Head to southwestern Colorado for a culinary and cultural sojourn in the pines.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
This adventurous sentiment by naturalist John Muir echoes in my head as lush hills zoom past my periphery. The peaks of these miniature mountains are freckled with pine trees, and I imagine Muir perched at each summit, studying the way they seem to scrape the skyline.
I’m in the backseat of my buddy’s pickup truck, wedged between tents and other supplies. I’m told we’re headed toward Purgatory, and I’m bemused by the thought of going somewhere with such a disquieting moniker. As it turns out, we are not, in fact, going to join lost souls in limbo – we are just camping at a ski resort about 25 miles north of Durango (purgatoryresort.com). However, as we drive onto a serpentine dirt path surrounded by towering trees with no sign of human existence for miles, I’m not entirely convinced we haven’t entered some sort of alternate universe.
We come to a clearing and decide to set up camp. All I can see are fields and foliage in every direction – a sweeping sea of green. (To find this secluded spot, take Hermosa Creek Road until you reach a forest glade girded by a small river. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended.)
I suddenly understand why Muir felt summoned by the sierras. It was the same reason I found myself in the middle of a meadow in the southwestern part of The Centennial State. Beckoned by the bucolic splendor of the small city of Durango, I had to go.
Here are some other Durango must-dos if the mountains are calling you, too.
Snap a selfie at the “Welcome to Durango” mural.
What better way to get your bearings than getting a pic for the ’gram? This postcard-style painting adorns a wall on the corner of Main Avenue and 26th Street, a busy corridor 2 miles north of downtown Durango. The mural features whimsical renderings of wildflowers and mountains – and other cool outdoorsy Coloradan symbols like tents and kayaks.
Dig for treasures at Durango Antique Market.
Every self-respecting Southwestern suburb has a substantial antiques store that hawks Western home décor, vintage turquoise jewelry and other whosits and whatsits of yore. Durango Antique Market is the resident antiques dealer in Durango. Our own Valley’s The Brass Armadillo is small potatoes compared to the massive selection of secondhand baubles offered here. I was delighted to find a vintage bolo tie and sterling silver dream catcher earrings to add to my collection of kitschy keepsakes.
Take a quick dip in Cascade Creek.
When I say quick, I mean quick – the water is bitingly brisk, but pack a towel and suck it up because this is a bucket-list dunk. The natural pool is produced by a stunning 20-foot waterfall surrounded by steep cliffs and sky-high conifers. My friend tells me that locals take this polar plunge to the next level by leaping into the lapping water from the top of the waterfall, but simply submerging my body into the freezing creek was enough excitement for me, thank you. This little-known locale is accessible by a short, unmarked trail. A cursory search for info online turned up few results, so your best bet is asking a local for the exact coordinates.
Stroll through Schneider Park.
If you’re looking for a more easygoing escapade, stop by Schneider Park for a relaxing romp by the Animas River. The park features direct access to the mellow stream, the banks of which are a perfect place to plunk down and eat a picnic lunch while enjoying the melodious sounds and majestic sights of Mother Nature.
Seek sustenance at Durango Bagel.
Wondering what to eat? Make your way back to Main Avenue for fresh-baked bagels and coffee at Durango Bagel, which serves up an enticing selection of schmears in sweet and savory flavors such as maple walnut, honey almond and green chile, which pair nicely with the Durango staple’s drip coffee.
Try small-batch honey spirits at Honeyville.
Honeyville is a beekeeping and honey business that has been hand-bottling honey in Durango since 1918. Its factory store features specialty honeys, syrups, sauces, jams and butters. This summer, Honeyville’s distillery, Honey House, bottled its first batch of Straight Bourbon Whiskey, made from Honeyville honey, locally grown corn and pure Colorado water. Stop by for a subtly sweet swill of honey-based bourbon, cinnamon honey whiskey or cold brew coffee liqueur.
Enjoy farm-to-table fare at James Ranch Grill.
Located 10 miles north of Durango, James Ranch purveys grass-fed beef, whey-fed pork, artisanal cheese and raw milk, as well as organic garden-grown veggies. The ranch’s restaurant, James Ranch Grill, is more than just a farm-to-table experience – it’s literally a table on a farm. It serves handcrafted burgers, gourmet cheese melts and garden-fresh salads, and offers views of the 400-acre ranch’s picturesque pastures from a three-level lawn terrace.
Grab a sandwich – and a cocktail – at 2nd Deli & Spirits.
I’m a sucker for a good grilled cheese and a whiskey sour, but it’s hard to find a place where you can grub like a 5-year-old and sip like a sleek, sophisticated socialite. Get the best of both worlds at 2nd Deli & Spirits, known for its yummy sandwiches and boozy beverages. I went at the end of March, when restaurants were still takeout-only, but that didn’t stop a horde of hungry patrons from purchasing to-go margaritas.
Stay in a luxury tiny home.
Half a mile south of Purgatory on the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway sits a pair of compact cabins equipped with private hot tubs and decks with vintage chairlift swings. Though they offer more space than a traditional tiny home, both custom-built abodes were designed to look like historical D-log cabins and were constructed using sustainable building practices. Book the Kerouac Cabin or Hemingway’s Hideout on Airbnb. Designer vacation rentals named after bohemian progenitors of prose? Sign me up. It’s a great alternative to camping – you can still answer the call of the mountains, but with the luxury of, you know, plumbing and stuff.
This small mountain town is about a seven-hour drive from the Valley and will take you through the Navajo Nation and northern New Mexico. To split up the trip, stop at Forest Lakes Lodge near Heber-Overgaard, and make a pit stop in Holbrook to marvel at the dinosaur statues at Rainbow Rock Shop. Made from painted cement and reinforced rods, these prehistoric roadside attractions make for a great photo op.
Colorado Train Trivia
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad originally opened in 1882 to haul silver and gold ore mined from the San Juan Mountains. Today, the scenic railway transports curious tourists from Durango to the small town of Silverton, a former silver mining camp. Brush up on locomotive lore at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Museum, a tribute to railroading in southwest Colorado containing mining memorabilia and steam engine artifacts. The Silverton Freight Yard Museum houses old-school outfit cars and other interesting items pertaining to railroad history.