#5 Durango, Colorado
Like many a boomtown, Durango got its start when prospectors found gold in the area.
But the arrival of railroads actually fueled the region’s rapid growth. Lines from the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad reached Durango in 1881 and, within 12 months, the town had 134 businesses, including doctor’s offices, newspapers and, of course, saloons.
The railroads ensured Durango’s importance as a center of industry and commerce, especially when the Silverton Branch, which snaked about 45 miles north through the Animas River Valley
to Silverton, was completed in the summer of 1882.
The steam train has been in continuous operation ever since. Although the original purpose was to haul silver and gold, today the real treasure is the scenic views enjoyed by around 200,000 passengers every year.
But this incredible narrow gauge railroad is just one of the grand offerings through which Durango preserves its Old West heritage and spirit.
The town boasts dozens of historic structures and more than 14 art galleries.
Its finest Victorian structure, the venerable Strater Hotel, celebrated its 125th birthday last year; the General Palmer Hotel, next to the railroad’s depot, is celebrating its 115th this year. To learn more about the city’s historical buildings, Durango has put together a self-guided walking tour of the town’s historical Main Avenue and 3rd Avenue.
The Animas Museum, owned and operated by the La Plata County Historical Society, describes the birth and history of Durango. It is housed in the 1904 Animas City School building.
The 12,000-square-foot Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum holds an impressive variety of exhibits, from tools, lanterns and photos to an 800-square-foot scale model of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad. It also houses two steam engines and a 1916 American LaFrance fire engine.
The Durango Discovery Museum, an interactive science and energy center, is housed in the circa 1893 Powerhouse, the nation’s oldest surviving coal-fired, steam-generated AC power plant.
The 52,000-square-foot Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum in Ignacio, the headquarters of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, about 25 miles southeast of Durango, celebrates the living history of Colorado’s longest continuous residents with collections of rare artifacts, historic photographs and oral histories.
All of these sites, and more, bring life to the town’s past through heritage events such as the Durango Cowboy Gathering, True West’s Railfest, the Bar D Chuckwagon Suppers, Durango Fiesta Days, rodeos and many other activities throughout the year.
Only 17,000 lucky souls live in Durango. But because it’s a four-season adventure town, it welcomed more than 900,000 visitors last year.