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A Locals' Guide to Outdoor Adventures in Durango, CO

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
April 5, 2019
Durango Rafting Lower Animas
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.

Watersports

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.

Horseback Riding

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.

Lodging

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.

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Adventure

7 Crazy-Thrilling Zip Lines We Dare You to Ride

Zip lines channel that same sensation as a roller-coaster—all while zooming past Mother Nature’s finest. But today’s rides are pushing the limits, getting faster, steeper, and longer as more destinations add zip lines as a way to explore. Here are seven options around the United States that could give even the most extreme adrenaline junkie a fix. 1. Royal Gorge Cloudscraper: Cañon City, Colorado Built in 1929, the Royal Gorge Bridge ranks as the highest suspension bridge in the U.S., clocking in at 955 feet high and 1,260 feet long. Many visitors are content to view the canyon from the overpass, but for a different—and even higher—canyon view, the hands-free zip line gives visitors the chance to hurtle from one side of the gorge to the other. The single-ride line extends 2,350 feet at a height of about 1,200 feet and can reach speeds as high as 40 miles per hour. (Open seasonally; royalgorgebridge.com) 2. Mammoth Mega Zip: Mammoth Mountain, California Beginning in the summer of 2019, the Mammoth Mega Zip will catapult riders down the steepest zip line in the country, courtesy of a 2,100-foot vertical drop. Zip line riders take the resort’s mountainside gondola up to the launching pad, which is sits 11,053 feet in the air. Once there, riders choose between going down the zip line seated or Superman-style. (Translation: on their stomach). The zip line’s design, with side-by-side cables, lets riders race a friend at speeds that can top 60 miles per hour. (Open seasonally; mammothmountain.com) 3. MEGA ZIPS: Louisville, Kentucky Ranging from about 100 to 165 feet below Louisville, one of the largest caverns in the U.S. and a former limestone quarry has been transformed into the only fully underground zip line course in the world. The Louisville Mega Cavern includes the MEGA ZIPS, where riders don mining helmets, fully equipped with lights, to trek through the two-and-a-half-hour tour, which includes six zip lines and two bridges. Ceiling heights within the cave reach anywhere from 70 to 90 feet, including one stretch where you can race the person next to you on a dual line. (Open year-round; louisvillemegacavern.com) 4. X-Tour + SuperZip: Hocking Hills, Ohio Hocking Hills sits in the uppermost corner of the Ohio Appalachia, dotted with state parks. The Hocking Hills Canopy Tours makes the most of this idyllic location, offering various types of zip lines. For the most heart-pounding experience, combine the X-Tour with the SuperZip. The X-Tour plunges from one tree platform to the next (11 in all), with one zip halfway through the tour that goes right through a waterfall and ends in a recessed cave. After the tour, wind your way up the 85-foot tower to take the one-line SuperZip down the hillside. Expert riders can reach speeds up to 45 to 50 miles per hour. (Open seasonally; hockinghillscanopytours.com) 5. Stowe ZipTour: Stowe Mountain, Vermont Glide down a mountainside on this three-line zip course, starting near the summit of Vermont’s highest peak, Mount Mansfield. Riders start at the top of the Stowe Mountain Ski Resort, first hooking into the ominously named Nosedive Zip, the third-longest continuous line in the country with a 4,462-foot span. The course's two other lines are equally impressive, with lengths measuring 2,247 and 3,484 feet. (Open seasonally; stowe.com) 6. Icy Strait Point ZipRider: Hoonah, Alaska Beyond the thrill of soaring along one of the world’s longest zip lines, extending two miles down an Alaskan mountain, riders can also watch for area wildlife like grizzly bears, eagles, deer, or even whales in the distance. Most riders make their way to Hoonah via the cruise ships that dock here, not far from Glacier Bay National Park. The zip line, which starts at a point higher than the Empire State Building, is the only one in the world to include six side-by-side cables, so riders can go down in groups. (Open year-round; icystraitpoint.com) 7. HeliZippin’ Volcano: Hilo or Kona, Hawaii Speeding over a tropical jungle is just part of the fun at the HeliZippin’ experience at KapohoKine Adventures on the Big Island. First, guests board a helicopter to get an aerial view of the Kilauea Volcano before whizzing through the landscape on the 8-line zip course. Riders pass over multiple waterfalls on course, the longest of which spans 2,400 feet. From the zip line, visitors then hike with a ranger-trained guide through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Open year-round; kapohokine.com)

