Durango Rocks All Year Round

“Wait a minute,” you say. “You promised us a beautiful mountain drive and we’re still in Durango.” Yes, I know. But it’s so hard to tear yourself away from Durango when there’s so much to see and do here. Did you know that Durango has more restaurants per capita than San Francisco…more coffee shops per capita than Seattle…and more brewpubs per capita than Munich? You may doubt those assertions, but the best way to check them out is to come here and eat, drink, and be merry.

Recently dubbed the “City of Brewerly Love,” Durango boasts four home-grown microbreweries that craft award-winning beers, ales, and lagers. It also rivals Telluride for most outdoor festivals.  Festival Season gets off to a great start in May when Durango’s restaurants and breweries collaborate to present the annual “Taste of Durango” street fair. Plenty of gourmet fare is washed down with Durango’s finest brews and accompanied by hometown bands make for a great day!  And perhaps best of all, the proceeds are donated to Manna Soup Kitchen to help feel those in need.

Once the chefs return to their kitchens, other spring and summer festivals and events can hold you in the town.  Other festivals on the annual calendar include:  Durango Independent Film Festival (March); Music in the Mountains (July-August); Durango Cowboy Gathering (fall); and the Snowdown Winter Carnival (Jan-February).

Outdoor activities abound in and around Durango.  Once spring thaws swell the Animas River, rafters mass to fight the currents. Sundresses make their appearance in the streets, replacing fleece. Restaurant patios open allowing patrons to lounge in the warm sun. Bikers zoom through town preparing for the Memorial Day Iron Horse Bicycle Classic in which bicyclers race over the 28 miles to Silverton, including two mountain passes, trying to beat the train. The local mountain trails, which have been closed all winter to allow elk, deer, and other mountain game to forage in the snow for food, have reopened and now beckon to hikers.

We can’t talk about Durango without mentioning its art galleries, live music, and performing arts.  The thriving Durango arts scene belies the size of the town.  Galleries line Main Street featuring anything from Western art to the latest in abstract art.  Live performances are available year round.  Why not try your hand at learning the Texas Two-step at the Wild Horse saloon?  Whatever your taste, you can find something to suit you in Durango.

All in all, Durango is a pleasant place to be in spring, summer, winter or fall.   Why not come visit?

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Durango – A Railroad Town

Durango’s best known attraction was also its raison d’être. The Denver & Rio Grande Railway arrived in Durango on August 5, 1881 and immediately began construction of a narrow gauge line to connect with the mining town of Silverton. It wasn’t long before the new line was delivering supplies and fortune-seekers to the scattered mines of the San Juan and returning with ore rich in silver, gold and other minerals. Now, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNG) not only connects Durango with the mountain village of Silverton, it connects Durango with its past, a past intimately associated with the individualism, and bustling optimism of the Old West.

Railroad enthusiasts come from all over the world to ride the historic coal-fired, steam-powered train through the backcountry wilderness of the San Juan Mountains. After the snow melts, Durango residents throw open their doors, welcome the warmth of spring, and celebrate the wailing steam whistle of D&SNG as it carries its load of tourists, hikers, and adventurers up the Animas Valley with its magnificent views of canyons and peaks, and brings them back to enjoy the many amenities of Old Town Durango.

In town, the D&SNG Museum offers a glimpse of the past glory of the railroads. In the past few years, the D&SNG has also added a variety of coaches, giving passengers a choice between many coach configurations from Standard seating to the Silver Vista glass-roofed observation car and private cars outfitted in Victorian splendor. You can now even experience a day in the life of a steam engineer and fireman in the cab of a locomotive or ride the rails with a Maintenance of Way crew member in a motorized track car.

Special trains have become more numerous every year; the 2011 schedule includes a Native American Heritage Train, Independence Day Express, the annual Fall Photo Train and a Day out with Thomas for the kids. The most popular train with families has become the Polar Express trains which take children and parents (all encouraged to dress in jammies) to Santa’s village.  The D&SNG also has a distinguished past as a Hollywood movie star having played a prominent part in such movies as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Around the World in 80 Days.

