Explore America / Explore Colorado

Four Nights in Durango, Colorado: Ancient Adventures, Food Finds and Chasing Waterfalls and Sunsets

I love exploring in and around Durango in Southwest Colorado, partly because of its unique topography.  You can explore desert and high alpine landscapes in the same day.  It’s a gateway to the Four Corners region and the sits at the base of the San Juan Mountains.  Durango is an authentic western town filled with historical architecture in the downtown area.  Durango was founded in 1880 as a railroad town and I highly recommend doing a ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.  The historic steam train chugs through jaw dropping scenery in the San Juan National Forest.  I did that on my first summer visit to Durango.   My recent trip was filled with a few places I love to return to and exploring new ones with ancient adventures, culinary capers and even chasing waterfalls and sunsets.  Here’s I spent four nights in Durango.

Checking into Corrie’s Condo

It’s a little over six hours to drive from Denver to Durango.  Instead of a hotel, I opted to stay in an Airbnb for this trip.  Corrie’s Condo at the intersection of East 8th Avenue and College is in a fabulous location.  It’s a short ten-minute walk to Main Street.  I enjoyed daily walks in the neighborhood.  Plus, my favorite coffee shop in Durango is a block away.  The one-bedroom loft condo is cute and perfect for a solo traveler like me or a couple.

After settling in, I had dinner and an evening walk on my agenda.  My favorite place to eat in Durango is Chimayo Stone Fired Kitchen.  I ordered to go and was picking up my food in under 15 minutes.  I went for the corn, peach salad and rustic peach pie.  Chimayo’s roasted Olathe corn “elote” is local Olathe corn cut off the cob and served with Chimayo butter, avocado-lime crema, queso fresco, cilantro and seasoned with chile powder.  It’s so good and paired perfectly with the Palisade peach salad with local Palisade peaches, mixed greens. Burrata mozzarella, pickled onions, spiced pecans and blood orange vinaigrette.  Keeping with a summer theme, I washed down dinner with a sangria. I went light on dinner so I could splurge on a rustic pie of fresh Palisade peaches cooked in a homemade pie crust in a small cast-iron skillet.  Top it with vanilla ice cream and you have a dessert that oozies the flavors of summer.  Needing to walk off the decadent dessert, I took a stroll to Main Street and around downtown before retreating to my cozy condo accommodations for the night.

Day 1: Canyons of the Ancients to Dandelion Cafe

I started my first full day in Durango as I ended the evening before with a walk.  This time I walked in the neighborhood admiring the small bungalows and Victorian style homes of the east streets.  I even found a fairy forest in red wagons at the corner of East Eighth and East Fourth.  I took East Seventh Street, which turned into Ninth and walked to the Animas River.  I jumped on the trail along the river and walked it a bit before heading back to my condo, with a stop at Durango Joe’s for a honey bear almond milk latte and a burrito.

I was really excited to spend the day in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.  It has the highest density of archaeological sites in the United States.  There are over 6,000 known sites and estimated there could be up to 30,000 sites in the 176,000 acres of the national monument.  I’ve visited Lowry Pueblo and hiked to Painted Hand Pueblo before and highly recommend visiting both.  The part of Canyons of the Ancients that has eluded me was Sand Canyon.  I had seen Castle Rock at the South Sand Canyon Trailhead several times driving through McElmo Canyon.  On this trip I went hiking in Sand Canyon with an archaeologist as a guide from Durango Rivertrippers.  Denise asked where I wanted to go and what I wanted to see.  We decided to hike in south Sand Canyon first then drive around to the Sand Canyon Pueblo.

Denise spent five seasons working at Mesa Verde National Park.  She’s an interpretative archaeologist.  “I like to synthesize all the research, put it into a story and share it.  I fill in the gap between the field researchers and what people are interested in learning.  They [ancestral Puebloan people] definitively have a legacy for us to learn from.  Here we are thousands of years later and still struggling with some of the same issues,” was how she described the sector of archaeology she specializes in.  On the drive she gave me some background on the prehistoric past of ancestral Puebloan people and how important McElmo Canyon was a major trade route.

As we arrived at South Sand Canyon Trailhead, Denise said “They have a legacy if we’re willing to take a look and connect the dots.”  We immediately started connecting the dots as we stood in what was once a village of about 49 dwellings at the base of the Castle Rock formation.  Denise pointed out a bridge between the rocks at the top and on the back side there’s some rock art.

