For an early fix of desert, whitewater, biking and beer, head to southwestern Colorado this April. This local’s guide will give you all the beta you need for a springtime road trip.
Situated in the oft-forgotten southwestern corner of Colorado some 340 miles from Denver, Durango hangs in the balance between mountains and desert, cow town and college town. For locals, that means the best of all possible worlds. You’ve got 14,000-foot mountains to the north, desert to the south and, in town, a hearty river and an entertaining mixture of yuppies, hippies, hipsters and ranchers. Thanks to a favorable longitude and a middling altitude (6,500 feet), spring comes earlier to this historic railroad center than other mountain towns. In April, the weather turns pleasantly mild, trails are generally dry enough to ride and the snowmelt amps up rapids on the Animas River. Now’s the moment to call first dibs on the season of renewal.
Let Moab hog the limelight. Moab locals actually vacation in Durango because the miles of forested and desert singletrack here remain blissfully people-free. In spring, Horse Gulch, an arid 30-plus-mile tangle of trails on the southeast end of town, dries first. Trail maps are erected at every intersection, as if Durangoans were expecting company, and Hassle Free Sports ($40 for half day, hasslefreesports.com) rents bikes.
All the local wheel geeks are preparing for the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, which takes the town by storm every Memorial Day weekend. To train, cruise the relatively traffic-free, pastoral County Road 250 to Baker’s Bridge, then loop south on Highway 550 for a total of 27 miles. Ambitious riders can head north on 550 to the top of Coal Bank Pass to add another 40 miles round-trip, a 4,000-vertical-foot climb and stupidly pretty mountain views.
The snowmelt that fuels the Animas River funnels into the San Juan River and eventually the Colorado, but Durango gets it first. Local outfitter Mild to Wild (mild2wildrafting.com) offers two modes of transportation for the popular town run—rafts or inflatable kayaks. Highlights are Smelter and Santa Rita, among other Class II and III rapids, views of historic Durango and good native-watching, especially on Friday afternoons.
A little-known fact about Durango: Local climbers have helped develop 100-plus boulder problems in an area called Sailing Hawks just a 20-minute hike from town. Stop by Pine Needle Mountaineering (pineneedle.com) on Main Street to pick up manager Ian Allison’s guidebook, Durango Bouldering, and then head to the trailhead on Junction Creek Rd. Circumnavigating the garage-sized warm-up boulder will get the lactic acid flowing.
KICKING IT IN TOWN
Morning: The aptly named bakery Bread (970-247-5100), located at the intersection of Florida and County Road 250, makes an array of delectable carbohydrate bombs. Rejoice if you happen to drop by on the day they make maple-oat scones. For a full breakfast, try College Drive Café (970-247-5322), which has an extensive selection of eggs benedict.
Afternoon:Trimble Hot Springs (from $8, trimblehotsprings.com) is about seven miles north of town but worth the schlep for the pine-ensconced mineral hot pool that hovers around 98 degrees, depending on the earth’s mood. Keep an eye out for deer, owls and the occasional Texan.
Evening: Durango is a town of many microbreweries—four, to be exact. Start with Durango Brewing Company (durangobrewing.com) for a Durango Amber and a local grass-fed-beef burger. Or save your appetite for East by Southwest (eastbysouthwest.com), an Asian bistro with a Southwestern flair. (Think chile-spiked sushi.)
Night: The lodging choices in Durango fall in two camps—nameless motels or kitschy Victorian hotels—with one notable exception: Nobody’s Inn (nobodysinn.com). A renovated boarding house on Main Street, the four rooms have kitchens, a mix of modern and antique wooden furnishings and bold wall colors that give it a funky, modern feel.
Late Night: Moe’s Starlight Lounge (970-259-9018) is about as cheesy as it sounds, but the bartenders know how to make a good martini. Choose from a three-page menu of varying potencies. The last stop for any night on the town tends to be El Rancho (elranchotavern.com), the ultimate dive bar that’s best sampled when already well-lubed.