The gem of Southwest Colorado has its own unmistakable beat.
By Chris Duthie
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.” – Mae West
THE SOMETIMES BAWDY but always brilliant actress provided the mantra I’ve pursued since 2004, the year I returned to a resplendent, tight-knit Southwest Colorado community to restore a spirit that craved Rocky Mountain healing.
Today, 17 years later, a second go-round in my hometown of Durango continues to yield a transformative, life-enriching lifestyle that I never could have imagined while growing up there in the 1960s and ’70s.
So much has changed. Despite its way-off- the-beaten-path locale between Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver and Salt Lake City, the world has made its way to Durango, a prolific farming and ranching region founded in 1880 by General William Jackson Palmer’s Denver & Rio Grande Railway to take advantage of the area’s booming gold, silver and coal mines.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s, however, that Durango began to gain in reputation, status and popularity for its San Juan Mountain panoramas, blissful climate and an untapped bounty of destination amenities and pursuits.
Sparking this “discovery” were three critical factors: the 1965 launch of Purgatory Ski Area, which single-handedly transformed Durango into a four-season mecca; nearby Mesa Verde Nation- al Park, which in 1978 earned a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for its astonishing collection of Ancestral Puebloan cliff houses; and the saved-from-bankruptcy passenger line of the D&RGR (rebranded in 1980 as the Durango & Silverton Railroad), a cliffs-and-canyons, 45- mile journey that follows the Animas River to its headwaters in Silverton.
A GOLF TRIFECTA
Golf has also become a draw. At the forefront is Hillcrest Golf Club, a 6,727-yard Frank Hummel design routed on a tabletop mesa shared with the campus of Fort Lewis College. Overlooking much of Durango and backdropped by views of the La Plata Mountains and the Animas River Valley, the tradition-steeped layout treats golfers to first- class conditioning, tree-lined fairways and push-up greens that many regard as the orneriest sur- faces this side of Evergreen’s Hiwan Golf Club.
Hillcrest is also the annual site of the Navajo Trail Open (Aug. 26-29), inaugurated in 1961 and the second-oldest open golf tournament in the state (behind the 82-year-old Rocky Mountain Open in Grand Junction). The popular public facility offers decent-value greens fees ($53 plus cart in high season), expansive practice facilities, a deli and grille and an electronic simulator for full-swing indoor instruction.
Just north of town lies Dalton Ranch Golf Club, a rollicking, semi-private layout crafted by Ken Dye just a few years after he put the finishing touches on one of the country’s better public courses, Piñon Hills Golf Club in nearby Farmington, N.M. Dye’s Colorado creation is no slouch, either: From the 7,002-yard tips it’s a handicap-busting beast, tempered by sumptuous conditioning, a riparian routing through the Animas River Valley and the neighboring red-cliff presence of the San Juan Mountains.
Dalton Ranch is also the research and development headquarters of esteemed golf-club designer Tom Wishon, whose custom-fit drivers, hybrids, irons, wedges and putters are regarded among the finest in the game. Wishon has recently expanded his product line into single length hybrids and irons—a revolutionary concept popularized by Bryson DeChambeau.
Further enhancing Durango’s golf bona fides is 36-hole Glacier Club, located 20 minutes north of Durango on US 550 (the “Million Dollar Highway”). The exclusive, private club features the 7,035-yard, newly expanded Hale Irwin/Todd Schoeder-designed Mountain Course, plus the 6,536-yard Arthur Hills-crafted Meadows Course. Both layouts bedazzle with forest and mountain views, plunging elevation changes and cliffhanging greens and fairways.
Helping members and lucky guests negotiate the courses comes from the PGA Director of Instruction Alex Fisher, a six-time recipient of Golf Digest’s Top 40 Instructor Under 40 award and a regular columnist for Colorado AvidGolfer. Glacier Club also boasts high-dollar real estate and members-only amenities, including luxurious clubhouse dining, tennis and access to private hiking, fly-fishing, moun- tain biking and cross-country skiing. Downhill skiing at four-season Purgatory Resort is 10 miles away.
PLAY LIKE A LOCAL
Back in Durango, the hits keep coming. The Animas River’s certified gold medal fly-fishing waters flow freely through town, teeming with trophy rainbow and brown trout to catch and release. The river also invites whitewater rafting, kayaking, paddleboarding, tubing and canoeing. More aquatic offerings—marinas, camping, house boating, jet and water skiing and world-famous fly-fishing on the Lower San Juan River—await just 50 miles away at the Navajo Lake State Park.
Notably, Durango sports hundreds of miles of single-track mountain bike trails and a seven-mile river trail bike path. The town also host- ed riders during the 2021 Denver Post Ride the Rockies Bicycle Tour, and every spring the town backs a must-see road biking event—the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, which pits riders against the Durango & Silverton train.
Come autumn, the surrounding high country delivers an incomparable spectacle of yellow and red foliage. For the best photos, try the 190-mile circle tour that leads to Do- lores, Telluride, Ridgway, Ouray and Silverton. Bonus tip: Cap your perfect tour des couleurs by indulging in a massage and nat- ural mineral soak at the just-opened
Durango Hot Springs Resort & Spa just north of town.
Indulgence also comes in the form of food. Durango famously boasts more restaurants per capita than San Francisco. Top-ranked main- stays include the Ore House, Seasons, East By Southwest, Ken and Sue’s, Eolus Bar & Dining, El Moro Spirits & Tavern and Bar D Chuckwagon Suppers. The culinary cognoscenti head to the entirely spectacular Olio Restaurant in nearby Mancos. First-class lodging can be reserved at the 134-year-old Strater Hotel, as well as the Blue Lake Ranch, The Rochester Hotel, the DoubleTree by Hilton and the Apple Orchard Inn.
Few things are better than repeatedly experiencing Durango firsthand. As Mae West so eloquently said, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
Durango native Chris Duthie is a longtime writer and photographer for Colorado AvidGolfer.
This article was also featured in the August/September 2021 Issue of Colorado AvidGolfer.