If, however, you can’t ride the train during your visit to Durango, you can at least settle into the patio of the Palace Restaurant and watch the trains come and go. No visit to the Four Corners is complete without at least paying tribute to the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

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The Grand Old Dame of Durango

The Strater Hotel, the Grand Old Dame of Durango, dominates the view on Main Street. The original hotel was built by a young Cleveland pharmacist, Henry Strater, in 1887. Henry, a minor at the time, had to lie about his age in order to get a loan. The hotel thrived during the silver boom of the late 1800’s, becoming popular especially during the winter as locals shut up their homes and wintered at the hotel. It became “the” place for local events, and it still claims that title in the 21st century.

The silver panic of 1895 ended the boom times and the hotel was sold to a local couple who managed to keep it going during the tough economic spell. The Barker family first became involved in the Strater’s ownership in 1926; Rod Barker, the current owner, has lovingly continued his family’s care of the hotel, adding to the hotel’s extensive collection of Victorian furniture and maintaining a standard of customer service unmatched anywhere. Any Durango experience should include a stay at the Strater Hotel. You can read more about the history of the hotel including its connection to Mesa Verde and Western author Louis L’Amour on the hotel’s web site: www.strater.com.

You could spend all of your time at the Strater during your stay in Durango and not go away disappointed. With its comfortable rooms, antique décor, two bars (the Diamond Belle serving up large doses of the honky-tonk Old West and the Office Spiritorium offering a sheik Victorian meeting place, both popular with locals), and award-winning restaurant (the Mahogany Grill) you can let the town of Durango come to you. The Strater’s kitchen, one of the best in Durango, serves all three venues as well as a generous hot breakfast to guests each morning. You don’t even have to leave the property to enjoy the Western Melodrama at the Henry Strater Theatre and an evening gun fight in the Diamond Belle. What better way to start your La Plata adventure?

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A Good Beginning

Former Animas City School

Animas Museum

“Surely a good beginning is more than half the whole,” Aristotle tells us. Beginning your journey on the San Juan Skyway in the town of Durango certainly qualifies as a good beginning. Durango represents all of the superlative attributes of Southwest Colorado and the San Juan Mountains. Maybe the best description of Durango was given by local Durango Herald columnist Mike Smedley in his 14 Feb 11 column: “Durango is a train town, a ski town, a college town, a kayak town, a boomtown, an energy town, a tourist town, a cowboy town, a mountain town, a cycling town—a town of a thousand faces and innumerable possibilities. Durango is a place so many aspire to and a place so many draw inspiration from.” With all of those aspects, Durango is a place that’s easy to make your own.

As the quote indicates, Durango was first and foremost a train town. Founded in 1881 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG), the railway came to the area to service the San Juan mining district. Originally, the D&RG planned to put their depot in Animas City, an already established town north of the current Railway depot, but Animas City politely declined to pay D&RG’s fee for establishing their depot there. The old Animas City has since been incorporated into Durango’s city limits, and the old Animas City School has become the Animas Museum, commemorating the early settlers in the area. The town was named for Durango, Mexico, which was, in turn, named for Durango, Spain. The word Durango originates from the Basque word urango meaning “water town.”

And so, let our San Juan Skyway journey begin in the best of all possible towns:  Durango, Colorado.

