13 Top-Rated Things to Do in Durango, Colorado
Outdoor sports and adventure along with historical and cultural attractions make Durango one of the best places to visit in Colorado, for all types of travelers. A ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gage Railroad through a canyon and the gorgeous mountain scenery up to the former mining town of Silverton is one of the most popular things to do. You can also find plenty to keep you busy wandering through the historic downtown, with many buildings remaining from the late 1800s. In winter, nearby Purgatory Ski Resort offers some of the best skiing in Colorado. In summer, hiking, mountain biking, climbing, rafting, and other outdoor activities dominate the scene. If you have time to add on a day trip, consider heading out to the Mesa Verde National Park for a close-up look at the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.
See also: Where to Stay in Durango
1 Ride the Silverton & Durango Narrow Gage Railroad
This train ride is likely going to far exceed your expectations. With beautiful, old restored carriages being pulled along by an authentic coal-fired steam engine through a breathtaking narrow mountain canyon, this trip has all the makings of a romance novel. The train cruises alongside the Animas River much of the way, as the mountains towering above become more imposing as you make your way from Durango to the old mining town of Silverton.
The train runs year-round but in winter it does not go all the way to Silverton. Instead, the train stops before the major avalanche areas and allows passengers to disembark at Cascade Canyon, 26 miles from Durango. This journey takes about five hours round-trip, with forty-five minutes to enjoy at the canyon. In summer, the train makes the 45-mile journey, all the way to Silverton. You can do the summer trip as a nine-hour, two-way train trip, with a couple of hours to explore Silverton, or take the train in one direction and a bus back for a shorter day. Alternatively, you can take the train up, spend the night, and then take the train back the next day, which will allow plenty of time to see all the sites in Silverton. If you decide to do this as a one-way trip, it's best to take the train up, to fully appreciate the technical workings of steam engines, and the bus back rather than the reverse. The train back to Durango is downhill and is constantly breaking.
Different classes and styles of carriages are available on the train. The open-air carriages with UV-protected glass-paneled roofs provide unbeatable views! In winter, glass windows are installed to keep you warm.
2 Ski at Purgatory Ski Resort
Purgatory Ski Resort in Durango touts itself as a family mountain but this is really a destination for everyone. Huge storms dump inches upon inches of snow here, creating outstanding powder days. Groomed beginner and intermediate runs have always been and still are a big part of the attraction at Purgatory. The resort came under new ownership in 2015 and since then, major improvements have been made to the mountain and equipment. A whole new area of tree skiing opened, along with new intermediate and expert runs, new chairlifts, new snowmaking capacity, and additional cat skiing areas.
Purgatory Ski Resort is about a 20-minute drive from downtown Durango. If you don't want to stay in town, you may want to consider Purgatory Lodge, with ski-in, ski-out access to the mountain; two- to four-bedroom units; a pool; hot tub; and restaurant. This is a great option for families. For additional ideas on where to ski in the state, see our article on the best ski resorts in Colorado.
You'll also find all kinds of summer activities at Purgatory, from the Purgatory Mountain Bike Park to hiking trails and summer tubing. Summer season begins in late May.
3 Explore Mesa Verde National Park
One of the most impressive Native American sites in the Southwest is Mesa Verde, a little over an hour away from Durango. These cliff dwellings, built under huge overhanging rocks are extensive and include multi-story complexes, with ladders connecting various floors and rooms. They are also surprisingly accessible to visitors. You can get right up and into some of these dwellings on a guided tour. If you are not up for a tour, you can view them from nearby lookouts, which offer impressive views of the remains.
The native settlement here was at its peak between 800 and 1,000 years ago, and the ruins can be found all over the mesa. The drive up to the site takes you up about 2,000 feet, to an elevation of more than 8,500 feet. You can do a driving tour to various sites. Be sure to stop at the visitor center before heading up to get information on the site and road conditions, particularly in winter. Alternatively, you can sign up for a Full-day Mesa Verde Discovery Tour from Durango, complete with transportation, a guide, lunch, and the ability to skip the long lines during the busy season.
