Durango, Colo., lies at least three hours by car from the nearest interstate highway. But that’s not to say this one-time uranium mining and cowboy town is some isolated outpost stuck on the rock-strewn backwater of the Animas River, which snakes through its center.

Perched more than a mile up on the high plains of the Four Corners region, Durango might be easy to overlook and hard to reach. But it’s well worth the effort, both as a jumping-off point and for the wealth of activities in or near the town itself — fly fishing, skiing, rafting, hiking, snowshoeing, ruins exploring, micro-brewing and legal pot smoking, to name a few.

Another, and among the most popular: One of the last narrow-gauge trains creeps north from Durango through jaw-dropping San Juan Mountain passes to the quaint mining town of Silverton.

The train, in turn, inspired the annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic. For 44 years each late May, bikers race the train, pedaling 50 miles up Hwy. 550, over the ridge formed by the rim of an old volcano and into the caldera that became Silverton. Biking shoes and tight shorts now eclipse cowboy boots and chaps; Durango has become a mountain- and road-bike haven.

If the altitude scares your inner biker, consider rafting or kayaking down the Animas — the River of Souls named by a Spanish explorer in 1765. Some say its full name was the Rio de las Animas Perdidas, which translates to the River of Lost Souls. Maybe that’s why Interstate planners never found Durango.

Then there are the cliff dwellings of ancient Pueblo people, dating back 1,400 years and clinging above the rocky ravines at Mesa Verde National Park, 40 miles west of Durango. The mesa-top road snakes you back in time, ending with wooden ladders that let you descend into ancient kivas, the sacred center of their dwellings, and to see foot holds in the rock that were used to scale the cliffs.

A full-blown ski operation buzzes all winter and spring about a half-hour north of Durango on the picturesque road to Silverton. For years, it was known as Purgatory — and still is, despite re-branders’ attempts to rename it Durango Mountain Resort. Another powdery option at Wolf Creek Pass — the snowiest stretch of Colorado — hangs 85 miles east near the sulphur-smelly but soothing, steaming outdoor baths of Pagosa Springs.

The galleries and restaurants of Santa Fe, N.M., the red rock cliffs of Moab, Utah, and countless backcountry Colorado camping spots are all within four hours, making Durango the hub of a spoked wheel of splendor.

Plenty of cultural offerings

Simply hanging out in Durango itself will make visitors forget the traffic snarls of Denver, the college vibe of Boulder and the hoity-toity air of western slope destinations such as Vail, Aspen and Beaver Creek.

Durango’s entertainment options run surprisingly deep. With 70 restaurants serving 17,000 residents, the town boasts more eateries per capita than San Francisco.

Granted, there are too many mind-numbing T-shirt shops and western schlock stores punctuating an otherwise quaint Victorian Main Avenue, anchored by the redbrick Strater Hotel built in 1887. Author Louis L’Amour wrote some of his western classics in rooms 222 and 223 at the hotel, which will remind Minnesotans of the St. James in Red Wing.

My wife and I moved here last summer and, frankly, all of the cultural offerings shocked us a bit. There’s an amazing Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum 40 miles southeast in Ignacio — along with the proverbial casino — that spins the narrative of the area way before the miners, cowpokes and retirees filled these valleys.

We caught a reading on poet Dylan Thomas’ 100th birthday of his play “Under Milk Wood,” with more than a dozen members of the Unitarian Church reading roles about a day in the life of a Scottish fishing town.

Fort Lewis College, known as Fort Leisure for its not-exactly-academic rigor, nevertheless augments the quality of life from its mesa-top campus overlooking downtown Durango. At the college’s concert hall, we’ve seen acts ranging from comedian Paula Poundstone to singers Suzanne Vega and Shelby Lynne to a sold-out speech from Minnesota’s own environmental activist and Harvard-trained economist Winona LaDuke.

Arthur Miller’s 1947 classic play, “All My Sons,” featuring two Fort Lewis instructors, rivaled Twin Cities drama standards. And tickets for plays to the Durango Art Center’s 2015 season go for a far-from-Broadway price of $20 to see shows such as “Rent” and “Other Desert Cities.”

Wilderness where streets end

Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is how easy it is to access serene swaths of wilderness. You can literally park your car at the end of Durango residential streets and start hiking at trail heads that, within 20 minutes, will lift you among Ponderosa Pines, gurgling Rocky Mountain streams and dramatic cliff overlooks.

For in-town hikes, we like the aptly named Hogback, a maze of trails up and along the ridge west of Durango that resembles a big swine’s spine.

North on Hwy. 550 toward Silverton and Ouray, the Lime Creek Trail is merely one of myriad options for hiking or snowshoeing. La Plata Canyon west of Durango and the Weminuche Wilderness north near the Vallecito Reservoir — Colorado’s largest wilderness area at nearly 500,000 acres — easily get you into the golden Rocky Mountain light in less than an hour’s drive.

With cobalt-blue skies 85 percent of the time, Durango brags about 300 sunny days a year — more than enough to warm up any windchill factors by midafternoon.

One especially sweet spot we discovered, and hesitate to share, sits along the fly-fishing-friendly Piedra River an hour east of Durango on Hwy. 160 near the ancient astronomical-alignment site of Chimney Rock. Six miles up a gravel road at the Sheep’s Creek trail head, you follow switchbacks down canyon walls to the river.

A building contractor we met told us about some natural hot springs, which for the life of us, we couldn’t find. About to give up, we began to hike back up the steep, rocky ravine to our car.

That’s when we caught a glimpse of a fly fisherman working the Piedra’s western shore. Yelling over the rapids’ roar, he told us we’d overshot the hot springs by a few hundred yards. So we backtracked, dipping fingers into the eddies and pools — finding nothing but frigid river water.

Finally, we spotted some steam rising from a rock-lined backwater on the eastern shore. We took off our boots and socks and soaked our feet in the 110-degree springs before hiking up the cliff’s side.

 

Curt Brown lives in Durango and writes about Minnesota history for the Star Tribune.