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Festivals, such as the annual Taste of Durango, often turn downtown into a block party.

First-Timer’s Guide: Durango

Though this southwestern Colorado town is heavy on Old West charm, its restaurants, craft beer scene, and outdoor recreation options bring it firmly into the 21st century.

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In some ways, Durango feels a world apart from the Mile High City (and not just because you have to drive nearly six hours to get there). The steam engines of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad bellow good morning; historic brick buildings preside over Main Avenue, their sides painted with murals commemorating moments such as world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey’s 1915 fight in the town; and the 17,000 locals are genuinely friendly. However, Durango’s dining (and drinking) scene is sophisticated enough to please any foodie, art galleries are plentiful, and a bike path any modern city would envy runs along the Animas River. Add in prime agritourism destinations and protected open space for outdoor recreation, and you have a veritable microcosm of the past, present, and future of the West.

The Odometer: 336 miles, one way


Stay: The four-story Strater Hotel, built in 1887, stays just as true to its Victorian roots inside as it does from the exterior: Rich wallpaper in its guest rooms serves as a backdrop for antique, handcrafted wood furniture. Be sure to find the plaque that marks the Louis L’Amour room on the second floor, where the renowned author wrote part of his Sackett series. Bonus: The quirky Diamond Belle Saloon—which features live music, servers dressed as dance hall girls, and even cowboy gunfights that spill onto Main Avenue—is just downstairs.


Shop: A couple of hours spent perusing the shops and galleries along Main Avenue provide a natural transition from Durango’s Old West history to its more contemporary identity. Sorrel Sky Gallery (which represents former U.S. Senator and jewelry maker Ben Nighthorse Campbell, among other artists) offers a blend of traditional and fresh takes on Southwestern art and jewelry, while chic Studio & also serves as a working studio for the five artists whose work is displayed in the clean-lined, whitewashed space. The Durango Trading Post sells Pueblo pottery and kachina dolls, while down the street, you can pick up snarky coffee mugs and air plant vessels at Urban Market. And Maria’s Bookshop (pictured above) dedicates much of its captivating wood-and-brick space to fiction and regional guidebooks by local authors—right next to hipster magnets like William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.


Eat: Start your day with the locals over a green-chile smothered breakfast burrito at the Durango Diner. Chimayo Stone-Fired Kitchen‘s Southwestern fare—we love the pork taco salad—is a good bet for lunch, as are nibbles at any of the breweries in town. Dinner at the recently renovated Cyprus Cafe is a must; go Sunday through Thursday to pair your fresh Mediterranean eats (pictured) with live music on the patio, and order the warm duck salad (there’s a reason it never leaves the menu). Sweet tooth? Nab seasonally changing flavors like dark chocolate pretzel peanut butter at Cream Bean Berry, or swing by Animas Chocolate Company for handmade truffles and a sample of hot chocolate.


Sip: Six breweries call the self-described “City of Brewerly Love” home, meaning you’re guaranteed to find a vibe that fits what you’re looking for (in addition to great suds). Ska Brewing Company‘s lively taproom (pictured) often hosts bands; for a more laid-back afternoon, bike the Animas River Trail to the humble Durango Brewing Company (hello, shuffleboard!) or family-friendly, riverside Animas Brewing Co. Save Steamworks Brewing Co. for nighttime, as it’s open late and conveniently located downtown. In the mood for a cocktail? At the recently opened, speakeasy-style Bookcase & Barber, you can get a proper Manhattan and a straight-razor shave, or try Eulos Bar & Dining‘s rooftop for a handcrafted mixology masterpiece.


Photo Op: The quick drive up to Rim Drive near Fort Lewis College is worth it for the sweeping views of Durango and the Animas River Valley.


Get Outside: During winter, you’ll no doubt be making the half hour drive to Purgatory Resort’s San Juan powder stashes. In the warmer months, explore the open space that surrounds downtown by foot or fat tire: Horse Gulch trailhead (pictured) makes for an easy jumping-off point for either and offers classic high-desert scenery (you’ll quickly see why the Animas River Valley served as the set for portions of Westerns such as City Slickers). Afterward, soothe your aching muscles at nearby Trimble Hot Springs.


Tour: Ten miles north of town, James Ranch (pictured) has been doing agritourism since before it was cool. In the prime summer months, you can pony up $25 for an electric-cart tour of the working ranch and the opportunity to ask questions about the dairy and cheese-making facility, biodynamic gardens, foraging practices, and more. Nearby, Honeyville sells nearly every conceivable bee-related product you can imagine—including Colorado honey whiskey at the adjacent Honey House Distillery.


If You Do One Thing: Take a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The unique experience of passing through the San Juan Mountain wilderness by steam-powered train is made even more special when you pair it with one of the railroad’s annual events—such as June’s Durango Blues Train, which features multiple blues bands in different rail cars, beer and wine, and even two cars cleared of seats to make room for a dance floor.

—Strater Hotel and train images courtesy of Visit Durango

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