We hiked about a mile to what’s called Saddlehorn, because the rock formation looks like the horn of a saddle.  On the way we passed the remnants of a tower and had a great view of the mountain called Sleeping Ute.  According to legend, the hero king was wounded in battle.  He laid down and told his people if they ever needed him, he would rise up.  Until he sleeps under a colorful blanket of green, gold or white depending on the season. 

It was hot.  On the sandstone, it was easily over 100°.  This hike is in full sun with only an occasional juniper or pinyon pine to seek a little shade.  We stopped at a rock outcropping to take in a great view of Sand Canyon before turning and hiking up to the top of a mini mesa.  As we were coming off the small mesa, I was really glad Denise knew where we were going.  The desert landscape is easy to get disoriented in and get lost.  We turned left on to the East Rock Trail.  Shortly after the turn, we took a small detour out onto some slick rock for a view of alcoves with ruins in a smaller canyon.   The rest of hike was filled with interesting rock formations and spotting ruins.  I particularly like some on top of the formations.  They made me think the ancient people liked homes with a view.  More likely they built their homes up high for defensive purposes.  The last half mile I let my mind wander thinking about the ancient people lived and why they disappeared, which in part was because of a 50-year drought.

Parched and dusty, we headed over to Sutcliffe Vineyards.  It’s very close to the South Sand Canyon Trailhead in McElmo Canyon.  Sutcliffe is one of my favorite wineries in Colorado.  I cooled off with a sauvignon blanc and Denise stuck with water since she was driving. After a quick break, we drove to the north side of Sand Canyon to see the Sand Canyon Pueblo.  From the parking lot, we took the trail to the right.  The other trail takes you to South Sand Canyon Trailhead six miles away.  This village sits at a higher elevation.  We traded the desert landscape we hiked through for a forest of junipers and pinyon pines.  This village had fourteen towers and was twice as big as Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde.  Denise told me the west side seems to have more structures.  We walked up to look at the rubble of a D-shaped building.  Archaeologists don’t know why D-shaped structures were important to the ancestral Puebloan people but have unearthed multiple ones in the area.    We did a short hike to an overlook on the east side of the village.  This pueblo is much different from others I’ve seen in Canyons of the Ancients because much of it has been backfilled after excavation to preserve it for future researchers.  It gives you a chance to use your imagination to create your own version of what the pueblo looked like.

After a day in the desert landscape, I was ready for a great meal paired with a delicious cocktail, or two.  I met a small group of friends for dinner on the patio at Dandelion Café.  I sipped a sangria while I mulled over the Mediterranean menu.  I decided on the pasta puttanesca and added shrimp.  Since I was eating an Italian dish, I ordered their Italian margarita to pair with my pasta.  Full from a wonderful dinner and tired from the day, I headed off to bed shortly after the sunset went down.

Day 2:  Mesa Verde, Waterfall, and Ranch Dinner with a Rainbow

Whenever I’m in the Durango area, I feel drawn to Mesa Verde National Park.  I’ve been multiple times, but I love re-discovering the first national park dedicated to the works of man.  On the way to Mesa Verde I stopped in Mancos to pick up breakfast at Absolute Bakery.  It’s very popular and on weekends and at 8 a.m. there was already a line.  I ordered a latte and apple strudel.  I also ordered the hiker bar for later and a loaf of seven grain bread to take home.  I scarfed down my strudel then sipped my latte on the 21-mile drive to the top of Chapin Mesa.

I decided to drive the two loops at Mesa Verde.  My first stop was Cliff Palace, the crown jewel of Mesa Verde.  It’s the largest cliff dwelling in North America with about 150 rooms, 75 open spaces and 21 kivas.  The ancestral pueblo people moved into elaborate cliff-side alcoves around 1200 AD. 

After looking at Cliff Palace from the overlook, I continued to drive the loop.  I saw a man putting up a sign for fry bread and immediately took the next right into the Ute Mountain Tribal Soda Point.  Fry bread is a Native American treat.  I love it sweet with cinnamon and honey or savory when topped with beans, lettuce, tomatoes and cheese.  I was the first customer of the day and struck up a conversation with Maxine who was fixing my fry bread.  Her dad is half Cheyenne and half Ute.  Her mom is Navajo.  She topped my fry bread with cinnamon and honey.  There are a couple of picnic benches in the shade.  I had seat and devoured every morsel. 