4 Drive the San Juan Scenic Byway and the Million Dollar Highway
The San Juan Scenic Byway is a 233-mile roadway that loops around Southwest Colorado, from Durango to Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway, across to Placerville and Telluride, and back down through Dolores and Mancos to Durango. The Durango-Ouray section is especially scenic as it ascends up into the mountains and over three mountain passes, the highest of which is Red Mountain Pass at 11,018 feet, before descending through the spectacular Uncompahgre Gorge, all the way down to Ouray. Along the way, you'll see the remains of the old Idarado Mine, old mine shafts, tailing piles, and rusting equipment. The route from Silverton to Ouray is known as the Million Dollar Highway due to the expense of building the road in such a difficult environment.
Driving this section from the south to the north is considered safer as you are on the inside of most of the turns. If you are heading south, you'll be on the outside and closer to the sheer cliff drop-offs. The road is narrow and twisty in sections. The second half of the drive is also impressive but less dramatic. Telluride is a beautiful area, and the scenic little town is definitely worth a stop.
5 Hike along the Colorado Trail
This fantastic trail runs for a little less than 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Durango. It's open to non-motorized vehicles, and is primarily a running, hiking, and mountain biking trail. From Durango, many people use this trail for day hikes and mountain biking. The trail starts at Junction Creek, following this stream for about 2.5 miles to where it crosses a footbridge and then ascends about 600 feet over 1.3 miles, up to Gudy's Rest, a popular lookout. Depending on how much activity you are looking for, it's best for hikers to either turn back at the bridge, or, if you are feeling up for the climb, continue on to Gudy's Rest and then turn back. Mountain bikers tend to continue on. For a nice bike and hike combination, bike in as far as the bridge, then hike up the switchbacks to Gudy's Rest, returning the same way.
6 Head Outdoors in San Juan National Forest
The 1.8 million square miles of San Juan National Forest is Durango's backyard playground. Located just north of the city, this vast tract of ponderosa pine, snowcapped mountains, and fast-flowing rivers is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. Hiking, biking, camping, snowmobiling, skiing, and river rafting are just some of the multitude of things to do year-round in this wonderful mountain reserve. You can explore the beauty of this wilderness area on a drive along the San Juan Scenic Byway.
7 Hit the Mountain Biking Trails
You can find all kinds of great mountain biking trails right in Durango and the surrounding mountains. From downtown, look to the Horse Gulch Area, home to more than 30 miles of trails. The popular Colorado Trail starts on the edge of town, quickly taking you up into the mountains for fabulous views and awesome riding. If you haven't quite adapted to the elevation yet, or you are here in the spring before the mountain trails have opened, check out nearby Aztec, New Mexico and the Alien Run Mountain Biking Trail. Beside being the apparent crash site of a UFO in the 1940s, it's also a fun 10-mile loop trail with single track and slickrock sections. Alternatively, venture out to Cortez, about 50 minutes from Durango, for a ride on Phil's World, known for swoopy, curving loops, combined with good views.
8 Raft Down the Animas River
Rafting down the Animas River in Durango is a fun way to spend a spring day. The river has class 1-to 5 rapids; the lower Animas River has the smaller and easier rapids, the Upper Animas River has the more intense and difficult ones. Various options are available depending on how far you want to go, how large a raft you'd like, and how much you are willing to pay. On the Lower Animas River, the city of Durango has recently created a specialized water park within the river with viewing platforms and man-made rapid features, including the Smelter Rapid. If you are visiting with a family or inexperienced group, consider a 4.5-hour family-friendly rafting trip down the Lower Animas River, which allows children ages four and up to participate. For something a little more adventurous, try a full-day rafting trip on the Upper Animas Silverton Section.
9 Discover History at the D&SNGRR Railroad Museum
The Railroad Museum isn't just another train museum, although you can learn all about steam engines here. This unique museum features an eclectic mix of items, with everything from antique cars to a solar-powered car, as well as antique farm equipment, covered wagons, models, mounted animals, and a variety of other random pieces. You can walk right up into the engineer's cab of a steam engine, see deep inside the fire box, and view all the gauges, knobs, and levers. If you have any questions, a staff member will be more than pleased to share their deep and passionate knowledge with you. The museum is a bit tricky to find; if a train is in the station, you will need to walk to the very front of the train, past the hissing steam engine, and cross the tracks. The museum will be slightly to your left. Admission is free.
