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A Locals' Guide to Outdoor Adventures in Durango, CO

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
January 12, 2022
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

8 (Other) U.S. Canyons to Add to Your Must-See List

The Grand Canyon National Park celebrates its centennial this year. The fanfare is well deserved, but it’s far from the only American canyon worth visiting. There's an array of gorgeous gorges across the U.S. with diverse landscapes, and unlike the always popular Grand Canyon, you can have them all to yourself if you time it right. Stopping at the rim and peering down into the depths of each of these destinations is a perfectly fine start, but there’s much more to be done in and around each of these incredible canyons. From the Grand Canyon of the Pacific to the Grand Canyon of the East, and the lesser-known rock formations in between, here are eight stunning geological wonders to visit next. 1. Cedar Breaks National Park: Utah For: superlative stargazing Sitting at more than 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks crowns the grand staircase, the geologic formation covering much of southern Utah and including the Grand Canyon. Here, the rust-red rocks give way to lush meadows of wildflowers and subalpine forest. An International Dark Sky Park in one of the most naturally dark regions in the continental U.S., the area comes alive at night, when crystal-clear skies afford unobstructed views of the constellations, the Milky Way, and much more. Cedar Breaks staff and astronomy volunteers provide telescopes and guidance at complimentary star parties, held in the park during the summer months and in nearby Brian Head Town in winter. 2. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Colorado For: fabulous fishing (Eugene Everett/Dreamstime) Over the last two million years, the Gunnison River sculpted sheer cliffs and spires and exposed rock dating back 1.7 billion years, some of the oldest in North America. The canyon takes its name from these dark metamorphic rock walls and the shadows that cover them for much of day, but the focus is on the Gold Medal-designated trout-fishing waters: Starting 200 yards downstream of Crystal Dam and extending to the North Fork of the Gunnison River, the canyon is an angler's paradise. Experienced hikers can traverse one of the treacherous inner gullies to cast a line in a secluded section or venture down the East Portal Road for a more accessible fishing spot. 3. Royal Gorge Bridge & Park: Colorado For: righteous rock climbing Surprisingly, the most iconic feature of this natural wonder is the man-made suspension bridge spanning the massive gorge 956 feet above the Arkansas River. The rock walls are so tall, the Empire State Building could stand straight up underneath with a few feet to spare. This summer, the Via Ferrata—an assisted rock climb with steel cables and iron rungs, led by a trained mountain guide—adds to the roster of adrenaline-packed activities, allowing visitors of all abilities to reach new heights. 4. Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon Springs Nature Preserve: Idaho For: sensational stand-up paddleboarding Located 20 miles from Twin Falls, this box canyon is one of the northwest's best-kept secrets. Don't be afraid to get your feet wet: Its gentle waters open up to exploration via kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard. The pristine water bubbles up from the ground and through basalt rock before joining the Snake River. Pooled or flowing, the Caribbean blue–hued water provides a stunning contrast with the rocky canyon walls and prime floating. 5. Letchworth State Park: New York For: high-flying hot air balloon rides (James Vallee/Dreamstime) The Genesee River roars between cliffs soaring up to 600 feet, creating the so-called Grand Canyon of the East. There are more than 66 miles of marked hiking trails winding through the thick forests around the gorge. While there are additional paths for horseback riding, biking, snowmobiling, and cross-country skiing, the canyon truly shines from a bird’s eye view, floating above in a hot air balloon. 6. Waimea Canyon: Hawaii For: big-league birdwatching (Kelpfish/Dreamstime) Nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, these brilliant red walls towering up to 3,000 feet began forming millions of years ago. A combination of volcanic activity and the Waimea River carved out the gorge seen today. Waterfalls and lush green plants add to stunning scenery, which is best experienced on your own two feet. Hiking along one of the many trails offers time to observe and listen to the native forest birds while soaking up panoramic views. 7. Canyon X: Arizona For: phenomenal photography Canyon X, considered a worthy alternative to the nearby, often overcrowded Antelope Canyon, still remains exclusive as it becomes more accessible. Only small, guided groups are allowed to explore its narrow red-rock walls, which adds to the appeal of this remote slot canyon for shutterbugs and hikers alike. As you wind your way through the Navajo sandstone, you'll come across unique textures, patterns, lines, formations, and shifting hues of red—prime subjects for creative photography. 8. Bryce Canyon: Utah For: superb skiing (Clarkdanalynn/Dreamstime) What makes Bryce Canyon extra special is the seasonal shift in perspective as the temperatures drop and the look of the scenery changes. When winter arrives and tourist numbers dwindle, snow blankets the brilliant red rock formations known as hoodoos, topped by clear bluebird skies. These red, white, and blue scenes are best explored on snowshoes or skis. On cross-country skis, you can follow one of the groomed trails leading to viewpoints on the rim; on snowshoes or ice cleats, you can venture into the canyon for a closer look at the hoodoos and other rock formations from below. Even on weekend days, the paths are quiet and viewpoints are clear.

