the scene. If you have the time to add a day trip, consider going to Mesa Verde National Park to take a closer look at the homes of the ancient Puebloan cliff.
1. Ride the Silverton and Durango Narrow Gauge Railway
This train ride will probably exceed your expectations. With beautiful old restored cars being pulled by an authentic coal-powered steam engine through a breathtaking narrow mountain canyon, this trip has all the ingredients of a romance novel. Train cruises along the Animas River a lot of ways, as the high mountains above become more imposing as you make your way from Durango to the old mining town of Silverton.
The train runs all year round but in winter it does not go as far as Silverton. Instead, the train stops before the main avalanche zones and allows passengers to disembark at Cascade Canyon, 26 miles from Durango. This trip takes about five hours round trip, with forty-five minutes to enjoy the canyon. In summer, the train travels 45 miles to Silverton. You can make the summer trip like nine hours, a two-way trip by train, with a few hours to explore Silverton or take the train in a direction and a bus back for a shorter day. Alternatively, you can take the train, stay overnight, and then take the train the next day, which will leave you plenty of time to see all the Silverton sites. If you decide to do it as a one-way trip, it’s best to take the train up, to fully appreciate the technical operation of the steam engines, and the return bus rather than the other way around. The train back to Durango is downhill and breaks constantly.
Different classes and styles of cars are available on the train. Open carts with glass roofs protected against UV rays offer an unobstructed view! In winter, glass windows are installed to keep you warm
2. Skiing at the Ski Resort of Purgatory
Purgatory Ski Resort in Durango is like a family mountain, but it’s really a destination for everyone. Huge storms fall to a few inches of snow, creating days of exceptional powder. Beginner and intermediate tracks have always been and still are a big part of Purgatory’s attraction. The resort became a new property in 2015 and since then, major improvements have been made to the mountain and amenities. A brand new water ski area has opened up, with new intermediate and expert slopes, new chairlifts, a new snowmaking capacity and additional cat ski areas.
Purgatory Ski Resort is about a 20-minute drive from Durango City Center. If you do not want to stay in town, you may want to consider the Purgatory Lodge, with ski-in / ski-out access; two to four bedroom units; swimming pool; jacuzzi; and restaurant. It’s a great option for families. For more ideas on where to ski in the state, check out our article on Colorado’s Best Ski Resorts.
You’ll also find all kinds of summer activities at Purgatory, from Purgatory Mountain Bike Park to summer hiking and tubing trails. The summer season starts at the end of May.
3. Explore the Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde, just over an hour from Durango, is one of the most impressive sites in South America. These cliff dwellings, built under huge overhanging rocks, are expansive and include multi-story complexes, with ladders connecting different floors and rooms. They are also surprisingly accessible to visitors. You can access some of these homes directly during a guided tour. If you are not ready for a visit, you can see them from nearby lookouts, which offer impressive views of the remains.
The native colony was at its peak between 800 and 1000 years ago, and the ruins are everywhere in the mesa. The climb to the site takes you to about 2,000 feet, over an altitude of over 8,500 feet. You can take a driving tour on different sites. Make sure you stop at the Visitor Center before you leave for information on the site and road conditions, especially in winter. Alternatively, you can sign up for a Day Trip to Mesa Verde from Durango, with transportation, a guide, lunch and the chance to skip the long queues during high season.
4. Drive the San Juan Scenic Highway and the Million Dollar Highway
San Juan Scenic Drive is a 233-mile route that runs through southwest Colorado, Durango to Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway, Placerville, and Telluride, then Dolores and Mancos to Durango. The Durango-Ouray section is particularly picturesque as it climbs into the mountains and crosses three passes, the highest of which is the red mountain pass at 11,018 feet, before crossing the spectacular Uncompahgre gorge to Ouray. Along the way, you will see the remains of the old Idarado mine, old mine shafts, tailings piles and rusty equipment. The road from Silverton to Ouray is known as the Million Dollar Highway because of the cost of building the road in such a challenging environment.
Driving this section from south to north is considered safer since you are inside most turns. If you head south, you will be outside and closer to the steep cliffs. The road is narrow and winding in sections. The second half of the journey is also impressive but less spectacular. Telluride is a beautiful area and the quaint little town is definitely worth a visit.
5. Hiking Along the Colorado Trail
This fantastic trail stretches just under 500 miles across the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Durango. It is open to non-motorized vehicles and is primarily a race track, hiking and mountain biking. From Durango, many people use this trail for day hikes and mountain biking. The trail begins at Junction Creek, following this creek for about 2.5 miles until it crosses a footbridge, then climbs approximately 600 feet by 1.3 km to Gudy’s Rest, a popular lookout. Depending on the activity you are looking for, it is best if hikers return to the bridge or, if you feel ready for the climb, continue to Gudy’s Rest, then turn around. Mountain bikers tend to keep going. For a great combination of cycling and hiking, bike up to the bridge, then climb the ramps to Gudy’s Rest, returning the same way.
