Three Days In Southwest Colorado
Founded in 1880 by the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Company, Durango is an outdoor adventure playland, a college town, home to a vibrant historic district, a town with a rich mining heritage, and a place that holds the secrets of Ancestral Puebloan people. This once Wild West town is filled with unique treasures and will likely leave you wishing for just one more day to savor Southwest Colorado.
Durango, Cortez, and Mancos
The Honey House Distillery in Durango produces a variety of small batch, hand-crafted, honey spirits. © Jason McSherry
My basecamp for a three-day weekend in Durango was the family-owned, AAA Three Diamond Rochester Hotel and Leland House. My initial impression was mountain rustic meets Hollywood glam in a cowboy funky kind of way, with old movie photographs, antiques, and memorabilia. The rooms are themed after movies filmed in the area, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and City Slickers. My room was themed after A Ticket to Tomahawk, a musical-comedy set in 1876 during an era of railroad expansion with major scenes shot in Animas Canyon.
After settling in, I headed over to Honeyville, about 10 miles from downtown. Winnie the Pooh would be in heaven in this sweet place. “The cinnamon whipped butter,” owner Danny Culhane said without hesitation when I asked about his favorite. He also told me they still use the same recipe as they did 50 years ago. Try one of the honey-infused spirits in the Honey House Distillery. The smoothness of the honey cut through the bite of the bourbon whiskey in the Stinger cocktail I sampled.
For dinner I went to “the place for steaks in Durango.” As I sipped my Desperado cocktail and noshed on scallops at Ore House, a AAA Three Diamond-rated restaurant, I almost felt like I had been transported back in time to the pioneer days in this dark, swanky steakhouse.
The next morning, I grabbed a cup of coffee and strolled out on the back patio of the Rochester. I found what I thought was a “secret garden.” While enjoying the beauty of the space, hotel owner Kirk Komick walked by and struck up a conversation, filling me in on the history of the hotel, including how he and his mother have owned it for more than 25 years. He also told me the garden isn’t so secret. They host 10 weeks of non-profit concerts on Wednesday evenings in the summer. When my tummy started rumbling, I headed inside. The continental breakfast of tiny pastries, breads, and fruit was wonderful, but the changing daily breakfast entrees are worth a stay at the Rochester alone. I devoured the sinfully good French toast.
Digging up the past
Judith Schlesinger, a 50-year AAA Colorado member, is overjoyed with her discovery of an ancient arrowhead while volunteering on a dig with Crown Canyon Archaeological Center. © Jason McSherry
I’m fascinated with archaeology, especially the Pueblo Indian history of the Four Corners Region. So, I was really excited to take a guided campus tour of Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, one of the largest archaeological research centers in the country not attached to a university or government. American Indian involvement is a critical part of the center, especially with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe headquartered about 25 miles from Durango. Our tour guide Brice gave us a brief snippet of the educational programs for 4th graders to lifelong adult learners.
I was like a kid in a candy store as we toured the Haynie site, northeast of Cortez, with head archaeologist Dr. Susan Ryan. It has two Chaco-period (A.D. 1050-1140) great houses and numerous small houses. This site and two others on private land make up the Lakeview group, one of the densest concentrations of great houses found north of Aztec Ruins. Week-long camps and day tours are offered May–October, only through Crow Canyon.
“The public thinks archaeology is Indiana Jones. It’s not what you find. It’s what you find out,” said Dr. Ryan, which struck a chord with me. “What I think is exciting is this concept of clustered great houses,” explained Dr. Ryan, as she tried to connect how this group ties back into Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. As we walked around, I found the site mystical and somewhat spiritual as I observed researchers and volunteers uncovering and discovering secrets of the past. “When you’re working in someone’s house you immediately have an intimate respect,” one of the researchers told me.
I was watching volunteers sifting through dirt, when one became overjoyed with excitement. Judith Schlesinger, a AAA Colorado member for 50 years, had just uncovered a perfect arrowhead. “Find of the week!” she exclaimed. Reading a AAA article on three unusual trips in 2015, Judith decided to go on the archaeological adventure in Crow Canyon. This was her second trip. “All good things come when you retire,” this lively lady with a PhD in computer science and research told me. Seeing the excitement on her face when she found the arrowhead, I think she might be on point with that statement.
The food scene in Southwest Colorado will likely surprise you, especially in Cortez. The Farm Bistro started as an outlet for Rusty and Laurie Hall’s organic farm. Ten years later it’s one of the top restaurants in the region. My black bean burger made with local black beans blended with oats, zucchini, carrots and southwest spices was a savor worthy burger.
As you drive the twists and turns of McElmo Canyon, the rugged desert with an oasis of green on the canyon floor is mesmerizing. This ancient desert is perfect for growing grapes. I was excited to return for a leisurely afternoon stop at one of my favorite Colorado wineries. Sutcliffe Vineyards is owned by John Sutcliffe, a British cowboy quick on the draw with a good story, delicious food, and delightful wine. The view of the vineyards in the shadow of Battlerock is breathtaking as you sip on a glass of Sauvignon Blanc or Cinsault under the vine-covered pergola.
For dinner that night we stopped at Olio Restaurant in the tiny town of Mancos, about 30 minutes from Durango. The 10-table, reservations-only restaurant will knock your socks off. The trio of deviled eggs is a must. My Corvina sea bass topped with Olathe corn-Chardonnay sauce and served with an artichoke-sweet pea succotash and rainbow quinoa was scrumptious. Save a little room for one of their delectable desserts.
