Length: 2.5 miles roundtrip to the viewpoint
Difficulty: Moderate
Why we love it: Gorgeous stands of aspen along a shady, creekside trail that’s very easy to access from Durango
When to go: Spring through fall. This trail is especially beautiful in early autumn, when the aspen are turning gold
Pre-hike buzz: Before you hit the road, stop by the Durango Coffee Company for coffee made from locally roasted premium Arabica beans
Restrooms: None
Dogs: Allowed on leash per U.S. Forest Service wilderness regulations

We love a trail that we can traverse through the seasons, and that’s exactly what visitors get at Purgatory Creek near Durango. This beautiful trail winds down a steep slope through large aspen groves along its eponymous stream, making it a cool and shady spot to hike in the heat of summer, as well as an ideal area to search for colorful aspen leaves come fall.

To access the trailhead, cross the street from the parking lot and walk a few steps back to where a green-and-white sign points out the path. Although this sign says “Purgatory Creek Trail,” on maps the route is also sometimes referred to as the Purgatory Flats Trail.

A short distance down the easy-to-follow dirt path, you pass a sign marking the boundary of the Weminuche Wilderness Area. At nearly 500,000 acres, Colorado’s largest wilderness area is three-quarters the size of Rhode Island. From this sign, the route begins to descend a series of switchbacks along the small, gurgling creek. The stands of aspen are gorgeous, and there are enticing glimpses of some of the San Juan peaks between their tall, white trunks.

After about 1.25 mile, the trail reaches a rocky bench, an ideal spot for snacking and enjoying the views down the valley of Cascade Creek, where you can see the sparkling creek flowing. To the left, the valley of Lime Creek branches off to the north, while far to the right (south), you can glimpse the deep canyon of the Animas River, the region’s largest stream.

From this viewpoint, you can turn back to tackle the steep, nearly 1,000-vertical-foot climb to your car, or you can continue down to “the flats,” an open, grassy area along Cascade Creek, which adds a distance of about one extra mile roundtrip. It’s also possible to hike down Cascade Canyon all the way to the Animas River, where, if you have the right timing, you can wave to the passing train on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, whose passengers are usually astounded to see people in the middle of remote mountain wilderness. From the parking area, this is a 9-mile roundtrip route.

Getting there: From Durango, head north on Main Avenue, which becomes U.S. 550, for about 26 miles to the Purgatory Resort entrance. Turn right onto Tacoma Drive, and follow this road for 0.3 miles to a small parking area on the left on the shore of a small lake.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.