AAA Travel Tips / Why Durango is Colorado’s Hidden Gem

Why Durango is Colorado’s Hidden Gem

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By Samantha Brown , Host of "Samantha Brown's Places to Love"
November 08, 2019
There’s something intoxicating about Colorado (and no, I’m not talking about the legalized green stuff!). The majestic mountains, fresh air and laidback vibe draw outdoor enthusiasts to this natural haven. While Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park and ski towns like Vail and Aspen get a lot of press, they’re just the tip of the iceberg. I have personally found that small, unheralded towns are where the people, food and places nurture a tender side of your soul. That’s why I love Durango. With a population of about 18,400, this old Wild West town boasts great outdoor adventure, history and culture. Here’s what to do in Durango.
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Best Known for…

Durango’s roots go back to the 1880s when it was founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, and there are many vestigial reminders of its past. Learn about Durango’s seedier history of miners, madams, mayhem and murders with Horsefly History Tours. These intimate walking tours explore everything from historic Main Avenue to underground tunnels from the old mining days.
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Where to Stay

If you’re visiting a historic mining town, you might as well lean in. Book your stay at the Strater Hotel. This grand hotel dates back to 1887, and feels like it (with the exception of its modern-day conveniences, like indoor plumbing). Beautiful woodwork, masonry and stained glass, plus a bona fide saloon that’ll have you expecting John Wayne to strut into the joint.
Outside of town, the O-Bar-O Cabins make for a quiet retreat. There’s a rustic vibe without being too rustic, meaning cozy beads and clean, stylish bathrooms with lots of antlers for flair. With tall pines and a mountain stream running past your cabin, it’s Western perfection.
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Where to Eat

Open since 1998, Ken and Sue’s continues to delight locals and travelers alike with updated homey classics, as well as dishes influenced by world cuisine. You’ll find things like an iceberg wedge salad; Aunt Lydia’s meatloaf with smashed potatoes; grilled mahi-mahi with basmati rice, baby bok choy and garlic ginger sauce; black sesame seared rare tuna and more. If the weather cooperates, grab a table on their charming patio.
Durango is home to six craft breweries. Visit Steamworks Brewing Co. to sample to local Kölsch, Imperial IPA, Steam Engine Lager and more. Great sandwiches, pizza, burgers and salads are on the menu, too.
Also, be sure to check out these AAA Approved restaurants for more options.
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Where to Shop

Historic Downtown Durango has it all—kids’ shops and clothing boutiques, art galleries and vintage stores… not to mention cool old buildings that harken back to a bygone era. I love independent bookstores, so a stop at Maria’s Bookshop is a must. In addition to globally celebrated literature, the staff hand-picks books with local significance.
The nationally acclaimed Toh-Atin Gallery showcases fine art from Native artists. Think jewelry, weavings, pottery and vintage collection. Their collection of Katsinas—carved wooden dolls representing the sacred spirits—will inspire and delight with their delicate details and personality.
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The Great Outdoors

This lovely town gets a whopping 300 days of sunshine annually. It’s easy to see why everyone spends so much time outside. You don’t have to be particularly outdoorsy to enjoy the natural offerings. The Animas River Trail, a paved route stretching 7 miles through Durango’s Animas River Greenway, connects recreational areas, parks, the Durango Recreation Center, Powerhouse Science Center and more. Run it, walk it, bike it—it’s up to you!
Love the great outdoors? Explore the Weminuche Wilderness, the largest wilderness area in the state. This rugged terrain runs the gamut when it comes to elevation—deep into the Animas River Gorge all the way to the tops of the Needle Range. From short and sweet hikes (the Piedra Falls Trail runs about 1.2 miles round trip) to epic trails to high altitude lakes (like the 7.6-mile Highland Mary Lakes Cunningham Gulch Loop Trail), there’s plenty of ways to explore on foot.
Located in the rugged San Juan Mountains just 25 miles north of Durango, you’ll find Purgatory Ski Resort. Come winter, explore 1,605 acres of terrain ranging from steep tree trails to wide-open cruisers. This family-friendly resort is regarded as one of the country’s best value destination for skiing. During the summer and fall, you’ll find awesome mountain biking, hiking, and even a mountain coaster. The Inferno features a two-person car, outfitted with a hand brake, so riders can take their time or go full throttle, winding through the trees.
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Take a Scenic Drive

Spend a day on the Million Dollar Highway, a 70-mile strip of blacktop between Durango and Ouray. The road climbs up and over three separate passes: Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain Pass. The breathtaking views make navigating all those hairpin turns and sheer cliff drops worth the anxiety. If you’re there late September through October, the fall colors dazzle.
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History & Culture

Want to experience Weminuche Wilderness like they did in the 1880s? Hop aboard the historic Denver & Rio Grande Railway. Though it initially hauled freight as well, the railroad has always been promoted as a scenic route for passenger service. In addition to buying a train ticket, you can tack on adventure excursions, like ziplining, white-water rafting, horseback riding, ATV riding and more.
If you’re in town, check out the free The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad & Museum. The 12,000-square-foot museum features artifacts and historical information about the railway. Kids will love exploring the giant interactive train model, authentic cars and engines. I say anything to tire out the wee ones is time well spent.
Durango puts you in close proximity to some of America’s most compelling first peoples, the Ancestral Pueblo. Spend a day at Mesa Verde National Park learning about the generations of people who built and lived in the cliff-side cave dwellings. Want to get up close and personal? Take a ranger-guided tour.

About AAA and Samantha Brown

New places, different perspectives and heartwarming people around the world sharing their day...what’s not to love? That’s why AAA Travel is sponsoring Season 2 of “Samantha Brown’s Places to Love”—offering you added insight that brings our trusted travel information to life.