Adventure

14 Scary Places You Should Definitely Visit

Don't get us wrong: You should most definitely visit each and every one of these one-of-a-kind vacation spots. After all, they include some of America's most beautiful national parks, beaches, and mountains. But be aware that your risk of being bitten by a shark, swept out to sea, mauled by a bear, or blown off a winding ridge trail are just a little bit greater here than it is back home. 1. CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK, UT Canyonlands is in the incredibly beautiful but treacherous area where Aron Ralston famously amputated his own right arm when it got pinned under a boulder. Ralston, the subject of the James Franco film 127 Hours, had the right idea: Searches and rescues in this remote desert region—where visitors routinely fall off ledges or are overcome by heat and dehydration—can take days. 2. HAWAII VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, HI On the Big Island, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to Kilauea, which still spews hot ash and lava into the sea. Follow the advice of rangers and signage and you’ll get a scary-but-safe peek at this hothead in action. 3. VOLUSIA COUNTY, FL This coastal community has more recorded shark attacks than anywhere else on earth. Yep. Sounds crazy, no? But this stretch of beach is shark central. The good news: If you do get bitten here, it almost certainly won’t be fatal—no previous shark attack here has ever killed a swimmer. 4. THE MAROON BELLS, CO In the beautiful Elk Mountains, the Maroon Bells have earned the nickname the “deadly bells,” but even expert climbers are slow to perceive the danger here. Deceptively easy climbing can lead people into tight spots and weak rocks that break away unexpectedly. 5. DENALI NATIONAL PARKS, AK Listen up: If you keep your distance from the grizzlies, you’ll be fine. But Denali National Park is crawling with massive bears and you’ve got to keep your food packed up, never hike alone, and stay away from the mama bears and cubs. A fatal mauling in recent years got lots of press because the victim photographed the bear that attacked him. Don’t do that. 6. YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA Yosemite offers some super-safe tour experiences and also some super-risky adventures. Iconic Half Dome is a popular, and relatively easy, climb—but unfortunately that has led to crowding, carelessness, and visitors falling to their deaths. 7. ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, CO Like Yosemite and other popular climbing destinations, it’s perfectly safe to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, but those who venture up Long’s Peak—with its narrow paths, rock slides, and risk of lightning strikes—risk becoming the annual visitor (on average) who does not descend alive. 8. KALALAU, KAUAI, HAWAII Kalalau, on Kauai in Hawaii, poses multiple dangers, including narrow paths at dizzying heights and beaches so treacherous that more than 100 people have drowned here to date. 9. GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, AZ Even if you don’t get lost like the Brady kids or swept off a whitewater rafting excursion, the spectacular Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail may lure you in. It appears deceptively easy, but temperatures climb to 110 degrees and getting back can be tricky for those who don’t pace themselves and carry water. 10. MOUNT WASHINGTON, NH Mount Washington is a surprisingly hideous experience for those who don shorts and a T-shirt for a quiet stroll. The highest wind speed ever recorded on earth was here: 231 miles per hour. Temperatures at the summit have never been warmer than 72 degrees, and you run risk like getting blown off the ridges, hypothermia, and, yikes, avalanches. 11. HANAKAPIAI, KAUAI, HAWAII Hanakapiai, on Kauai’s Napali Coast, Hawaii, is a gorgeous beach that’s not only famous for lovely photographs of the breakers but also for pix of a hand-carved wooden sign that reads: DO NOT GO NEAR THE WATER. UNSEEN CURRENTS HAVE KILLED VISITORS. 12. OAHU HAWAII Oahu boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the world—and it's a safe and beautiful place to visit! But Oahu's scenic waves and rocks make some beaches treacherous places to take a dip. Stick to lifeguarded, well-populated areas (Waikiki is the most obvious, and popular). 13. MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK, WA Mount Rainier is home to an active volcano that last erupted only a little over a century ago. The park poses risks of mud flows and “glacial outburst floods,” which can damage roads, campgrounds, and, um, hikers. As with any national park, arm yourself with ranger know-how and obey the signage and you should be fine. 14. YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WY & MT Don’t worry: If the “supervolcano” under Yellowstone blows its top, the disturbance to hiking trails, campgrounds, and roads may seem minor compared with the fact that the eruptions could cover most of the United States in thick ash. Scientists peg the risk at about 1 in 10,000. We don’t mind those odds.

