Wandering the West
May 19, 2009
Lately I’ve been seeing ads touting Colorado as a summer vacation spot for Utahns. In these hard times, the tourism folks are fishing for visitors closer to home, figuring everyone needs to save money.
The ads say in Colorado you can be in the mountains for hiking and biking, hit the rivers for fishing and rafting, and visit quaint old mining towns that now boast fine shops and restaurants. And they brag that mountain golf courses allow balls to fly farther. Sounds a lot like Park City! Still, there are plenty of great nearby Colorado getaways, and my all-time favorite lies near the Four Corners.
In fact, if I’d found Durango before I found Park City, I might be writing for the Durango Herald. In my book, it’s just about the perfect location with all the right amenities close at hand. There’s a ski resort near a great old restored mining town. There are a number of gorgeous mountain golf courses. There are rivers and streams with great fly fishing. There are a number of zip-line rides. There’s a historic railroad. There are quality accommodations and great restaurants. If that doesn’t sound like the Park City recipe with mountain resorts, the Provo River, the Heber Valley Railroad and our Main Street, I don’t know what does. So why go to a place so much like the place you’d leave to get there?
The single main reason would be the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. A second would be their version of a zip-line ride. A third would be a chance to drive the Million Dollar Highway, which connects Durango with Silverton. A fourth could be a jaunt just out of town where the Colorado Plateau begins its march into Southern Utah red rock country, complete with bountiful archaeological treasures.
The railroad came to Durango in 1881 and, by the next year, builders had run a narrow-gauge spur line 46 miles through somewhat impossible terrain to get to Silverton, where gold and silver ore needed hauling. Silverton quickly grew to 2,000 people, 400 buildings and the requisite 32 saloons. In a story paralleling Park City’s, after World War Two, with the mines played out, most people left. The town stayed frozen in time. Its historic buildings on Blair Street became a movie set for Westerns like "True Grit." The town itself is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The railroad, starting from the end of Durango’s main drag, never stopped running. Today its deluxe cars haul travelers through spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery and back in time to Silverton. It’s an all-day excursion and a day that you won’t regret.
Recommended Stories For You
And now there’s a quirky new attraction along the way. No roads lead to Soaring Tree Top Adventures. The only way in is by train. The advertising says it’s designed to be reminiscent of an Elfin Village out of Lord of the Rings. I have no idea what that even means. But what it is is a series of zip lines going tree to tree through the canopy of an aspen and ponderosa pine forest, over the Animas and back into more forest. There are two dozen spans of wire strung treetop to treetop. You zip from section to section, stopping for a tree top lunch along the way. The shortest beginner spans run just 50 feet, but you work your way up to one that’s 1,400 feet long.
The train isn’t the whole story of Durango. Durango Mountain Resort has chairlift rides, mountain biking, and all the little-kid rides at the base, just like Park City Mountain Resort. There are two- and four-hour raft trips on the Class III rapids of the Animas. If you want to add a Southwestern desert experience to the mountain activities, its just an hour down to Mesa Verde National Park, the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument.
You can wind down with a beer at the Strater Hotel in Durango, followed by a night of chamber music and traveling musicians like Eileen Ivers, who rocked the Eccles here a few years back.
Durango’s a lot like Park City. And that makes it worth a visit.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
THE VITALS: Park City to Durango — 395 miles
Insider tip: Don’t expect to walk up and buy a train ticket. It sells out and you’ll need advance reservations.