The Best River Towns in America: Durango, Colorado

The Animas River, which parallels Main Street, was the main reason why more than 1,700 readers voted for Durango

Maria's Bookshop, Durango.     Photo: Scott DW Smith

The Stats

Durango, Colorado
Population: 16,887
Median Age: 31
Median Annual Salary: $53,882
Median Home Price: $302,400
Unemployment Rate: 7 percent
Votes Received: 8 percent

The Animas River, which parallels Main Street, was the main reason why more than 1,700 readers voted for Durango. “It’s super accessible,” says Haakon Samuelson, a sales associate at 4Corners Riversports. “And it has something for every ability—from Class I to Class V within a 50-mile stretch.” In summer, the river hosts a non-stop parade of rafters (there are eight guiding outfits in town), kayakers, and tubers sipping beers from one of four local micro-breweries. Then there’s the fishing. “The Animas is arguably the best urban trout fishery in America and 100 percent public within city limits,” says Ty Churchwell, backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Durango office. Readers were also quick to point out the on-land fun, too. “The hiking and backpacking are as good as anyplace else, and there’s rock climbing, backcountry skiing, and more bike and running trails than you can imagine,” says Keith Rausch, owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering. The town itself is less pretentious than other Colorado tourist hubs, mainly because of the balance of working ranchers, young professionals, athletes, artists, retirees, and the 4,000 liberal arts students attending Fort Lewis College. “It’s a real town, not a faux fancy place that relies on the mythic West for its identity,” says Stephanie Moran, program coordinator for the Durango Adult Education Center. One drawback: it’s remote—three hours from the nearest Interstate and four from the nearest major airport. But residents see it as the center of everything. “There’s the Weminuche Wilderness with fourteeners, meadows, and aspen groves and then Moab and the high desert within a few hours,” says Ryan Huggins, a water-resource specialist. Also, Huggins notes, the 300 days of sunshine a year don’t hurt.

BEST MOUNTAIN BIKE TRAIL: “Dry Fork loop,” says Phil Wehmeyer, of Durango Mountain Realty. “It’s 12 miles of singletrack that starts in the oaks, heads up through some big pines, then takes you through a beautiful aspen grove. On the downhill portion, it heads back via Hoffeins Connection trail, which has some wonderful swooping high-speed turns.”

ON THE TOWN: With beer-soaked floorboards and surly bartenders, it may not be the classiest joint, but readers consistently touted El Rancho Tavern as the place to grab a beer. (There are 20 of them on draft.) “If you don’t have anything important to do the next day, the Ranch is the place to go,” recommends Eric Parker, an ER nurse.

WHAT YOU GET FOR $17: An all-day pass to Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs, a laid-back soaking haven seven miles north of town. “The setting is really relaxing, with trees overhanging the pools,” says Ellen Stein, membership coordinator for Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “Test your mettle in the hot pool.”

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