By Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer
Durango has an ambiance entirely its own. It is Colorado, but it’s also the Southwest. There is cowboy culture and craft beer is a way of life. It’s a town that celebrates its past through beautiful architecture and wonderful stories. Yet, Durango embraces the present through farm-to-table food and cocktails, and it looks forward through the eyes of more than 3,000 students at Fort Lewis College.
To visit is to experience all of these things and more.
On our most recent stay in Durango, we chose to visit during Snowdown, the town’s winter festival that includes everything from a drag show to hot air balloons. The festival is first and foremost for locals but visiting during this celebration is definitely an entertaining time to be in Durango.
PURGATORY IS MORE LIKE HEAVEN
One of the best reasons to visit Durango during the winter is Purgatory Resort. Located about 30 minutes outside of town in the San Juan Mountains, there are no lift lines, which make it less like Purgatory and more like Heaven.
This is not a pretentious ski resort. In fact, diners at Purgy’s Slopeside, a popular and sunny après ski spot, will engage strangers or friends in conversation. Friendliness here is a way of life and is prevalent throughout Southwest Colorado.
On the mountain, there are 1,605 skiable acres including steep tree skiing and wide-open cruisers. The astounding views are just one good reason to ski here. Recently, the Legends Lift has been replaced with a brand-new high-speed detachable quad so that access to Purgatory’s summit is less than five minutes.
The San Juan Mountains are a bit far from the sea, but Dante’s, an on-mountain food-court-style grill, makes a delicious clam chowder. Happily, there is never a lack of Colorado beer at slope side bars. We enjoyed $4 pints of Steamworks beer on the day we visited, so be sure to look for the local beer special at Purgy’s.
Apres at Purgy’s | Photo by Scott Smith.
Animas Brewing Company | Photo by Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer.
DOG SLEDDING IN DURANGO
Durango Dog Ranch is near Purgatory Resort. In fact, if the snow is good, part of their operation moves right next to the resort, making this an easy option to add to a ski itinerary. It’s also perfect for the non-skiers in the group.
Sled dogs don’t generally look like a typical Siberian Husky or Malamute, and Durango Dog Ranch dogs are no exception. Most have floppy ears and are around the same size with a few larger dogs almost always serving as “wheel dogs” (this means they are the team closest to the sled). The key is that all these dogs love to run, and their enthusiasm is exhibited through wagging tails and excited yapping.
A ride with Durango Dog Ranch is a real thrill and the perfect addition to a winter visit. Sliding through the snow behind a group of exuberant canines is exhilarating, especially for dog-lovers. Luckily for me, there were puppies in residence when I visited, so I enjoyed some puppy time too.
Durango Dog Ranch | Photo by Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer.
Dog sledding | Photo by Scott Smith.
On Purgatory, there are 1,605 skiable acres including steep tree skiing and wide-open cruisers.
GOOD EATS & DRINKS IN DURANGO
Zia Taqueria has two locations in Durango. Their restaurant on South Camino del Rio is a convenient spot for hungry skiers on their way back from the slopes. Zia’s food is fast and delicious, and a pot of pozole is always on.
Pozole, a staple in southwest Colorado cuisine, is a soup featuring hominy and pork, often garnished with avocados, radishes and lime. It’s on many menus in Durango and I try to eat my weight in pozole whenever I’m in the region.
Breakfast isn’t hard to find in Durango, but my go-to spot is Oscar’s Cafe. Decorated in old Snowdown posters, my husband and I can always find a spot at the diner bar here. I love Oscar’s because patrons can opt to smother whatever they order in green chili, and it is scrumptious.
A newer dining option in Durango is 11th Street Station, a food truck collective at Ernie’s Bar on the corner of 11th and Main Streets. The food choices here are vast and range from sushi burritos to barbeque. Ernie’s is a trendy place to be for college students during Snowdown, but we still found a seat at the bar to eat dinner and enjoy the shenanigans.
El Moro Tavern has become a bit of a tradition when we visit Durango, as is having a hamburger at Steamworks Brewery, their sister restaurant. The food at both places is dependably good and the steampunk atmosphere at El Moro fits the vibe of the town. On my next trip, I will eat there earlier in the day—their Twitter pics about brunch look delectable.
While we were in town, our usual haunt was the tiny bar behind the Balcony Bar & Grill, also called Balcony Bar. They had nicely priced drinks and fun bartenders. We frequented this slightly hidden, second-story bar during our three-night stay in town.
We also visited the new-to-us drinking establishment called The Bookcase & Barber. It is a speakeasy hidden behind a bookshelf in what was previously a bookstore. The atmosphere is cozy and drinks are stiff.
Purgatory | Photo by Scott Smith.
SILLINESS AT SNOWDOWN
One cannot visit Durango without going to a few breweries. Ska Brewing Company is always on the list but on this visit, we also found ourselves at Animas Brewing Company, where we took in some Snowdown Human Foosball, which is even funnier than it sounds.
During the four days of Snowdown, different events occur throughout town; silly competitions, silly theatrics, and even a drag show. This is how we found ourselves at El Rancho Tavern watching the Snowdown Drag Queen Show. This show is sheer crazy college entertainment. Later, we went to the Snowdown Chili Cookoff, which featured plenty of green and red chili and a rather tasty Bloody Mary competition.
Not everything at Snowdown is silly. The Animas Valley Balloon Rally & Mass Ascension occurs over the same weekend and is a beautiful sight to behold. It is held around 8 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and occurs adjacent to the railroad tracks on Hwy 550 North. The Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad runs a special train to the rally, so visitors can drive or take the train to this photo-worthy event.
In addition, Snowdown features a parade that seems to involve almost everyone in town, along with a fireworks show. Each year, Snowdown has a theme that dictates the costumes and overall ambiance of the event. In 2020, January 29 to February 1, the 42nd Snowdown’s theme is Rock N’ Roll.
Whether you visit Durango to ski, eat, party or do all three, this is a Southwest Colorado town with loads of character. It’s part Colorado, part Southwest and 100% unique.