From the San Juan Mountains to rafting the Animas River to the hundreds of miles of trails perfect for hiking, cycling, and horseback riding, we’ve got insider tips from local outfitters about how to get the most out of this gorgeous mountain town’s incredible array of outdoor activities.
Ask anyone who lives in Durango, CO, and they’ll tell you that it’s a place where you can get more: More trails within city limits than any other town in the state, more time with family, more time on the trails, rivers, and ski slopes. Just a short drive from the airport, visitors can find nearly infinite vacation opportunities right in town and in the surrounding area, from natural wonders like the San Juan Mountains to rich culture encompassing traditional Native American and Southwestern traditions, a dose of “wild west” history, and a deep culinary scene that will satisfy any appetite. That array of vacation options is one of the reasons that Budget Travel named Durango one of our 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2018.
When we take a look at Durango’s “sweet spot” on the map—on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, offering awe-inspiring 360-degree views, Southwestern sun, and hundreds of miles of trails—we’re inspired to ask some locals for their best outdoor adventure recommendations. With that in mind, we turned to three exceptional Durango outfitters for their “locals know best” secrets—where to bike, paddle, and ride, then grab a bite to eat in and around this mountain paradise.
Adventure at Your Doorstep
“We’ve got exceptional trailhead development right in town,” says John Glover, manager of Mountain Bike Specialists. “That means you can easily reach trails that cover hundreds of miles in the surrounding mountains—visitors don’t usually have that back home.” With the San Juan National Forest to the north and the Animas River running right through city limits, Durango delivers adventure right to you. All you have to do it step in.
Road & Mountain Biking
Plenty of visitors come to Durango just for the incredible cycling opportunities, and the town is home to one of the oldest cycling advocacy groups in the U.S. Whether you’re into road biking or fat tires or you’re still a beginner, the Durango area offers plenty to keep you busy.
“We recommend that newcomers start out on the Horse Gulch Trail system right in town,” says John Glover, because it’s an easy system that allows cyclists to evaluate their skills and comfort level before trying other local trails. “More experienced cyclists may want to try the Colorado Trail, which starts up in the nearby mountains and ends in Durango.” When I asked Glover where an inexperienced cyclist might start (asking for a friend, of course), he suggested the Animas River Trail, a paved trail that runs from the north end of town to the south, a great way to get to know Durango on two wheels.
Durango and its surrounding area offer ample opportunities for hitting the water, from family-friendly lakefront such as Vallecito Lake to thrilling whitewater rafting on the Animas River.
Guided tours of the Animas River range from one hour to most of the day. “The Animas is a great place for people to experience whitewater for the first time,” says David Moler, owner and guide of Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours, which offers two- and four-hour guided river tours. The Animas is rated Class III rapids on a scale of I to V. “It’s a good all-around family-friendly rafting experience,: says Moler. His trips “put in” on the north side of town, near City Market, and “take out” on the south side, near Home Depot, but because Durango Rivertrippers & Adventure Tours has a tribal permit, they are also allowed to continue rafting downstream all the way to beautiful Basin Creek. The whitewater rafting experience is safe and fun, and some paddlers like to navigate the river via whitewater kayaks, which are shorter than those used on lakes or open water.
With San Juan National Forest as its backyard, Durango plays host to some of the finest horseback riding in the U.S. With old west heritage and history at your elbow and great riding outfitters around the corner, you’ve got to hit the trail! A guided horseback tour of the San Juan National Forest is unforgettable. We caught up with Anne Rapp, of Rapp Corral, and asked her to share her favorite place to send visitors on horseback. “Pine River Trail,” she says. “It’s in the wilderness without mountain bike usage,” meaning the horses will feel that they have the trail to themselves. If you’re not quite up for riding but want a classic western horse-related adventure, book a carriage ride that begins at the front steps of Durango’s classic Strater Hotel and takes you up into the mountains.
More Outdoor Fun
With so many miles of trail accessible from town, hiking is, of course, always a good idea. Most of the areas mentioned above for cyclists and horseback riding are also popular with day hikers and backpackers alike. Climbing is also popular up in the San Juan Mountains, and sportsmen prize the opportunities for fishing and hunting in the greater Durango region. Some visitors just want to pile into the car and explore the San Juan Skyway from Durango to Ouray. Others will want to hop a ride on the coal-fired, steam-driven Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad through San Juan National Forest, originally built for the cowboys and miners who populated the towns. Book a scenic Jeep tour in Silverton, and don’t miss Mesa Verde National Park, a little over a half-hour outside of Durango, where you can take a ranger-led tour of the Ancestral Pueblo people’s cliff dwellings and other important sites.
Anne Rapp offers some practical suggestions for outdoor adventurers visiting Durango: “Be prepared for different weather conditions, bring layers everywhere you go, a good pair of walking shoes, a change of clothes in the car, and ample snacks and water in case the road or the trail draws you farther along—after all, nothing is holding you back!”
Food & Drink
When your day’s outdoor adventure is done, you’re going to want to tuck into some great chow and raise a glass, right? More than 100 local restaurants serve up a wide variety of cuisines, something for every taste. John Glover recommends Carver Brewing Company (everyone in town calls it “Carver’s”) for craft beer and affordable, cosmopolitan cuisine that uses local greens and meats. Moler is partial to Diamond Belle Saloon, at the Strater Hotel, not just because of the great food but also because “it feels like stepping back in time.” Anne Rapp heartily recommends Serious Texas and Zia for their affordable prices and great fare.
Whether you’re looking for an iconic hotel experience such as the Strater, or a home rental, cabin, RV hookup, or traditional campsite, Durango has something to suit your needs. Visit Durango.org to start planning your outdoor adventure in one of the Coolest Small Towns in America!
Budget Travel has produced this article for Durango, Colorado. All editorial views are those of Budget Travel alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.