In southwest Colorado, everything seems a little bigger: higher mountains, bluer skies and so many activities you’ll have a hard time choosing. Spending just two days in the towns of Durango, Silverton and Ouray will give you a taste of the glories of true Southwest living.
In downtown Durango, historic buildings filled with award-winning restaurants and art galleries line Main Ave., cyclists zip through the streets and you’ll occasionally hear the toot-toot of the departing Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Durango was actually founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway company in 1879, and the train has been operating continually for 128 years. Named the most scenic in the country, a ride on this historic railroad is a must, so head on over to the depot to purchase your tickets.
Opt for a one-way ride with a motorcoach return trip to afford more time to explore the historic mining town of Silverton. Bring a sweater, because even in summer, temperatures can get cool as the train climbs from around 6,000 feet in Durango to nearly 10,000 in Silverton. The tracks take the steam-powered train through parts of the San Juan National Forest that are impenetrable by car, and the scenery will have you furiously snapping away as you look in awe through the camera’s viewfinder.
If you’d like to experience the wilderness rather than just watching it rush by, you can use the train to access the wilderness areas. It makes two stops along its route where adventurous travelers can disembark or board the train for a convenient way to explore some of the most pristine and remote wilderness in the state.
Once in Silverton, enjoy the storybook mining village in all its well-preserved splendor. The entire town is designated a National Historic Landmark and is an archetypical example of a Colorado mining town that reinvented itself after the ore — and the miners — disappeared. There are plenty of shops and restaurants to explore, as well as several historical sites including town hall, the Mayflower Gold Mill, the Old Hundred Gold Mine and the Silverton Historical Society Museum and Jail.
If you choose to extend your stay in Silverton, you have plenty of options for enjoying the surrounding San Juan mountains and the Weminuche Wilderness including Jeep tours, rafting, horseback riding and hiking.
Back in Durango, consider taking in one of the town’s famous melodramas or other shows in the Victorian-era Henry Strater Theater; enjoying martinis served by saloon girls at the Diamond Belle Saloon; or visiting one of four craft breweries that brew award-winning beers, ales and lagers.
A second day allows you to mosey up a route similar to the one the railroad took you on yesterday through the Animas Valley — but this time your destination will be Ouray. Make time for a stop by the Honeyville factory tasting room where you can taste their locally made premium honey, jams and mead. Kids can search the glass beehive for the queen bee.
Continue on the scenic route to Ouray. Nicknamed the “Switzerland of America,” the town sits at the head of a narrow valley, surrounded on three sides by the towering peaks of the Rockies. Two-thirds of the town’s original Victorian structures are still occupied and have been lovingly restored to retain the town’s original charm.
Any time of the year, you can enjoy a truly restorative experience in the enormous Ouray Hot Springs Pool. The pool holds more than a million gallons of crystal-clear mineral water, naturally heated to between 96 and 106 degrees. The pool has a lap-swimming section, diving area, large slide, shallow kids’ section and game area for water volleyball, as well as several distinct soaking areas. It makes a perfect end to a day of skiing or ice climbing in the winter, or a day of shopping, hiking and mountain biking in the summer.
If your tastes run a little more toward games of chance, another option is to use day two to head south from Durango to check out the Sky Ute Casino Resort and Ute Mountain Casino. Both sit in the shadow of beautiful Ute Mountain and offer slots, poker, blackjack, craps, roulette and bingo as well as good food, comfortable lodgings and unsurpassed Southwest hospitality.
Pagosa Springs is just an hour and 15 minutes east of Durango and offers one of the state’s most notable hot springs experiences at The Springs Resort and Spa. Located in Pagosa Springs’ charming downtown, and right beside the San Juan River, the springs are known for their mineral-rich waters, rejuvenating views and luxurious yet family-friendly vibe. Go for the day or spend a few reveling in the relaxing pools, strolling the town or exploring the surrounding wilderness.
Visiting During Winter?
Consider skiing at Durango Mountain Resort or Silverton Mountain, two of Colorado’s ski and snowboard meccas.Ski Magazine hailed Durango as one of "Seven great mountains to ski with your kids," and Silverton is Colorado's highest and steepest ski mountain.
Photos: Ouray Chamber of Commerce/Kane Scheidegger; Durango Area Tourism Office.