Outdoor Adventure in the Old West: Durango, Colorado

Mountains, rivers and music in an historic Colorado mining town

Riding the train out of the backcountry and back into Durango. Photo by Jack Bohannan
Riding the train out of the backcountry and back into Durango. Photo by Jack Bohannan

We step off the Durango-Silverton steam train exhausted and fulfilled, ready to submerge our bodies in hot water and celebrate our blisters after a phenomenal backpacking trip.

Durango, Colorado is alive. Blues guitar plays from the rooftop patio of one of the local breweries, the plants are in mid-summer bloom, and an actual horse-drawn stagecoach pulls past us as we cross the street (complete with a Australian Shepard riding shotgun). We feel ecstatic to be back in civilization.

My wife and I had awoken that morning in the impossible beauty of Vestal Basin, high in the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains near Silverton, Colorado. In my mind, this is the best landscape the United States has to offer. Our three-day excursion had been successful, although grueling. We’re delighted that the weather allowed us to summit Arrow Peak, although just barely.

After packing out via the Elk Creek trail, the 1890’s-era steam train picked us up at a pit stop halfway between Silverton and Durango, mercifully sparing us the work of ascending the 36 switchbacks back to the  road.

Stagecoach taxi on Main Avenue. Photo by Jack Bohannan.
Stagecoach taxi on Main Avenue in Durango, Colorado. Photo by Jack Bohannan.

The old, coal-burning train follows the crystalline water of the Animas River through wild areas deep in the Colorado Rockies, areas that many people will never have access to because their bodies simply can’t get them there. From how my legs feel, mine barely managed the trek.

I’ve lived in Durango before. Coming back to the delightful little town is like cheating: I know all the cool spots. We head directly for the Thai place next to the train station, ravenous. Sizzling Siam is an easily overlooked hole-in-the-wall of the Old West storefronts. It’s our favorite, though we debated sushi.

The ecstasy of a return to civilization after an extended backcountry trip is unique, and only understood by outdoors enthusiasts. Soft beds. Beer. Live music. Good food – food other than lentils and Clif bars.

Durango, Colorado

Durango is all these things distilled together. The town hits us as a wall of entertainment and sensual delights. Craft breweries line the main drag along with art galleries, ice cream parlors, bike shops and the requisite tourist t-shirt vendors.

Wild and wonky bikes are everywhere, some costing more than our car. Durango is a mountain bike Mecca, and continually debates the title of “Birthplace of Mountain Biking” with Marin County in California. In reality, both places originated mountain biking at about the same time. Marin County may boast, but you can’t say the Durango locals here weren’t bombing down the hills in the ‘80s on modified cruiser bikes. Within the city limits, you’re never more than a 10-minute ride to a world-class mountain bike trail.

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