Durango is one of several Colorado town in the beautiful San Juan Mountains that was initially established as a mining town during the Colorado Silver Boom. Its fortunes grew in the late 19th and early 20th century. However as mining operations declined, so did its role in mining. Today Durango is known more for tourism and outdoor recreation. But one can still get a sense of its Old West history in its architecture, museums, and historic sites.
One of the town’s highlights is the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad at the edge of historic downtown. The train line was constructed primarily to haul silver and gold, but it also carried passengers through the scenic route.
While Durango’s smelting business and many of the railway company’s Durango-based railroad lines were closed by the late 1960s, the Durango to Silverton line continued to operate until it was sold in 1981 and renamed the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge (D&SNG) Railroad and converted to a passenger train complete with original coal-fired steam engine.
As we discovered on a previous Silverton-Durango-Silverton round train ride, the train provides incredible scenery up into the surrounding mountains and down into the Animas River Gorge. With seven hours of train travel (about 3.5 hours each way), the 9-hour round trip allowed about two hours to leisurely explore Durango. On the other hand, the antique coal-fired engine belches black smoke that passengers in the cars behind can smell and burning cinders that can fall on and burn the clothes of people sitting in the open-air cars. A minor inconvenience for the views and the fun of travel on such a historic train.
Our 2023 trip to Durango was via a car along the beautiful but potentially dangerous road. While it is less relaxing than a ride on the train, it is certainly faster: taking about an hour, excluding stops, for the 48-mile trip. This also gave us the opportunity to spend a night in Durango and also visit nearby Mesa Verde National Park.
But even if you don’t take the train, when in Durango you must go to the railroad’s train station and, right behind it, the newly opening D&SNG Museum to learn more about the historic train.
Inside the museum, a movie is shown in a train car to explain the history of the railroad, the impending shutdown, how the new purchaser planned a period-correct reconstruction of the line and its equipment to carry tourists, and what the trip entails. The museum also explains the advantage of using a narrow (30”) gauge rail versus standard (4081/2’) gauge tracks to cut a narrower track bed into the cliffs of canyon walls.
On view are renovated engines and luxury cars into whose engines and through whose windows you can directly look. You can walk through a caboose and learn its multiple uses and learn how it operates. A large-scale model of the rail line shows the scenery through which it runs. It contains information on all types of train supplies and railroad artifacts.
And to provide fair treatment to other forms of transportation, the museums has displays of a biplane, early 20th-century cars, fire engines, motorcycles, and even a prototype electric car. Then there are the dioramas of mining towns, the stuffed big game animals, the old time Western artifacts and the displays of military formations and uniforms. A lot of trains and of many other things but well worthwhile of a visit.
While downtown Durango lacks the victorian buildings that one sees Crested Butte, Telluride, or Silverton it does have a few interesting historic blocks and buildings.
The historic landmark hotel has a period reception area, reading room, and parlor that is open to the public.
Then there’s the grande dame of Durango Hotels; the 1887 Strater. We happened to catch one of the hotel’s twice daily (12:00 and 3:00) free history tours that provide guided tours of the hotel and its museum-quality collection objects. We learned of the ultimately tragic story of the Strater Brothers and, the role of family who actually developed the hotel (or actually managed the integration of two hotels in one). The tour provides the history around items on view including the hotel’s connection with movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, its one-of-a-kind 24-carat gold rifle, its eagle feather headdress, and how Louis Lamore spent a month a year writing books while staying above and listening to the piano of The Diamond Belle Saloon. And we also got to tour a couple of unoccupied rooms.
The Strater Hotel has both a saloon and a bar, both of which offers nightly entertainment by a regular performer:
- Diamond Belle Saloon which serves casual dinners, snacks and drinks, has a very good Ragtime pianist who is a pro at engaging with the audience; and
- The Office, a casual lounge where the singer/guitar player tries to play and sing 60s-style popular tunes without the voice for it or any attempt to engage the audience.
Guess which venue we preferred.
After a window (or actual) shopping stroll along the multi-block Main Avenue and an exploration, or possibly a meal at the 11th Street Station Food Court, head a couple blocks to the Animas River and the River Walk. Here you will find a path several mile path along the scenic, tranquil banks of the pretty, boulder-studded river.
And for those who need to unwind after all this education and exercise, you can aways take a dip in the hot springs and take a massage at the spa.
We had one lunch and two dinners in Durango.
Our delicious dinner started by splitting a Southwestern Cobb salad with greens, grilled chicken, Jack cheese, bacon, and tortilla strips with chipotle-lime vinaigrette. We progressed through a delicious ancho-crusted grouper with sweet potato smash, sautéed spinach and vanilla rum butter and ended with an equally good vanilla ice cream with Don P.X. Maple Sherry.
At the Stater Hotel’s formal restaurant, Tom’s large elk tenderloin was perfectly grilled, tender, and delicious with its cherry demi-glaze. Joyce was less impressed with her yellowfin tuna as the soy-citrus glaze and sauce overpowered the fish. Both came with a choice of potatoes with the baked sweet potato being the most interesting. Our wine for the evening, was a Stags Leap Merlot.
Our lunch consisted of two sandwiches: ancho-crusted seared ahi with jalapeno, pickled onions, cabbage, ginger-lime aioli, cilantro on a black sesame pillow bun;and smoked chicken breast sandwich on the same type bun with white bean hummus and black beluga lentils on pita chips and salad with greens, tomato, English cucumber, Kalamata olives, corn/red pepper/red onion salsa and lemon-thyme vinaigrette.