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Explore Colorado’s Old West on a Family Trip to Durango

From its rich cowboy culture to distinctive Victorian flair, Durango’s history sets the perfect backdrop for a budget-friendly vacation that’s educational, fun, and just a little bit wild.

My family and I got a late start out of Denver when we made the six-hour trek to Durango. It was past midnight when we finally checked in at the historic Strater Hotel and carried our sleeping sons to the room. Although we didn’t get a sense of where we were right away, we woke up the next morning to find ourselves surrounded by the majestic San Juan Mountains of the Animas River Valley.

My husband and I had explored the Front Range and foothills extensively, but the farthest west we’d ventured was Glenwood Springs. We wanted to show our two boys more of the state and Durango offered a different look at life in Colorado. It’s a taste of Colorado’s varied history, a little Old West, a little Victorian mining town, and, with a short drive, a unique glimpse into the state’s ancient life.

Whether you’re planning a long weekend getaway or a weeklong vacation, here’s what you need to know to make the most of your time in Durango.

All Aboard!

Durango was founded in 1880 by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which transported precious metals out of high country mines. Over the years, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad carried $300 million in precious metals—but today the coal-fired, steam-powered train hauls only tourists.

With young children, your first stop should be the original 1882 train depot. The railroad’s signature Silverton train tour departs daily from the depot in summer months, taking passengers on a scenic three-and-a-half hour ride through the San Juan National Forest to Silverton, where you’ll have time to eat and shop before returning to Durango.

If a nine-hour daytrip is too much, take a family-friendly yard tour instead. Visit the free train museum behind the depot. It’s open every day the train operates. The depot is believed to be haunted, so if your family is into spooky stuff, ask a guide about the station’s ghostly guests.

Explore Downtown

Downtown Durango is a nationally registered historic district full of acclaimed art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and Victorian hotels, including the Strater, the Rochester, and the General Palmer.

Grab a cup of seasonal joe at Taste Coffee before strolling up and down Main Avenue, perusing the historic structures between the 1100 and 500 blocks.

If you aren’t staying at the Strater, it’s worth visiting this 1880s landmark for a tour and a drink in the Diamond Belle Saloon—a Victorian-era bar with live ragtime music, costumed saloon girls, and a bullet hole behind the bar acquired from train robbers during the bar’s train trip to Durango.

On the north side of town, visit the Powerhouse Science Center built inside the oldest known steam-powered alternating current (AC) power plant. This kid-friendly stop, established by the Children’s Museum of Durango, is packed with hands-on energy-related exhibits.

Taste Local Flavor

Durango is home to a plethora of family-friendly southwestern restaurants, many with meats and veggies raised and grown locally.

Taste the farm-to-table flavors at James Ranch, a 12-mile drive from downtown. On the ranch, look for Harvest Grill & Greens, a wood-plank food wagon serving up fresh-made sandwiches, burgers, and gourmet cheese melts. Eat your grub on the terrace, swing by the James Ranch Market, and take a guided or self-guided tour to learn more about sustainable agriculture.

Another place to see farming in action is the Durango Farmers Market, located in the parking lot of First National Bank of Durango on West Ninth Street. Organic produce, dairy products, artisan goods, and ready-to-eat meals are sold on Saturday mornings, from 8 a.m. to noon, May through October.

When the fresh mountain air makes your stomach growl, hit Carver Brewing Company for breakfast or CJ’s Diner for traditional diner fare. For lunch or dinner, pile up your plate at Serious Texas Bar-B-Q or order a burger and craft beer at Steamworks Brewing Co. One of my preschooler’s favorite parts of the trip was coloring with chalk on the floor at Steamworks while waiting for his food.

Adventure Awaits

Once you’ve fueled up, explore Durango’s natural offerings. A four-mile stretch on the Animas River, from Lightner Creek to Rivera Crossing Bridge, is considered “gold medal” water, meaning it has the highest quality of fishing for rainbow and brown trout. Sign up for a fly fishing excursion with the Duranglers or cast your line in Vallecito Lake, a stunning high-elevation lake backing up to the Weminuche Wilderness.

From rafting to kayaking, there are plenty of watersports to try on the Animas, but my family opted for the calmer experience of walking a portion of the paved Animas River Trail.

There are hundreds of miles of trails within minutes of downtown Durango. For a mellow out-and-back option, walk or pedal the first 2.5 miles of the Colorado Trail at Junction Creek, stopping at the bridge before hitting some steep switchbacks. On the Hogsback Ridge loop, accessible from downtown, a steep 1.1-mile trek rewards hikers with incredible panoramic views.

Step Way Back in Time

Accessible from Highway 160, between the towns of Cortez and Mancos, Mesa Verde National Park, home to ancient cliff dwellings, was one of the most memorable parts of my family’s vacation.

Start at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center, near the park’s entrance. Pay the $20 vehicle entrance fee (May through October; $15 the rest of the year) and purchase tickets to visit Cliff Palace, Balcony House, or Long House—three cliff dwellings that can be viewed only on a guided tour. Don’t worry if the guided tours are full when you visit, you can explore Step House on your own.

Make sure to use the restroom at the visitor’s center before hopping back in the car—the first cliff dwelling is 21 miles from the entrance, and, traveling along a steep and narrow road, it took my family almost an hour to reach the Cliff Palace Overlook where our tour started.

The hour-long Cliff Palace tour doesn’t cover much distance, but the experience takes visitors into ancient Pueblo ruins dating back more than 1,000 years. My kids explored the rocks, and my husband and I enjoyed listening to our guide’s brief history lesson on Colorado’s first settlers. While there aren’t height or age restrictions for guided tours, children who participate should be able to climb steep trails, ladders, and steps independently; all infants must be carried in backpacks.

In addition to tours of the cliff dwellings, there are seven designated hiking trails. We hiked the Petroglyph Point Trail, a 2.4-mile loop taking off from the Spruce Tree House trail near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. This is the only trail from which to view petroglyphs, so it came highly recommended.

After a shaded walk, there was a good climb to the top of the mesa, where we stopped for a family selfie overlooking views of Spruce and Navajo Canyons. Hugging my boys, who seem to be growing up too fast, I knew our Durango vacation was going to be a moment in time I’d want to capture forever.

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