National ParksAdventure

Don't Miss This National Park's Live BearCam

Want to escape to Alaska without leaving home? We've been having a blast checking out the live BearCam at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park, Alaska. THE COOLEST WEBCAM IN THE NPS? Each fall, Katmai's live web camera sends streaming video of Alaska brown bears (gigantic relatives of the grizzly) as they visit Brooks Falls to catch salmon. An ever-growing body of fans are apparently as ravenous for up-close views of the bears as the bears themselves are for the fresh fish they catch at the falls. OTHER GREAT NPS WEBCAMS We heartily recommend that you check out the BearCam at Explore.org, but we also want to pass on some links to webcams at other national parks that we've come to love. More than any reading material, the images available from these national parks may make you want to fill a backpack and hit the trails. Here's a starter kit for anyone interested in diving into as many parks in the shortest possible amount of time.Glacier National Park provides views of Apgar Lookout, an overview from Apgar Mountain of the North Fork area of the park; Apgar Village, with its visitor center, shops, and restaurants; and Lake McDonald, allowing you to stand at the pebbled shore and look out at the park's highest peaks, which are sometimes reflected in the lake and sometimes shrouded in clouds. (nps.gov/glac)Yellowstone National Park links to a collection of webcams offering a view of Old Faithful Geyser from the spectacular visitor education center, which opened in 2010; a view of the Upper Geyser Basin, including the geyser itself; and Mount Washburn, a view that is used to track fires (this camera is typically turned to a default view at the end of fire season). (nps.gov/yell)Yosemite National Park provides images of a number of the park's most popular sites, including Yosemite Falls, which is actually a combination of three falls (Upper Yosemite Fall, Middle Cascades, and Lower Yosemite Fall); Half Dome, including a view of the Yosemite Valley from nearby Yosemite Village; and Half Dome from 8,000 feet, taking in the High Sierra as well. (nps.gov/yose)Grand Canyon National Park links to just one webcam of the park, which is currently undergoing maintenance, but it's worth checking back for the amazing view when the camera is back online. The camera is meant to provide weather and air quality information, but also serves to whet the appetite of future visitors and to remind former visitors of what makes this place like no other on earth. In addition, the site provides links to live webcams of the San Francisco Peaks and other vistas in nearby Flagstaff, Arizona. (nps.gov/grca)Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides images of iconic spots in this popular park, including a view from Purchase Knob to the northeast; and Look Rock, at the western edge of the park. (nps.gov/grsm)

