Do you love the mountains?
If so and you are looking for active vacation spots in the US for this Fall season, Durango, Colorado and its surrounding area should be in your consideration.
Located in the Four Corners region of southwest Colorado, Durango is known for its varied outdoor adventure activities such as hiking, mountain biking, and 4x4 off-roading.
Our VRBO home was strategically located 25 miles north of Durango near the Purgatory ski resort, deep in the San Juan National Forest at 9,000 feet elevation, with access to dozens of high quality hikes.
Here are three great hikes to tackle during your stay in Durango, where the town motto is "Open Spaces and Familiar Faces."
Day One: The Colorado Trail
The Colorado Trail spans 567 miles of recreational trail that crosses the state from Denver to Durango at an average elevation of 10,300 feet.
We joined The Colorado Trail at SEGMENT 25: Molas Pass to Bolam Pass Road, specifically at the Little Molas Lake Trailhead, where we headed for 2.5 miles south before returning via the same route.
After a mile of gradual climb, you arrive at a clearing with great views of both the mountains and Little Molas Lake.
At the two mile point, you are now at 11,600 feet elevation, and your view explodes with expansive mountain vistas.
As we rested in the alpine meadow and enjoyed our trail mix, a horseback riding tour went past, with the lead cowboy tipping his hat to us.
After the hike back down to the trailhead, we enjoyed a shaded picnic lunch at Little Molas Lake, which is also popular for fishing.
Day Two: Engineer Mountain
Flush with confidence from Day 1's five-mile beginner level hike, we were ready to tackle a longer and more difficult trail on Day 2.
As you drive up the Million Dollar Highway north from Durango (the name comes from the fact that the road allegedly cost one million dollars per mile to build), Engineer Mountain looms large on the horizon.
Engineer Mountain is a favorite hike or ride that is well marked and in close proximity to Durango, making it quite popular in the summertime. Engineer Mountain is the prominent “double” cone which can be seen when driving northbound on Highway 550 beyond Purgatory in the San Juan National Forest. It is a fun and challenging mountain with awesome panoramic views in all directions from the summit, since it’s nearly 13,000’ and stands alone... Much of it falls on the heavily timbered northern aspect of the mountain, and patches of snow may linger in mid-summer. Toward the top, the trail breaks out into beautiful alpine meadows at the base of the peak, offering sweeping views of the Needles Mountains and Animas Valley. This hike is great in July/August when wild Columbine, Orchids, Primrose, Geraniums, Coneflowers are abundant – and the views are incredible.
The hike begins with a moderately challenging climb into a shaded forest. The sounds of birdsong and the wind whistling through the trees accompanied my labored exhalations as we continued our path towards Engineer Mountain, which comes into view after 1.25 miles.
We ended up at “The Rock” located at approximately 11,700 feet (extremely experienced hikers have the opportunity to hike to the summit, which is another 1,200 feet up).
Rather than take the same path downwards, we decided to take the Engineer Mountain Trail back, which was a long, seven mile route through the forest with switchbacks.
Please note that this requires someone to drive and pick you up from the different location than the Coal Bank Pass where you started.
Day 3: Castle Rock via Elbert Creek Road Trailhead
After two days of serious hiking, you will hopefully be ready for one of the most challenging uphill climbs that the area has to offer, Castle Rock.
Starting at the trailhead near the Needles Market, Castle Rock looms 1,600 feet above The Million Dollar Highway near Purgatory.
The 3-mile trail up to the summit starts with a long, gradual climb through switchbacks in a forest.
The final mile requires a great deal of stamina, as you are navigating a steep incline with rocks; however, the view down the Animas Valley from the summit is WELL WORTH IT.
Here are some additional hikes for longer stays:
My Favorite Recovery Activity: Durango Hot Springs
After all of your legendary hikes, your legs are likely to need some R&R, and the Durango Hot Springs is a phenomenal spot to spend a relaxing afternoon.
As chronicled in a recent Travel + Leisure article, the Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa recently underwent a $14mm renovation.
Reservations for the 2.5 hour time slots are required, and due to continuing COVID restrictions, it is best to bring your own towel (although towels are provided for a fee).
The hot springs offers 32 pools, private soaking tubs, and cold plunges with an amazing view of the mountains and provides two distinct areas, one being for adults only .
Staff checks each pool’s temperature every two hours, and our pool - called Emerald - was at 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Experts say the best routine is to spend two minutes in the hot springs pool and then two minutes in the 40-something degree cold plunge and then repeat as many times as possible.
If you wish to shower after your hot springs experience, there are lockers for a fee, showers and a changing area for both men and women.
I stared mesmerized at the mountains for two hours while boiling in the natural waters, and I left feeling re-invigorated and ready for the evening.
After relaxing your muscles at the Hot Springs, you deserve to replace the calories you just burned on your miles-long mountain climbs.
Here are two eating establishments to check out while you are in Durango.
Chow-Down Option Number #1: Dinner and Live Music under the stars at James Ranch
You must make a trip to the town of Hermosa for dinner at the James Ranch.
James Ranch is a working ranch producing artisanal cheeses and 100% grass-fed beef. On the premises is a market and a restaurant, well known for its burgers.
On this particular evening, Tim Sullivan, an acclaimed musician living locally in Durango, was performing with his band in James Ranch’s outdoor amphitheater replete with picnic tables and shaded groves.
Patrons, comprised of both locals and tourists, brought blankets and chairs to the season finale of James Ranch’s summer Live Music Series, occurring every Tuesday and Thursday from 6:00 to 8:30pm.
Performing a mixture of covers such as "Wide Open Spaces" by The Chicks along with his original work, Mr. Sullivan wowed the crowd with his silky country crooner voice and outstanding guitar playing.
Mr. Sullivan has quite the resume - see below - and it was a privilege to watch a nationally-renowned musician in an intimate mountain amphitheater.
Tim Sullivan, singer/songwriter, has been a featured performer with Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, Tammy Wynette, and Glen Campbell. He has entertained at venues across the country from "The Crazy Horse" in Los Angeles to "Town Hall" on Broadway in New York City. Tim and his band have been featured at the Olympic Equestrian Center in Sydney, Australia and also at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky. Tim and his family have performed in concert at "Carnegie Hall" four different times. The last performance at Carnegie Hall was featured on NBC's "Today Show" and NBC's Nightly News.
After eating our burgers at intermission, we toured the property visiting the cheese-making facility as well as seeing the free range chickens (literally running free across the range).
The owner of James Ranch, the eponymous Mr. James, even greeted us personally as we left, evidence of the incredible Rocky Mountain hospitality we experienced during our entire trip.
Chow-Down Option #2: Food Truck Dinner In Town
11th St. Station on Main Street in downtown Durango offers a collection of seven food trucks nestled in a fun, outdoor atmosphere.
Patrons can choose from a diverse set of selections including signature pizzas, loaded baked potatoes, chicken tenders, Greek kebabs and more.
There is also a bar and plentiful seating at this former service station now turned hipster food court.
Every 15 minutes or so, the Durango-Silverton Train coming in from Silverton would blow its whistle and chug past on the way to its terminus, reminding you of the region's silver mining heritage.
If you are looking for an active vacation where hiking, mountain biking and/or 4x4ing features heavily, Durango should be in your decision set.
For more of my Travel-related articles, check out the Travel and Wanderlust section of the Social Musings by Austin website here.