10 Wander through Historic Downtown
Durango dates to the 1880s and was an important center during the mining days. The streets of Durango, once plied by horse and carriage, still maintain some of their grand historic structures. One of the most impressive historical buildings is the Strater Hotel, where Louis L'Amour wrote several of his books and where both JFK and Gerald Ford have stayed in rooms you can still rent today. The exquisite woodwork and detail in this 1880s and 1890s Victorian treasure are fascinating. Also be sure to have a look in the 1898 General Palmer Hotel and the landmark Palace Restaurant, also from the 1890s. You can take a walking tour of downtown Durango to fully appreciate the buildings and the history.
11 Walk or Bike along the Animas River Trail
The Animas River Trail is a paved trail that runs along the river for seven miles. Along the way, you will find interpretive plaques, public art, and peaceful spots to watch the water flow by. The trail is paved and is suitable for biking, walking, running, and is wheelchair friendly. Depending on the time of year, you will see fishermen, whitewater rafters, kayakers, or even people floating by on tubes laughing and having fun. The trail passes through several pleasant parks including Rotary Park, Schneider Park, plus a skateboard park and the Wildlife Museum and Fish Hatchery. The most scenic part of the trail is from the Durango Recreation Center to the Highway 160 overpass.
12 Try Climbing or Bouldering
With climbing finally debuting as an Olympic event at the 2020 Olympics, this sport is growing in popularity, and Durango is the perfect place to break into the scene or explore new routes. The sandstone bluffs of the Animas River Valley and the granite walls of the San Juan Mountains are what climbers come to enjoy. You'll find great places for climbing and bouldering just outside of Durango. On the edge of town is Dalla Mountain Park, although most people call it Sailing Hawks, and this is where much of the action is centered. If you are interested in lessons or want more information on where to go or how to get started, stop by the Rock Lounge climbing gym.
13 Learn about Nature at the Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Museum
The Fish Hatchery and Wildlife Museum is a seasonal attraction (summer only), located just back from the Animas River near 16th Street. A fun outing for the family, you can see how 1.25 million fish are raised in order to be released into Colorado's waterways. Fish feeding is encouraged, and food is provided for a very modest fee. The hatchery has four species of trout (Colorado River Cutthroat, Snake River Cutthroat, Rainbow, and Brown) in the "raceways" and also in a special pond for the larger fish. Next door is the Wildlife Museum, where various exhibits showcase the animals of Southwest Colorado. Admission is free to both, although donations are appreciated.
Where to Stay in Durango
To fully experience the true vibe of Durango, it's best to stay in the historic downtown. This is also where you'll find the best and most character-laden hotels. If you're on a budget, you can find quality budget properties just a short drive away.
- Luxury Hotels: The most historic and interesting hotel in Durango is the luxury, Victorian-style Strater Hotel, on Main Avenue, just down the block from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gage Railroad. This charming property from the late 1880s and 90s has been completely renovated with the utmost attention to detail, and each room is uniquely decorated. Ornate ceilings, finely crafted woodwork, and antique treasures can be found in the guestrooms, restaurants, and common areas. The Strater Hotel is also a recognized Historic Hotel of America. You can rent rooms that were occupied by writer Louis L'Amour, JFK, Gerald Ford, and numerous other famous people and characters from olden times. It's also said to be haunted, and you can read about the various sightings.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Durango has several quality chain brand hotels, most of which are just a short drive or long walk from the historic downtown. At the top-end of mid-range is La Quinta Inn and Suites, just a few minutes from the city center. Rooms are modern and comfortable, and the property features an indoor swimming pool and fitness center. Complimentary breakfast is provided and pets are welcome. The Quality Inn is another good choice, a couple of miles from downtown but very close to the scenic Animas River. The hotel has a large indoor hot tub and an outdoor heated pool.
- Budget Hotels: Adventure Inn Durango is a favorite among the budgets hotels. This two-story, motel-style property has a variety of room sizes at various price points. All rooms come with a mini-fridge and microwave, and breakfast is complimentary. The Econo Lodge Inn & Suites is another good standby, where you can find decent rooms and usually good prices. Breakfast is included with your stay. Both of these are a short drive from downtown but there are a number of restaurants in the area.
Another historic luxury hotel, just down the street from the Strater, is the General Palmer Hotel. The building was erected in 1898 and has been in operation as a hotel since the 1970s. Rooms are decorated in Victorian style. If you prefer a slightly more modern flare and still want to be close to downtown, try The Rochester Hotel and Leland House. These properties are jointly operated. Rooms at the Rochester are decorated based on Western film themes, although this is not overdone. The Leland House offers bright modern rooms and suites.