See America: Family fun in and around Durango, CO

A great family destination on its own, Durango is your gateway to Silverton, Ouray, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, Moab and more. Hike, bike, raft, zip-line, and tour the heart of America's Southwest.

Durango Silverton train
Durango-Silverton train, Silverton, CO / Image: Jim Picht for CDN

DURANGO, Colo., July 26, 2017 — Durango’s history is closely linked to the history of mining. In the 1940s and 50s, uranium was mined here. A hundred years before the nuclear age, gold and silver were refined here.

Gold and silver weren’t mined in Durango. They were discovered 50 miles away as the highway winds, near what became Silverton. But the ores couldn’t be smelted in Silverton; at an altitude of over 9,000 feet, the air was too thin. Fire wouldn’t burn hot enough.

Fire wouldn’t burn hot enough.

The solution was to build a railway to Durango, which lies almost 3,000 feet lower than Silverton and smelt the ores there. From there the refined metal could be shipped out by rail.

That narrow-gauge Durango-Silverton railway still runs trains today, but they carry tourists, not ore. You can buy tickets at the train depot in downtown Durango. The ride to Silverton takes about four hours, carrying you through some breathtaking scenery (literally; if you’re out of shape and unaccustomed to the altitude, you may be flopping on the floor of the train like a beached tuna) along the upper Animas river and over mountain passes at altitudes above 10,500 feet.

You can ride in different classes, starting with open cars with benches running lengthwise, to closed cars that transport you in silver-baron splendor, complete with meals and alcohol (no admission for anyone under 21).

Alas, like Disneyland, the Durango-Silverton Railway is family fun that is not family priced. Even in the lowest class you can expect to pay $89 for the round trip, or $109 one-way with the return by van. If you don’t want to spend all day on the train, the one-way-with-van-return might be the better option. The drive takes only an hour or two. If you go in the open train car, bundle up. Even in a sweatshirt and jacket in July, the ride can be colder than Charity. If you’re from Minnesota, go ahead and wear your swim suit, but put on plenty of

Even in a sweatshirt and jacket in July, the ride can be colder than Charity. If you’re from Minnesota, go ahead and wear your swim suit, but put on plenty of sunscreen; that high-altitude sun is brutal in ultraviolet.

We’ve taken the kids to Silverton a couple of times on the train, so I didn’t feel like paying $360 to do it this year. Instead I went to the Sorrel Sky gallery and bought a Duly Mitchell vase (former U.S. Senator from Colorado Ben Nighthorse Campbell sold his jewelry there, and his designs are still sold there), then bundled everyone into the car to drive to Silverton.

Silverton looks like an old-West mining town should, probably a whole lot prettier than it did when it was filled with miners rather than tourists. There are only a few hundred full-time residents, whose primary occupations seem to be arts, crafts, making fudge and funnel cakes, running galleries and restaurants, and renting out jeeps and OHVs.

You can see most of the town by foot in half an hour. If you want to eat and buy clothes or jewelry, plan to spend a couple of hours.

Silverton, CO / Image: Jim Picht for CDN

If outdoor activities are your cup of tea, you’ll want to stay longer. If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you might want to drive the Alpine Loop, which takes you through spectacular scenery on reasonably good, unpaved roads through several small mountain towns. If you don’t have a four-wheel-drive, you can rent a jeep or a two-person OHV in Silverton.

A drive around the Alpine loop can be done in a few hours, but if you want to take pictures and admire the scenery, it will take longer.

There are some excellent hiking areas near Silverton, ranging from easy to arduous. Keep in mind that “easy” is relative; if you aren’t conditioned for it, hiking is never easy at 9,000 feet. I tried to talk my family into a “moderate” hike to Island Lake, between Silverton and Ouray, only four miles, each way. But that four miles includes a climb of about 3,000 feet. A practice hike of a mile with a thousand-foot climb at 9,000 feet convinced us that we didn’t want to see Island Lake after all. Beached tuna? Think Arnold Schwarzenegger near the end of “Total Recall.”

If you want to do it, wear good shoes with ankle support and take a lot of water; you dehydrate quickly at high altitude. The mountains of Colorado are littered with the desiccated corpses of French people who thought that hiking around Silverton was like volksmarching around Salzburg.

Instead of hiking, we went to the Old Hundred gold mine.

It’s located just a few miles outside Silverton. You don a waterproof coat and hard hat, then take a train a third of a mile into the mountain where it’s dark as a dungeon, damp as the dew. There your guide leads you through mining tunnels as he explains how gold was mined over a hundred years ago, when teenagers carried candles and drove iron rods into the rock by hand to plant explosives, and sometimes amused themselves by removing the chain that kept the “honey car” from rolling down the tracks when it was in use.

At the end of the tour, you can pan for gold if you like, or just buy yourself some flecks in a bottle at the gift shop.

If you’d like to do more shopping in a bigger town with even more spectacular scenery, you can drive from Silverton to Ouray. I wrote earlier about that drive. It’s not the worst I’ve ever had, not by a long shot, but if you’ve never driven on a road with no shoulder, with a cliff rising up from one side, an abyss on the other and no room for error, it’s a bit off-putting.

On the other hand, it offers some beautiful views. “Daddy, keep your eyes on there road!” But not for the driver.

Finding great banana pudding in Durango, burgers in Ouray

Ouray bills itself as America’s Switzerland. That refers entirely to the views. The town is cowboys-and-Indians, not Heidi and lederhosen. There are the inevitable galleries, jewelry stores, t-shirt shops and a swimming pool fed by hot springs.

The enormously cheerful and chatty disposition of one shop owner was a reminder that recreational marijuana is legal in Colorado. She was as high as a kite but entertaining, and she made correct change.