Full on fry bread, I continued driving the loop and stopped to look at the Hemenway House.  Balcony House was closed so I finished the Cliff Palace Loop and decided to drive the Mesa Top Loop.  My first stop was at Navajo Canyon Overlook.  I then made several stops to look at pit houses and villages.  I stopped at Sun Point View.  It’s one of my favorite views in Mesa Verde because you can see Cliff Place, Sunset House, Oak Tree House and other cliff dwellings as you gaze up and down the canyon.  My last stop on this loop was at Sun Temple.  It’s a bit of a mystery.  It was built sometime in the 1200s and was part of the community with cliff dwelling around it.  The massive structure is unlike any in the park.  It was close to 1 p.m. when I started down the mesa.  I made a final stop at Park Point Overlook.  At 8,572 feet, it’s the highest point in Mesa Verde. 

On the way back through Durango, I grabbed a late lunch at Bread.  Their mozzarella sandwich with pesto and olive tapenade, mixed greens and tomato is wonderful.  I grabbed that and a gingersnap cookie then headed into the San Juan’s to meet some friends who were rock climbing at Cascade Falls. 

Just after you pass Purgatory Ski Resort, you cross over Cascade Creek on a hairpin turn then immediately go into a parking lot on the right.  About a half mile down the dirt road, you’ll see a small parking area at the trailhead.  If you get to the meadow, you’ve gone to far.  I know that from experience!  My friend Theresa hiked back out to meet me and we did the short and steep trek to Cascade Falls.  The falls are picturesque, made even more so by the hummingbird that kept flying into the mist.  I enjoyed the scenery while my friends climbed until it started to rain a little.

On the way back to Durango, I stopped at James Ranch.  They have my favorite veggie burger ever.  Instead of a patty, it’s made with two slices of squash, topped with caramelized onions and other veggies.  The cheese is from the ranch too.  While I was waiting for my burger, I walked over to look at the pastures and saw a spectacular rainbow.  I noshed on my burger at one of the picnic tables thinking about my great day.  Before leaving, I popped in the market at James Ranch to get some cheese and produce to take home. 

Day 3:  Durango Hot Springs, Purgatory, Downtown Stroll and Sunset Hike

The next day I caught sunrise from Fort Lewis College then headed to meet my friend Theresa at Durango Joe’s.  Both of us are fans of their honey bear lattes.  We did the short drive to Hermosa Creek Grill.  We got there about 8 a.m. to beat the typical crowds on weekends.  As we sat outside in the cool morning air, I ordered the breakfast tacos with sautéed veggies and Theresa went for an omelet.  The entrees are huge here.  I had an entire taco I couldn’t even begin to eat so took it to go for later.

After breakfast I slowed way down at the newly renovated Durango Hot Springs.  Ute Indians soaked in the healing waters and Frank Tremble started a hot springs resort in 1878.  It’s been hot springs, a dude ranch and three hotels.  Movie stars like Marilyn Monroe even soaked in these hot springs.  There are 23 different soaking experiences at Durango Hot Springs. “The water coming out of the ground is over a million years old,” I was told on a quick tour of the property.  Here’s what makes Durango Hot Springs unique.  They believe they’re the only hot springs in the world to infuse the water with oxygen.  The new technology “explodes an oxygen bubble into micro bubbles that permeate your skin.”  It’s a technology used by professional sports teams.  When you need to cool off, walk in the zero entry of the saltwater pool.  I thought I would spend 30 minutes or so soaking but ended up relaxing for almost two hours.  It is soaking bliss at Durango Hot Springs.

I continued north of Highway 550 to Purgatory Ski Resort.  I took the scenic chairlift and watched some mountain bikers.  Purgatory doesn’t have a lot of hiking trails.  But it does have a lot of biking trails in summer and fall.  Closely watching some storm clouds, I headed back down on the chairlift and got back to my car as a downpour started.  Once the rain slacked, I headed back to Durango, stopping at James Ranch for a veggie burger as a late lunch/early dinner. 

When I got back to my condo in Durango, I decided to take a nice long walk through downtown admiring the historic architecture then up the mesa to watch sunset from the place where I started the day. 

Departure Day:  Sunrise Farwell and Million Dollar Highway Drive

I got up early to hit the road back to Denver.  After packing up, I drove up to Fort Lewis to take in the sunrise over Durango.  There’s a Durango Joe’s drive-through just before leaving town of Highway 550.  I grabbed one more honey bear almond milk lattes and started my drive to Silverton then on the Million Dollar Highway to Ouray.  I stopped several times between Silverton and Ouray to enjoy the mining history along the route.  It can be a white-knuckle drive, but the scenery is worth it.  As I was driving it, I realized I wasn’t quite ready to leave Southwest Colorado and was already planning my next trip back to the land of alpine adventures and ancient sites.