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The Skyway Highway

Map of the San Juan Skyway

Travel in the San Juan Mountains has never been an easy proposition, but wherever gold can be found, man will manage to go. Miners in search of their fortunes trekked through “them-thar hills” using mules and horses; all of the major towns in the area were once old mining camps. Mule trails, wagon roads and narrow gauge railways connected the camps to deliver goods and carry out ore. The original stretch of what is now known as the Million Dollar Highway was a toll road developed by Otto Mears in 1883 to connect Ouray to Ironton; a second toll road was later built to connect Ironton to Silverton. That toll road stretch which spans Red Mountain Pass was rebuilt in the 1920’s and has since gained a reputation as being one of the most difficult stretches of road in the world to drive. Its narrow two lanes feature many hairpin turns and steep drop-offs with no guardrails. Driving this stretch of roadway never fails to result in white-knuckled drivers. The entire Skyway consists of a 379 km loop connecting the Southwest Colorado towns of Durango, Silverton, Ouray, Ridgeway, Telluride, Rico, Dolores, and Mancos. In addition to these interesting and friendly Victorian mining towns, sights along the way include 14,000 snow-capped peaks, pleasant mountain trout streams, colorful aspen forests, and ancient pueblo ruins. In 1988, the San Juan Skyway was the first U.S. highway to receive the designation of National Scenic Byway. Scenery, history, adventure–the San Juan Skyway offers something for everyone.

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…and then came the people

It wasn’t until about 10,000 years ago, when Paleo Indians migrated from the North, that people began to occupy the rugged San Juan mountain range.  They were followed quite a bit later (ca 1200 CE) by Native Americans who are known today as Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning “Ancient Enemies.”  Today’s Pueblo Indians of New Mexico are believed to be the direct descendants of these peoples.   Known for their elaborate cliff dwellings, for which Mesa Verde National Park is noted, the Anasazi were adept at irrigation, pottery, and astronomical observation.  For reasons yet to be understood, although drought is thought to be the most plausible reason, the Anasazi abandoned their settlements sometime during the 13th century and migrated south.

Circa 1500 CE (although this time frame is disputed)  the Ute Indians began to arrive in the Four Corners region.  The term “Ute” is used to identify seven separate bands of peoples who roamed throughout Southwest Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah.   Hunters and gatherers, the Utes took quite readily to the horses introduced by the Spanish explorers, and greeted those first European visitors with civility; however, as happened throughout the territory now known as the United States, the Native American people had met with a force which appeared to be unstoppable.  On September 13, 1873, after lengthy negotiations, Chief Ouray and a council of Ute Indian tribal leaders signed the Brunot Treaty, handing over a 4-million-acre tract of the San Juan Mountains to the U.S. Government.  The way was opened for a flood of newcomers in search of….gold!

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The Mountains

The San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado (which give the San Juan Skyway its name) are special.  The early Ute Indians believed they were the handiwork of gods.  Whoever or whatever sculpted them used a special pallet. Geologists theorize that their formation began over 2 billion years ago during the Precambrian era when intense movement of the tectonic plates created stresses within the earth’s crust which slowly pushed the Rockies skyward.  The Colorado Rockies are in fact, according to scientists, continuing to stretch towards the sun at the rate of about an inch a year.   Subsequent to their initial formation, periods of calm and upheaval alternated in the area of the Rockies, grinding up and shifting the rocks and producing basins for inland seas.  Sedimentary deposits formed which today provide some of the most beautiful red rock cliff vistas in the Animas and Delores River valleys.

Mancos shale, which provided the foundation for Mesa Verde, was also deposited on ancient sea bottoms, along with the aptly named cliffhouse sandstone.  About 40 million years ago, great volcanoes erupted in the San Juan Range, adding to the awe-inspiring beauty of this Rocky Mountain range.  Red Mountain, which gets its namesake color from oxidized minerals within the rock, was created from lava flows, as were the mountains surrounding Telluride.

To all of this geologic activity, we owe the richness of the mineral wealth of the San Juans.   Cracks formed in the bedrock allowed mineral-laced solutions to percolate up from the earth’s hot center and harden into rich veins of ore.  Calderas, collapsed volcanic cones, provide miners with exceptionally rich areas in which to find and exploit veins of gold, silver and other metals.

Explorer John Charles Fremont first saw the ragged silhouettes of the San Juan’s in 1848 and described them in a letter to his wife as “one of the highest, most rugged and impracticable of all the Rocky Mountain Ranges, inaccessible to the trappers and hunters even in the summer time.”   What will you say when you drive through the rugged peaks, steep valleys, and wildflower-laden meadows of the San Juan Skyway?

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