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10 Ways to Get a Taste of Old Wild West Heritage in Durango

Get in touch with Durango’s cowboy roots at these area destinations.

10 Ways to Get a Taste of Old Wild West Heritage in Durango

“The Old West is alive and well in Durango, Colorado,” says Al Harper, owner of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and certified Four Corners history buff. Founded in 1880 by the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad Company, Durango was a popular site for miners and pioneers. The riches in the area’s mountains, in the form of natural resources, silver, and gold, drew farmers, ranchers, and artisans alike. A sprawling downtown dotted by saloons and entrepreneurial enterprises emerged over the next decade.

Durango has maintained much of that early spirit, never forgetting its roots as a mining town or its reputation as “the new city in the wilderness,” as it was often called. Today, whether you’re a cowboy, an outlaw, or something in between, you’ll find something to spark a little rugged nostalgia in Durango.

We asked Al Harper and other notable locals to help us find the very best places in Durango, across food, drink, recreation, and entertainment, to help you relive a slice of the Old West.

Walk & Shop on Main Avenue

Recommended by: Kirk Komick, Elizabeth Kinahan, Jenna Black, Alissa Wolf

Durango’s main drag, packed with shops, entertainment, hotels, and eateries, has a little something for everyone. Thrust up against the scenic backdrop of the San Juans and maintaining much of its 1880s (or 1880s-inspired) architecture and aesthetic, Main Avenue can keep you busy for an afternoon or a full day from sunrise to sunset.

Kirk Komick of the Rochester Hotel and Leland House says the fun of discovery is part of Main Avenue’s charm: “After a long day of hiking, I love to stroll along Main. All the saloons and activities keep it fresh and different.”

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad

Recommended by: Al Harper, Jenna Black

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is a staple for tourists and locals alike. Operating out of its original 1882 depot and on its original track, the Narrow Gauge steam-powered train takes riders on a stunning trip through the San Juan National Forest. Railroad owner Al Harper says the train is like a time-travel machine, engineered to take you straight into the Old West: “When you ride the train from Durango to Silverton, you're sitting there in awe,” he says. “To be on an engineering wonder of the world on this railroad built through the mountains and riding in comfort with snacks and food and great company...you wonder, how did the original settlers ever make it on foot through this wilderness? It’s so foreboding and so wild and wondrous. And that’s the West.”

Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Museum

Recommended by: Al Harper, Rod Barker, Bill Carver

For history buffs and train lovers, the train depot’s 12,000 square-foot museum--dedicated to the history of transportation, mining, the railroad industry, and the Durango area--is a must-see. Rod Barker of the Strater Hotel raves, “The Railroad Museum is really a gem. You can just drool over the thing. There's all sorts of stuff that they’ve found from the relics of the past, including an old airplane.” Plus, admission is free!

Silverton

Recommended by: Al Harper, Jenna Black

The Narrow Gauge Railroad’s destination, the tiny municipality of Silverton, is a National Historic Landmark. A popular site for afternoon shopping, dining, weekend trips, and backcountry touring, Silverton was originally a silver mining camp, and still has Old West charm and nostalgia crammed into every picturesque corner.

Jenna Black of The Bookcase and Barber says that a visit to Silverton’s most popular historic hotel is well worth the short drive: “The Grand Imperial Hotel is so worth getting up there--it’s a 45-minute drive or so--and staying the night. They have a brewery up there, and their food is so good. In that community, it's about the experience, and they care about their guests so much.”

Old Hundred Gold Mine

Recommended by: Al Harper

Just five miles from Silverton, the Old Hundred Gold Mine allows visitors to step back into the area’s rich mining history with one-hour guided tours. Visitors can ride on an electric-powered mine train and watch demonstrations of antique mining equipment in action. “You've got to go to the Old Hundred Mine, and go a quarter of a mile under a mountain, and see what mining was all about,” Al Harper insists. “That's what what brought us all to this region. That history.”

Mesa Verde National Park

Recommended by: Al Harper

Mesa Verde is a sprawling National Park just 35 miles west of Durango. Ancestral Pueblans lived in the area for over 700 years, and over 600 of their cliff dwellings (from as far back as AD 600) and 5,000 archeological artifacts are still well-preserved in the park. Harper highly recommends a visit to Mesa Verde for a glimpse into the area’s more ancient past: “You’ve got to go to Mesa Verde to see the archeological and cultural background of the area. And you have to visit the cliff dwellings and their museum, which is spectacular.”

Southern Ute Cultural Center

Recommended by: Al Harper

Just thirty minutes from Durango is the town of Ignacio, where the Southern Ute Tribe is headquartered. The nearby Navajo State Park, Sky Ute Casino Resort, and the new scenic byway Tracks Across Borders are all big draws, but the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum is an area favorite for history and arts lovers. “There's Ignacio, the home of the Southern Ute Indian tribe,” says Harper. “For me, their cultural museum is maybe the best Native American Museum in the United States today.”

Durango Ghost Towns

Recommended by: Al Harper

While Durango is a hub of activity, many of the surrounding areas are more sparse, with wide open ranges and rugged mountain terrain to explore at leisure. Ghost towns like Eureka, Gladstone, Mineral Point, and Animas Forks are hotbeds of abandoned mining history. “Everybody likes to see the old ghost towns,” says Harper. “You can take a great Jeep tour up into the mountains and visit the ghost towns, where there’s still the old buildings standing and the old mines. That’s very fascinating.”

True West Rodeo

Recommended by: Al Harper

Since 2014, Durango’s community-sponsored True West Rodeo has reintroduced locals to authentic Wild West entertainment. Harper praises the popular rodeo for highlighting nearby talent and keeping it local, in true Durango fashion: “Every Wednesday night, you can go to the rodeo. And what's really cool is that it's a local rodeo, with lots of local talent from the ranches all around the area.” He adds, “And that's just the epitome of the Old West.”

Old West Stage Coach

Recommended by: Al Harper

For a fun, kid-friendly ride through downtown Durango’s Wild West history, you can pick up a stagecoach taxi and see all the area has to offer. “You can even get in an Old West carriage and stagecoach and ride around town,” says Harper. “And that's right here on Main Street.” During the holiday season, sleighs replace the stagecoach for a special festive experience.

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