6. Head Outdoors in San Juan National Forest
The 1.8 million square kilometers of the San Juan National Forest is Durango’s playgrounds. Located just north of the city, this vast expanse of ponderosa pines, snow-capped mountains, and fast-flowing rivers is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. Hiking, biking, camping, snowmobiling, skiing, and rafting are just a few of the many things to do all year round in this beautiful mountain reserve. You can explore the beauty of this wilderness by taking the San Juan Scenic Highway.
7. Hit the Mountain Bike Tracks
You can find all kinds of great mountain bike trails in Durango and the surrounding mountains. From downtown, look into the Horse Gulch area, home to over 30 miles of trails. The famous Colorado Trail starts on the outskirts of the city, quickly takes you to the mountains for fabulous views and incredible hikes. If you have not adjusted to the altitude yet, or are here in the spring before the mountain trails open, check out Aztec, New Mexico, and the Alien Run Bike Trail. In addition to being the site of a UFO’s apparent crash in the 1940s, it’s also a fun 10-mile loop trail with single-track sections and Slickrock. Alternatively, venture to Cortez, about 50 minutes from Durango, for a stroll on Phil’s World, known for its curving loops and panoramic views.
8. Raft Down the Animas River
Rafting down the Animas River in Durango is a fun way to spend a spring day. The river has class 1-to 5 rapids; the lower Animas River has the smaller and easier rapids, the Upper Animas River has the more intense and difficult ones. Various options are available depending on how far you want to go, how large a raft you’d like, and how much you are willing to pay. On the Lower Animas River, the city of Durango has recently created a specialized water park within the river with viewing platforms and man-made rapid features, including the Smelter Rapid. If you are visiting with a family or inexperienced group, consider a 4.5-hour family-friendly rafting trip down the Lower Animas River, which allows children ages four and up to participate. For something a little more adventurous, try a full-day rafting trip on the Upper Animas Silverton Section.
9. Discover History at the D&SNGRR Railroad Museum
The Railroad Museum isn’t just another train museum, although you can learn all about steam engines here. This unique museum features an eclectic mix of items, with everything from antique cars to a solar-powered car, as well as antique farm equipment, covered wagons, models, mounted animals, and a variety of other random pieces. You can walk right up into the engineer’s cab of a steam engine, see deep inside the firebox, and view all the gauges, knobs, and levers. If you have any questions, a staff member will be more than pleased to share their deep and passionate knowledge with you. The museum is a bit tricky to find; if a train is in the station, you will need to walk to the very front of the train, past the hissing steam engine, and cross the tracks. The museum will be slight to your left. Admission is free.
10. Walk Through the Historic City Center
Durango dates to the 1880s and was an important center during the mining days. The streets of Durango, once plied by horse and carriage, still, maintain some of their grand historic structures. One of the most impressive historical buildings is the Strater Hotel, where Louis L’Amour wrote several of his books and where both JFK and Gerald Ford have stayed in rooms you can still rent today. The exquisite woodwork and detail in this 1880s and 1890s Victorian treasure are fascinating. Also be sure to have a look at the 1898 General Palmer Hotel and the landmark Palace Restaurant, also from the 1890s. You can take a walking tour of downtown Durango to fully appreciate the buildings and the history.
11. On Foot or by Bike Along the Animas River Trail
The Animas River Trail is a paved trail that runs along the river for seven miles. Along the way you will find interpretive plaques, public art and peaceful places to watch the water flow. The trail is paved and suitable for cycling, walking, running and wheelchair-friendly. Depending on the time of year, you’ll see fishermen, whitewater rafters, kayakers or even people floating on tubes laughing and having fun. The trail crosses several pleasant parks, including Rotary Park, Schneider Park, Skateboard Park and the Fish and Wildlife Museum. The most scenic part of the trail runs from the Durango Recreation Center to the overpass of Highway 160.
12. Try Climbing or Bouldering
With climbing finally debuting as an Olympic event at the 2020 Olympics, this sport is growing in popularity, and Durango is the perfect place to break into the scene or explore new routes. The sandstone bluffs of the Animas River Valley and the granite walls of the San Juan Mountains are what climbers come to enjoy. You’ll find great places for climbing and bouldering just outside of Durango. On the edge of town is Dalla Mountain Park, although most people call it Sailing Hawks, and this is where much of the action is centered. If you are interested in lessons or want more information on where to go or how to get started, stop by the Rock Lounge climbing gym.
13. Learn More About Nature at Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Museum
The Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Museum is a seasonal attraction (summer only) located just behind the Animas River near 16th Street. A fun outing for the family, you can see how 1.25 million fish are bred for release in Colorado’s waterways. Fish feeding is encouraged and food is provided at a very low cost. The hatchery has four species of trout (Colorado Cutthroat, Snake River Rainbow, Rainbow and Brown) in the raceways and also in a special pond for big fish. Next door is the Wildlife Museum, where various exhibits show animals from southwestern Colorado. Admission is free for both, although donations are appreciated.