Our second stop in Colorful Colorado was in the little town of Durango, located in the state’s southwestern-most corner. A few weeks prior to visiting this lovely area, a wildfire broke out nearby, and the entire surrounding national forest was subsequently closed. Due to this unfortunate event, we were sure we would end up missing this stop and seeing this area, which made us very sad. You see, we had been looking forward to seeing Durango (and nearby Mesa Verde National Park) for awhile, and changing plans tends to throw us off a bit.
To avoid these wildfires, we ventured off route to Taos, New Mexico, and then on to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, trying to make the best of our change of plans. Later, we found out that the fire had been partially contained and the San Juan National Forest reopened, so we decided to loop back around to Durango and the surrounding area. This was a great outcome for the overall situation, and we were stoked for a second chance to see this region.
The route from Great Sand Dunes to Durango crossed through the Rio Grande National Forest, the town of South Fork, and the famous Pagosa Springs, all of which were beautiful, lush, and green. The views for the drive were breathtaking, with peaks, valleys, and rivers in every direction. After such an amazing travel day, we were even more excited when we pulled into Durango. While here, we explored the town itself, paddled a nearby lake, and made a day trip to nearby Mesa Verde. It was a great couple days, and we already want to go back at Christmastime and see the town covered in a fresh blanket of snow.
WHERE we stayed:
We camped in a BLM area about fifteen minutes outside of Durango, right nearby a small town called Bayfield. The campsite is called “Durfield Dispersed” and is leased to a local oil company for drilling, so certain sites are off-limits. We managed to snag a great site beneath a couple of ponderosa pines, whose shade really helped us to keep cool in the heat of the day. There were lots and lots of cows on the nearby lands, including many young calves and even a few that seemed less than a couple weeks old.
While not our all-time favorite campsite, this place was pretty great for a few reasons. Primarily, it was very close to Durango, and it also had blazing fast cell service. The views also weren’t bad, with mountains in the distance and the ground scattered with typical desert plants. It was quiet and laid-back, and it was FREE, which is difficult to beat. If we returned for another visit to Durango, we would surely stay here again. To read more about this campsite, check out its listing on Campendium (our go-to for finding places to park and stay): https://www.campendium.com/durfield-dispersed.
WHAT we cooked:
We visited Durango in late June, which meant that it was pretty warm during our stay there. We ate salads most days, as these did not require us to heat the house while cooking.
However, I did randomly start to crave pho (a delicious Vietnamese soup), so I made this on our final day in the area. I slow-cooked the broth for six hours in our crock pot, which runs very efficiently through our solar power. After cooking the broth all day, we topped our soup with bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, thin-cut pieces of London broil, fresh basil, and fresh-squeezed lime. It was delicious. Here is the recipe I used: https://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-quick-vietnamese-beef-pho-cooking-lessons-from-the-kitchn-215118.
WHERE we ate:
We didn’t eat out in Durango, but we did grab delicious iced coffees at The Steaming Bean, a cute little coffee shop downtown. This place was modern, hip, and vibey, and I so wished we had had the time to come back here for a day’s work.
WHAT we did:
We only spent about five days in Durango, so, between work and our typical RV life chores, we didn’t have a ton of time to explore the area. Still, we managed to squeeze in some pretty fun activities and greatly enjoyed each of them.
We spent a few hours on a sunny afternoon exploring Durango’s historic, downtown area. While somewhat tourist-y, the town has an iconic Western theme that is very well-done. There are tons of shops, restaurants, museums, and cafes, and live music plays in the downtown park on the weekend. Altogether, it’s a scenic, vibey place, set perfectly against the green backdrop of the San Juan Mountains. We’ve heard that they put on a great Christmastime display, and I’d love to return to see it one day.
When searching our route to Durango, Brendan noticed a huge lake just south of the city on Google maps. Since water is a rarity in the desert,we made a mental note to make sure we came here to paddle while visiting. Sure enough, we planned a late-afternoon paddle on this beautiful lake, and we’re so glad we did.
The water here is a beautiful aqua blue, and the lake is surrounded by green hills in every direction. It was especially quiet when we paddled, and we were one of a handful of boats out on the calm lake. The admission fee was $8 per vehicle, which we were not anticipating, so be sure to remember this if you do decide to visit.
Mesa Verde National Park
About forty-five minutes due west of Durango is a fascinating national park: Mesa Verde. In this park, there are over six hundred well-preserved cliff dwellings, making this the only US national park established to protect a historical site. These homes are over eight hundred years old, and seeing them in-person was fascinating. Brendan in particular was looking forward to this national park for a long time, and it did not disappoint.
We purchased tickets for the Cliff Palace tour at the tourism office in Durango, which turned out to be a wise decision, as they tend to sell out quickly. The tickets were $5 each, and the tour was fascinating. After the tour, we drove the Mesa Top Loop Road, stopping to view many additional dwellings from above. We also saw the visitor’s center, the archaeological museum, and the Spruce Tree House, which is said to be the best-preserved group of dwellings in the park. We would have visited the area to see this park alone, and we’re so glad we were able to make a day trip of it. (You can read more in-depth information about our visit to Mesa Verde National Park HERE).
Things we didn’t do but highly recommended
Because of a shortage of time and the nearby, raging wildfires, we had to miss a few things on our list of things to do. However, both of these activities come highly recommended.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Train
Many consider this train ride, which transports tourists from Durango to Silverton, to be one of the very best in the world. The route rides right through the center of the San Juan mountains, through breathtaking valleys, along the Animas River, and even up several of the snowy peaks. Because of the wildfires, the line was only running half its usual distance when we were in Durango, so we opted to return and ride the train when we could see its typical course. While pricey (average $100+ per adult), this train is world-renowned and not to be missed.
San Juan National Forest Hiking
As I previously mentioned a bajillion times, the wildfires burning just north of Durango threw a bit of a wrench in our visit. Because of this, many of the nearby hikes in the San Juan Mountains were closed. This didn’t throw us off too badly, as our next stop took us deeper into the national forest, where we had plenty more opportunities for hiking. However, if you are just visiting the city of Durango, you should definitely plan to do some hiking, as the area is absolutely beautiful, and it would be a shame to miss out on the nearby trails.
When visiting Colorado from the south, I recommend Durango as your very first stop. The scenery, historic town, nearby national forest, and looming mountains leave no shortage of activities and things to do, and this place is ideal for outdoors lovers. The area provides a great introduction to Colorado, and we really hope to visit again one day.
Have you been to Durango before? What was your overall impression? Feel free to drop a comment below!