Adventure

Confessions of a Former White-Water Rafting Guide

PJ Stevenson, white-water rafting guide turned director of marketing for West Virginia's Adventures on the Gorge, has spent nearly a quarter-century in the industry, and she's seen it all, from bachelor-party hijinx to aquaphobic guests to nonagenarian regulars. Here, she unpacks the best, worst, and most bizarre things she's seen on the job.  How did you discover you were destined for this line of work? I came to West Virginia with my mom to go rafting when I was 14. And that was kind of it. I told her when we were leaving to go home that I needed to be a guide when I was old enough. Not that I wanted to, but needed to. When I was 18, I applied for guide training and was accepted. That was 24 years ago, and I’ve never questioned that this was where I was meant to be. Destiny is a funny thing. I had no intention of working in marketing for a river company. However, there was one fateful day on the river when I hit a rock and broke my leg, which led to light duty work in the office. The following year, I continued to guide but also took on some office responsibilities. After a company merger, I landed in the marketing department, where I’m now the director of marketing. It’s really cool to be able to do this job and still be able to go rafting if I want to!  What do you love about guiding? River people (and outdoor folks, in general) are really amazing. There’s a very strong bond among our staff and the community, unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. That, combined with having the river gorge as your office and a stream of vacationers with one goal in mind—fun—makes guiding and being a part of this business very fulfilling. Being there for guests while they experience the crazy adventures we offer here for the first time brings back memories of my first river trip. It makes me appreciate the path I’ve chosen. My niece will tell you that my job is as a convincer, and that I go to work every day to convince people to come have fun in the Big Nature, as she likes to call it. If that were really an official job description, I’d chose it every time. And I get to wear flip flops to work every day. What’s not to love? What's the biggest surprise you've experienced?  I’ve been in the outdoor industry for 25 years, so it’s safe to say not much surprises me anymore! One foggy morning, I get to the dam (where the Upper Gauley begins) to meet my crew for the day. We had a single guest who was afraid of water and decided that he was going to go rafting to cure his fear. He chose to do the toughest section of whitewater we have, not once, but twice in the same day and paid extra for the smallest raft that we have. It was just me and him in the boat, which makes it more challenging. In the middle of Pillow Rock Rapid, a Class V, he fell out and went deep. His life jacket popped him back up and he looked for me with great big eyes and a smile and said, “I think I’m cured!” (I don’t recommend this as a cure, but it sure was fun that day.) What's the strangest thing you've experienced? What's the funniest?  Adventures on the Gorge, by its very nature, draws out the fun (and sometimes weird!). Guests come for all kinds of reasons and to celebrate just about anything. It’s not uncommon to see men dressed in embarrassing outfits for bachelor parties or a group of ladies in beaver pelt vests and bikini tops. We used to have a group who would pick a theme for the weekend and dress the part—pirates, Vikings, ninjas, whatever struck their fancy. Each year, it got a little crazier. One of these guys had a prosthetic leg and actually wore different ones that matched the theme. What's the scariest, or the most intimidating?  Funny that after 15 years of guiding Class IV-V whitewater, my first tourism grant presentation to a panel of 12 people was one of the most intimidating experiences I’ve had in my career. I was also one of the first women to R1 the Upper Gauley (meaning navigating a small raft by myself). At the put-in, or starting point, I attempted to start my trip three times before finally pushing off. At the end of each rapid, commercial boats were there hanging out to watch and see what happened next. After each of the big Class V rapids, the crowd grew larger. At the end of the trip was a 14-foot waterfall, with a large calm area where people were gathering to relax. It felt like I was dropping into the Coliseum. I could hear people chanting my name right before the drop, a collective gasp, and then cheers as I sailed right through it. Who is the most memorable guest you've had?  We have had a lot of really amazing guests—people who come from all over the world and from all walks of life. As a part of my job, I get to host cocktail parties on Saturday nights for our loyal guests, and each has unique stories and memories about their time spent at Adventures on the Gorge. A few of the folks I most look forward to seeing each year are Alex, a blackjack dealer about to complete his 100th rafting trip; Frank, a 90-plus-year-old gentleman who rafts the Upper Gauley River with his adult kids; and Shawn, who has three tattoos based on our company logo. It’s so much fun to hear what the past year held for them and to meet the new folks that they are bringing into the fold. What's the most challenging thing about being on the water?  Guiding has been the least challenging part of my time in the industry. The most challenging part of my job is getting more people to see West Virginia the way I do. It’s an amazing place filled with the friendliest people who are open to sharing their little piece of heaven with anyone who is interested. West Virginia is often a mystery to people, but there are wild and wonderful things you can see and do here.

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