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

7 Best Ways to Save Money on a Camping Trip

Planning a camping trip? Be prepared to open your wallet. Adult campers spent an average of $546 on camping gear alone in 2016, according to the 2017 American Camper Report from Coleman Company, Inc. and The Outdoor Foundation. And when you factor in expenses for food, permits, and transportation, your camping budget could quickly go up in flames. The upshot? There are ways to cut costs without putting a damper on your camping trip. Here’s how. 1. AVOID EXPENSIVE CAMPGROUNDS Many campsites and parks require campers to pay a nightly rate. These costs can range significantly. There are high-end campgrounds like Camp Gulf in Miramar Beach, FL, where a beachfront camping pass costs $219 per night during the summer. In general though, a camping permit costs around $12 to $25 per night. However, there are also a number of free campgrounds where you can pitch a tent or park an RV without coughing up dough, including an array of federal lands such as those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). To find one near you, use Freecampsites.net or Campendium.com. Pro tip: Many campgrounds charge less for night passes in the middle of the week. It’s also generally easier to get a reservation than camping on a weekend. If you’re planning on taking several camping trips during the year, consider buying the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands annual pass. It’s $80 and it covers entrance fees at more than 2,000 national parks and national wildlife refuges, as well as standard amenity fees at national forests and grasslands. Current U.S. Military and their dependents can get a free annual pass; seniors age 62 or older can get a $20 pass. Camping Deals: For great camping deals be sure to check out our partner Campspot. Campspot is the only online booking platform that lets you research, discover, and instantly reserve the best camping stays at the lowest prices from premiere campgrounds across North America. They give campers more control of their trips by offering more options to choose from and an easier way to book. They are experts in the outdoor industry, so they know what campers and campgrounds care about and use technology to better serve them both. 2. STAY CLOSE TO HOME Getting to and from your camping destination matters—the further the drive, the more you’ll have to spend on gas. A simple solution: find a campsite that’s within short driving distance from your home. 3. BORROW OR RENT CAMPING EQUIPMENT High-quality camping gear and equipment can be expensive, but you don’t want to cheap out either. (Picture this nightmare: you buy a cheap tent, but it blows over during a storm.) Instead of purchasing your own equipment, consider borrowing from a friend or renting from a shop like REI Co-op, which lets you rent gear in 12 states (rei.com). Have your heart set on buying your own gear? Purchase lightly used gear from a resale shop or website like Switchback Gear Exchange (goswitchback.com), which sells used sleeping bags, tents, water filters, and camping accessories. 4. SKIP PREPACKAGED MEALS A lot of prepackaged meals are expensive—and they’re not always tasty. Cooking your own food while camping out requires some extra effort, but it can be a great way to save money. Another cost saving measure? Instead of buying a portable grill or burner, bring food that you can prepare over a campfire. All you need is a little aluminum foil. (Do a simple Google search for “Foil-Wrapped Camping Recipes.”) 5. DITCH BOTTLED WATER & OTHER DISPOSABLES This one might seem obvious, but a lot of campers still make the mistake of buying and lugging a case of bottled water with them. To save money and protect the environment, bring a reusable water bottle. If you won’t have access to fountains, make sure you buy a bottle with a filter. (Brita sells one for $8.88 on Amazon.) Forget about bringing disposable products like paper plates, cups, and silverware as well. Real dishes and flatware are easier to eat with and only take a few minutes to wash off—and they’ll save you money over time. Taking a family trip? Consider a four-person dinner kit. 6. EXPLORE FREE CAMPING ACTIVITIES Waterfront campsites often offer kayak and boat rentals but they can be expensive. Look for free ways to enjoy the great outdoors. Explore walking trails, fishing, hiking, and biking paths. Bring board games to pass the time on rainy days. And after the sun sets, lie down and enjoy stargazing. 7. STAY FOR FREE BY VOLUNTEERING Willing to trade a little labor for a free camping pass? A number of campsites and RV parks offer volunteer, or even paid “workamping” positions, in exchange for free access to the grounds. Not all of these jobs are glamorous, though. Janitor positions are often in demand. Still, these jobs can help you save a ton of money, and maybe even make a little extra cash. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to meet other outdoor enthusiasts and make friends for your next camping trip.

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.