High in the rugged San Juan Mountain Range, Durango is a quintessential mountain town. Far from the cities of the Front Range, Durango lays in the furthest reaches of Colorado’s southwest territory. Durango sits at the edge of evergreen forests, alpine tundra, and craggy peaks. That’s why I live here –I love the mountains. Here’s what Durango has to offer.
A “smaller” subdivision of the San Juan Mountains, the La Plata Mountains are a cluster of 13,000-foot peaks just outside of Durango. To reach them, drive 15 minutes west from downtown and turn onto County Road (CR) 124.
Continue up CR 124 and you will quickly break the treeline. The road is rocky and a high clearance vehicle is necessary. Steep switchbacks carve a path to the very top of Colombus Basin at 12,000 feet.
Leave the car behind and immediately gain the northeast ridge of Snowstorm Peak. Climb a steep but secure 500 feet to the stunning summit. If you make it up in time for the sunrise, you’re in for quite a treat.
Experienced climbers may opt to climb down the other side of Snowstorm Peak and follow the obvious ridge to obtain the summit of Lewis Mountain. Sustained and exposed, this traverse is the longest knife edge in all of the San Juan Mountains.
To fully experience these mountains a night in the high country is mandatory. From Durango, drive one hour north into the very heart of the San Juan Mountains to a little town called Silverton, where the moose outnumber the people.
From Silverton, drive 2 miles north on Hwy 550 and turn left onto CR 7. Enter South Mineral Creek, a forested glacial valley encapsulated by high peaks. It’s legal to pull over and pitch your tent just about anywhere.
For a demanding but rewarding overnight experience, backpack to Ice Lake Basin. Find the trailhead parking lot at the very end of CR 7. Hike up 5 miles of mercilessly steep single track to arrive at the best campsites just below the lake.
Wake up the next day and hike a final 2 miles to Ice Lake. Eat a well-deserved lunch and begin the journey back to the trailhead parking lot.
I saved the best for last: Fourteeners. For any lover of the mountains, standing atop one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks is the definition of pure joy. The San Juan Mountains are home to 14 of these giants. Here’s how you can climb one yourself.
From Silverton, drive 40 minutes on Hwy 550 to a left-hand pull off for CR 361, which continues for 8 miles before reaching a parking lot at 11,350 feet. Leave the car and walk west up a 4×4 road to the trailhead at 12,460 feet.
Take the trail northwest across loose talus. Break eastward off the trail after about 1 mile, ascending some 1,000 feet up the steep banks of scree to your right. After gaining the ridge, climb 800 feet up the obvious couloir on your left. My dog loves this part.
About 40 yards from the top of the couloir exit left through a v-shaped notch in the rock. Now walk a gentle 200 feet up granite slabs to the awe-inspiring summit of Mount Sneffels.
From the 1910’s to the 1930’s Durango’s economy focused primarily on agriculture, ranching, and logging. The beginnings of a tourist economy sprouted as travelers began to discover the unique opportunities Durango provided as a vacation destination.
Like many other parts of the country during World War II, the Durango area contributed to the war effort in the 1940’s through agriculture, ranching, and mining. The 1950’s in Durango marked the beginning of another “boom cycle” as mining of uranium and oil exploration in the region increased. The Durango Smelter was refitted for the processing of uranium ore, and there was a flurry of building in the community to house the smelter workers, and the workers who supported the burgeoning natural gas industry. During the “boom” of the 1950’s, Fort Lewis College was moved from south of Hesperus where it had been a two-year agricultural school to its present location atop the mesa that abuts town. With its relocation, the college changed to a four-year, liberal arts curriculum.
In the 1960’s Purgatory Ski Resort was developed north of Durango. The presence of the ski resort and Fort Lewis College added additional elements to the local economy and spurred a growing tourism economy. From the 1970’s to present, the area has gone through a series of economic evolutions as Durango’s spectacular setting and limitless opportunities continue to draw people for recreation and the healthy, fulfilling life found here in the Rocky Mountains.
If you are looking to take a scenic drive in Durango, look no further than the San Juan Skyway. The San Juan Skyway is a part of the Million Dollar Highway, which passes through Ouray, Silverton, Durango and Telluride in a loop. The whole loop will take about 7 hours and along the way you will spot dense forests, old west towns, huge valleys and craggy peaks.
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