After dinner, we spent a little time wandering around its historic downtown, home to the Columbia Bar (123 Grand Ave.)—one of the oldest continuously operating bars in Colorado. I left thinking to myself this is definitely a town I want to explore more.
Rails and ranches
Ignacio Vigil, 3, rides the D&SNGRR train with his uncle Juan-Antonio Vigil. Ignacio loves trains and when he finally heard its whistle, he had a look of excitement his parents had never seen before. Ignacio still insists on wearing his engineer outfit and hat as often as he can. © Jason McSherry
As I found out that Saturday morning, whether it’s your first time, like it was for me, or your tenth time, riding the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR) train is a magical experience. Train greeter Charles helped us get situated and off we went into the jaw-dropping scenery of the San Juan National Forest following the path of the Animas River. We saw old mining camps, the remote Tacoma Power Plant, waterfalls, and stunning views like the ultra-jagged Needles. If you want to feel the wind in your hair and soot on your face, book the Deluxe Class. For these open-air cars, I’d suggest wearing dark clothes, sunglasses, gloves, and even a bandana, as it helps keep the soot and water spray off your face.
Our train car was filled with a cast of characters, including that adorable kid in a conductor’s hat, Ignacio Vigil (above). I struck up a conversation with a guy who looked like he was straight out of a Western movie—duster, gloves, the works. Rick Funk is a railroad lover and it was his sixth time riding the D&SNGRR with his wife and daughter. Conductor Wayne Pratt, the son of a railroad enthusiast, told me “the train was definitely the highlight,” when he was a kid and he and his family drove out to Colorado from Maine. Years later, he would retire at 50, move to Durango, and work for the railroad, which he’s now done for more than 22 years.
Sing along with Dale Elliot as he tickles the ivories in the saloon at Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton. © Jason McSherry
When we got to Silverton, we walked over to the Grand Imperial Hotel, which opened in 1882. It’s a true step back in time. As we walked into the saloon, Dale Elliot was tickling the ivories and belting out a tune. “Didn’t learn until I quit work 37 years ago and started living out life fancies,” Dale answered when I asked when he learned to play piano. After lunch, I walked around town, popping in and out of some of the shops, before heading back to Durango. You can take the train, ride a shuttle, or hire a driver like we did with Buck Horn Limousine.
For Saturday night fun, I went to the James Ranch for the Raven Narratives. Dave and Kay James started the ranch in the early 1960s. Now four of their five kids also work on the ranch. As I went on a mini-tour, I laughed at the goats, salivated over their artisan cheeses, browsed the market, and took in the ranch’s beauty, complete with cattle grazing in a distant pasture. The signature veggie burger from the ranch’s Harvest Grill & Greens is hands down the best veggie burger I’ve ever had! It’s made with grilled slices of seasoned summer squash topped with caramelized onions, a tomato slice, and Belford cheese melted on top—all grown on site. The side salad added even more garden-fresh yumminess. It became my favorite meal in Durango, even beating out the roasted cauliflower steak at Chimayo Grill that’s been my Durango favorite for several years.
As the sun started setting, the live storytelling event got underway. Locals got up and told short real-life stories based on a theme of water. That night, I sat on the edge of my seat as the storytellers took me on adventures from surviving an avalanche while heli-skiing in Alaska, to a wild food walkabout, to a kayaking encounter with an orca. One storyteller, Brad, closed eyes, stood barefoot, and told the story of a rafting trip during a pivotal time in his life sharing lessons from the river, “Always keep your head up, feet forward, feel the world around you, and breathe.”
I couldn’t leave Durango without catching a sunrise. Early Sunday morning, I headed up to Fort Lewis College to catch the sky turn shades of pink, purple, and orange from the College Mesa Trail. I made a second stop at Lion’s Den, a covered picnic area with an amazing view of the picturesque setting. Needing a java jolt, I stopped at Durango Joe’s Coffee, a favorite of visitors and locals. Try your coffee “honey bear” style. That’s any coffee with Honeyville honey.
Breakfast in a brewery? Why not? Opening in 1988, Carver Brewing Company was Durango’s first brewpub since Prohibition and was the second in the state behind Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. Try the avocado burrito with fried potatoes. Go hungry because the portions are huge, and so are the Bloody Marys.
Needing to walk off breakfast, I strolled around town and noticed most of the buildings are made of stone and brick. That’s because of a city ordinance enacted after the 1889 fire, which damaged several blocks. From the architecture to the D&SNGRR Museum in the rail yard, there’s so much to explore in the historic district.
A place that caught my eye was 11th Street Station with its food trucks, old gas station paraphernalia, and even a “dog parking” artificial turf area out front. This joint is heaven for car nuts, with license plates and a Chevy front bumper on the bar wall, a hubcap wall, and a car sofa. The bathroom features a transmission-casing sink, gas-handle faucet, and mirror frame from old Ford parts. I was surprised at the comfiness of a chair made from a 1926 Cadillac and Plymouth bumper. The long tables are 1940s bowling lanes from a brick factory. There’s plenty of al fresco dining space out front, but it was the huge outdoor space out back, with automotive art deco furniture, an old safe, and amazing views that made me want to kick back and stay awhile to savor Southwest Colorado.
More “Three Days In”
Watch your inbox for more things to do in Southwest Colorado in the next EnCompass Exclusive e-newsletter—a monthly email that provides exclusive content you won’t find in the print edition. Plus, keep an eye out for the next series of “Three Days In” in the July-August 2019 edition of EnCompass.