Ouray CO
Ouray, CO / Image: Jim Picht for CDN

We’d planned to hike to a box canyon and waterfall in Ouray, a short and genuinely easy hike with no serious altitude changes, but it rained. In fact, it rained most afternoons in Durango, too. July is the monsoon season in much of Colorado, and afternoon storms are common.

If you’re going to be out and about in the afternoon, you’ll at least want a rain hat in your bag.

Back in Durango the next day, Harlan wanted to go on a raft ride down the Animas. Catherine wanted to go to, and Harlan didn’t want her to.

“It won’t be any fun with her. She’s too little. It’s not for girls. She’ll make a scene. She’ll fall out of the boat. Don’t risk it.”

I risked it. While my wife opted to visit a used book store, the rafting company took us by bus to the departure point, and there were kids there younger than Catherine. There were even girls. “Great,” muttered Harlan, “a sissy ride. This is going to be boring.”

If you’re going to go rafting on the Animas River, you want to wear a swimsuit or clothing that dries quickly, waterproof footwear, sun glasses with a band to hold them on, and plenty of sunscreen. You usually miss a spot when you’re applying sunscreen. I missed an area just above my knees. My shorts were knee-length, and I forgot that they’d be a couple of inches higher when I was sitting in the raft.

Days later, they’re purple, they still hurt, and they will provide my dermatologist with endless entertainment and a new home sound system in a few years.

There are a lot of options for rafting in Durango. Tour operators offer trips ranging from an hour to overnight, with meals and tents provided. Some of the overnight adventures are on the upper Animas, with Class V rapids not suitable for casual amateurs and closed to anyone under 18, but the lower Animas, where shorter excursions run, is suitable for the whole family.

Suitable for the whole family doesn’t mean “sissy,” though. Rapids are classed from A (still water) to VI (extraordinarily difficult; paddlers face the constant threat of death).

The lower Animas is mostly Class I or II. Heavy runoff this year means that some normally Class II areas are temporarily Class III (moderately difficult; high and irregular waves, rocks and eddies).

“Everyone, make sure your feet are locked. You’ll need to help me paddle, but if you feel uneasy, lean into the boat and don’t paddle. You (indicating a boy about 10) sit at the bottom in the middle, lock your feet and hold onto that D-ring. Ready? Let’s go!”

With that and a five-foot drop, into the one short stretch of Class III rapids we went. No one fell out of the raft. Everyone got soaked. Scary? Not at all. Thrilling? Absolutely. Worth $39 for a couple of hours? Definitely. Harlan eating his “sissy” words? Priceless.

Earlier, in a Class A stretch of river, kids jumped out of the raft or stood at the front while the guide spun it around and threw them off. We had a paddle battle with another raft. We got soaked, and the water was cold. With the hot sun, it felt great. Harlan wants to go back for an all day trip. Two hours is all the fun I can handle. He’ll be old enough next time to go unaccompanied. We’ll let him.

We took the kids to the Community Recreation Center, which has indoor pools (one for kids and play, one for laps), an outdoor water play area for little ones, rock climbing walls, weight rooms, gyms, pool tables and air hockey.

The kids tackled the climbing walls, Lisa headed for the stair machine. For me there was a sitting area with wi-fi where I could get some work done.

Mesa Verde National Park, famous for its Anasazi cliff dwellings, is just an hour’s drive away. It’s another good place to hike to find dehydrated Europeans hiding under trees on the tops of mesas, where they piteously beg for water. Be kind; carry a spare bottle. It’s not as bad as feeding bears.

There are also some well-preserved ruins in Aztec (half an hour south), and the Salmon ruins are near Aztec, on the way to Farmington.

Mesa Verde, CO / Image: Jim Picht for CDN

If you really must, you can visit the Four Corners monument (due to a surveyor’s error, the monument is a few hundred feet away from the actual point of contact for Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico). It’s desolate, but we had some excellent fry bread there.

The trading post at Teec Nos Pos isn’t far from there, in the territory of the Navajo Nation. It’s a good place to find some fine Navajo weaving. This excursion involves a couple of hours of driving from Durango, but you can return via Shiprock, an impressive stone formation jutting up from the flat area south of Farmington, then eat dinner at the Three Rivers Eatery & Brewhouse in Farmington before heading back to Durango. It makes for a full and interesting day.

For an overnight excursion from Durango, try Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, in the Navajo Nation. The motels in Chinle aren’t bad, but Canyon de Chelly is magnificent. You can’t drive into the canyon

You can’t drive into the canyon yourself, but must hire a local guide. It’s easy to do, the price depending on how long you want to stay and how far into the canyon you want to go. It’s just a few hours from Durango.

It’s just a few hours from Durango.

Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, AZ / Image: Jim Picht for CDN

Or head to Moab, Utah, three or four hours from Durango, and see Arches National Park. We stayed at the Castle Valley Inn, about a 15-minute drive from Moab along the Colorado River.

We stayed two nights, falling in love with the spectacular views from the porch of our cabin and the excellent breakfasts.

Arches National Park
Arches National Park, Moab, UT / Image: Jim Picht for CDN

Durango is an extraordinary family vacation destination for the family that loves the outdoors. It can accommodate people of almost all budgets, with options for camping, moderately-priced motels, and 19th-century luxury hotels.

You can visit national monuments and parks for very little, hike for free, or opt for luxury zip-lining and river-rafting adventures.

Durango sunset
Durango sunset / Image: Jim Picht for CDN

We stayed in Durango for a week. I’d have been happy to stay for a month, but we had another destination beckoning us onward: Colorado Springs.

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