The Perfect Weekend Getaway: Durango From Denver

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Durango is the largest city in Southern Colorado and a hub for adventure. With distinct Old-West vibes, this reformed boomtown highlights both the Rocky Mountain State’s mining past and intrepid mountainous pursuits.

While the town itself is a draw, its proximity to national parks, towering peaks, desert landscapes, historical monuments, and natural attractions are equally as appealing in a part of the state many have yet to explore fully. You could spend days or weeks adventuring around Southern Colorado, and this quick weekend getaway is just the tip of the iceberg.

GETTING THERE

The most direct route from Denver to Durango is a six-hour drive down 285-S and 160-W, but if you cut down I-25 and add 30 minutes, you’ll pass Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and can hit Great Sand Dunes National Park and Pagosa Springs on the way.

If you have a couple of extra days or some time to kill, you can also head back a different route up the Million Dollar Highway (US 550) through Ouray and Telluride to hit a third national park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

DAY1

From Denver, it’s a four-hour drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park, the tallest dunes in North America. You’ll want to fill up before you go since there aren’t many food stops past Pueblo, and you’ll want to keep your energy up. Before you head out of town, swing by Denver Biscuit Co., which you may have seen on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Known for their towering biscuit sandwiches and cinnamon rolls bigger than your head, if they don’t put you in a food coma, you’ll be good to go. Stop in Alamosa to rent a sandboard or sled before you arrive.

It’s such a strange sight to see towering dunes rise out of nowhere like an oasis amongst the mountainous backdrop. Take a moment of pause to let the beauty soak in. Once you’ve gotten your bearings, splash around in Medano Creek, which you have to cross to get to the dunes, and spend some time playing in the world’s largest sandbox.

From there, it’s another two hours to Pagosa Springs to rest and fuel up. By now, you’re probably starving, which is fine because there are plenty of restaurants in town. Alley House Grille is a local favorite for its upscale, Asian-inspired cuisine. Snag a seat on the deck and feast on crispy pork belly and filets.

One of Colorado’s best natural mineral springs, the area is certified by Guinness World Records as the World’s Deepest Geothermal Hot Spring Aquifer. There are three hot springs resorts, but The Springs Resort & Spa is the largest and most popular with 23 pools of varying sizes, shapes, and temperatures. There’s even an adults-only section if you’re looking to rekindle the romance that’s especially beautiful in the inky moonlight.

Once you’ve dried off, hop back in the car, and an hour later, you’ve made it to Durango to settle in for the night.

DAY2

A blissful mountain town, cozy up for breakfast at Oscar’s Café. With blue plate specials, pancakes, and omelets, it’s your tasty, no-frills morning meal.

One of the indisputable highlights of the area is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This classic coal-powered steam engine takes you up the mountain to Colorado’s old mining towns. Enjoy a trip back in time to travel’s heyday on a morning train ride. Trips are as short as two hours and a great way to see high country and some of the smaller mountain communities with different routes and itineraries that vary by season.

When you’ve returned, head to El Moro Tavern, once home to Durango’s strangest shootout. The former saloon was raided during a poker game in the early 1900s and has plenty of stories in its walls—although today, it’s more known for its hot chicken sandwiches and burgers.

Once you’ve sufficiently refueled, spend the afternoon taking advantage of your landscape with a half-day whitewater rafting, horseback riding, ATVing, or ziplining excursion. The railway offers combo tour packages with many of the local experiences. In winter, there’s skiing, snowmobiling, ice climbing, and dogsledding to get your blood pumping.

For dinner, head back to town to unwind at Ken & Sue’s. Your classic American bistro, there are seafood favorites like pistachio-crusted grouper or carnivorous plates of prime rib. If you’re not tired yet or in a food coma, meander up and down Main Street and see what moves you. Make it a DIY bar crawl at one of the three local breweries, pick up a sweet treat from Animas Chocolate & Coffee Company, catch some live music at Balcony Bar & Grill, or hit up the Diamond Belle Saloon where ragtime entertainers will transport you back to the turn of the century.

DAY3

For your last day in town, fuel up at the Lone Spur Café, which touts authentic cowboy cuisine like Spanish skillets and chorizo scrambles before jumping back in the car.

Spend the morning exploring the Native American cliffside pueblos of Mesa Verde National Park. Spanish for “green table,” the park has nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. You can see them by driving the Mesa Top Loop Road, which takes you to twelve sites and a handful of overlooks in a 6-mile loop. Or, if you’d rather hike, trails of varying difficulties and distances can take you closer to the ruins and petroglyphs. If you’d prefer to get more of a history and background on the area, there are also ranger-led tours.

Before you head home, you can choose to continue to Four Corners National Monument to snag that iconic photo standing in four states at once, which is an hour further.

WHERE TO STAY

Durango has a variety of accommodations from rustic cabins and bed & breakfasts to your basic no-frills hotels and motels. The Rochester Hotel is one of the nicest and was once a historic apartment complex (now converted into a boutique hotel). The 33-room boarding house was turned into 15 luxurious rooms plus a secret garden where local singers and songwriters regularly perform.

A more affordable option is the Strater Hotel, which bills itself as a living history museum. The Victorian property is home to the world’s largest collection of antique walnut furniture.

For an equally unique experience, Colorado Trails is an all-inclusive dude ranch that features horseback riding, fly fishing, Western dancing, and cookouts over the fire.

WHEN TO GO

With over 300-days of sunshine a year, Durango is a year-round destination, although the summer and winter seasons have quite a different appeal. The train runs year-round, but summer typically gives you more flexibility with routes and options.

See more at Fodor's Travel