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Driving from La Plata County Airport to the town of Durango, Colo., I was curious why the area looked so familiar. Prior to this crisp, clear winter day, I had never visited the southwestern Colorado town of 17,000 people. But Hollywood has, as I quickly learned.
Come to find out, the region has amassed a cinema resume of some 30 films dating back to 1925. More recently, it hit the big screen with scenes in such flicks as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “City Slickers” and “The Prestige.” So in a strange way, it seemed like I was returning rather than visiting for the first time.
Another reason for my sense of familiarity was because Durango’s townspeople greet visitors as if they know them. They are friendly, helpful and seem to love that they live in a real mountain town that has maintained its Wild West heritage rather than one with a fabricated theme. The city is so focused on its authenticity that Durango has aptly coined its marketing slogan as “Get Real.” To that end, thanks to the city’s Historic Preservation Board, visitors won’t find any neon signs or flashy storefronts.
Wild West Railroad
The town was founded in 1880 when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad extended its line from Durango to Silverton, Colo., for hauling precious metals from high-country mines. The steam-powered Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad now transports some 200,000 passengers each year along a 46-mile jaunt that winds through the San Juan National Forest along the Animas River.
While the seven-hour trek along three-foot-wide rails was abbreviated to five hours in the winter when I visited — stopping instead at Cascade Canyon just shy of Silverton — the winter is considered to be the most dramatic time of the year with the snow-covered scenery. As we click-clacked along the tracks of this relic — one of the oldest still-operating railroads in the U.S. — the snowfall contrasted against the flowing Animas that was often 400 feet below made for incredible views.
Downtown Durango is a Nationally Registered Historic District with as many restaurants per capita as San Francisco, four microbreweries, art galleries such as the Sorrel Sky, a half-dozen museums, eclectic shopping and historic hotels, including the Strater Hotel, General Palmer Hotel and Rochester Hotel. During my visit, we shook off the hustle and bustle of city life at the Strater, a 93-room gem that hails from a bygone era and is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.
Aside from the hotel’s Victorian furnishings and decor, the most appealing aspects about this refined National Historic Landmark are the amenities. The hotel’s legendary Diamond Belle Saloon is revered as one of the most famous original ragtime piano bars in the West. With entertainment and libations attracting visitors and a large base of local clientele, the watering hole — with its costumed staff — also serves lunch and dinner.
A frequent guest at the Strater in the 1960s, Western author Louis L’Amour always requested Room 222, located directly above the saloon. He claimed that tunes from the honky tonk piano in the bar below helped set the mood for his Sacket Series of novels about the Old West.
A complimentary continental breakfast is served daily in the Strater’s Mahogany Grill. The hotel’s Henry Strater Theatre runs the Durango Melodrama and Vaudeville performances throughout the summer and fall seasons.
Durango Mountain Resort
In 1776, several Spanish explorers traveling on a nearby river were lost and their bodies were never found. Those left behind believed that the souls of those explorers would be relegated to Purgatory. From this legend came the original name of Durango’s ski area, formerly known as Purgatory Resort, which opened in 1965.
Located 25 miles north of Durango, Ski Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort offers access to 1,360 acres of skiable terrain via 85 trails serviced by 11 lifts. The resort recently unveiled 125 new acres of expert tree-skiing terrain in its Legends area on the backside of the mountain.
During my visit, I decided to step it up and take on snowshoeing for the first time. My guide gave me a “good news, bad news” scenario. The mountain was fortunate to have 28 inches of fresh snow contributing to its average of 250 inches a year. But the area she preferred had not yet been groomed. So, we had our work cut out for us. The beauty and silence of trudging through all that fresh powder was pure magic. I was a fan.
In addition to snowshoeing, visitors can enjoy snowboarding, snow-cat trips, snowmobiling, Nordic and cross-country skiing, sleigh rides and the exciting Purgatory Plunge Zipline that soars more than 100 yards from the Purgatory Village Tower over the ski beach at 35-plus mph.
From June through September, warm-weather activities include scenic chairlift rides to mountain biking and hiking trails, alpine slides, a climbing wall, horseback riding, disc golf and mountain scooters.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museumwww.durangotrain.com
Durango Area Tourism Officewww.durango.org
Durango Mountain Resortwww.durangomountainresort.com
General Palmer Hotelwww.generalpalmerhotel.com
Henry Strater Theatrewww.henrystratertheatre.com
Sorrel Sky Gallerywww.sorrelsky.com
Strater Hotel www.strater.com