Like the hub of an adrenaline wheel, Durango, Colorado sits center to all that makes Southwest Colorado so great. It’s wedged between the folds of the majestic San Juan mountains and within the crosshairs of Four Corners.
Its mountains, rivers, mesas, and opportunities to get out are as limitless as the views. Threading it all together are hundreds of miles of singletrack, making a spectacular canvas for mountain bikers to play in the dirt.
Like many towns in the mountain west, Durango’s roots were forged from mining. And while the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge still wends its way north daily along the Animus River (though temporarily stationed due to COVID), these days, the mining town has mostly stabled the iron horse, making room for more progressive wheels. Home to Ned Overend, Myles Rockwell, Todd Wells, Howard Grotts and Payson McElveen, Durango is now synonymous with mountain biking.
COVID put many of our travel plans on the back burner, but we’re all looking to wring out the best of summer in our own backyards. With over 400 miles of trail, epic views, and the Purgatory Bike Park, spending it in Durango means you don’t have to settle. It’s a mountain biker’s paradise. And there’s quite possibly no better time to ride the high country than Fall.
Rack the bikes, bring your mask, and hold on tight for some of the best single track Colorado has to offer. Here’s the dirt on three different regions, with enough trails for a summer’s worth of riding…
Durango mountain bike trails
The terrain around Durango ranges from high-desert, strewn with rock, silt and scree, to mountain meadows that flirt with the tree line, to brushy, rooted trails that carve through lodgepole forests. And virtually all of them connect. The possibilities are only limited by your legs and your lungs.
Once in town, maybe let your body acclimate (Durango sits at a whopping 6,500′ elevation!). Consider getting your mountain lungs on one of the local trails.
Hogsback is a short, but aggressive trail that twists and climbs up and out of town for a spectacular view of the Animas Valley and downtown Durango. The downtown “free ride” trail is best approached by riding up the Perins Gulch trail from the Leyden trailhead. Follow the trail for about .6 miles until you see the sign for Hogsback. Hogsback trail climbs up another 0.7 miles that eventually forces a hike-a-bike up the last few meters to the summit.
Once at the top, take some time to scope the trail. It follows the plumb line off the nose, plunging down a crazy steep, 1.1 mile double-black diamond. Hogsback is one of the steepest trails in Colorado, testing your nerves, tires choice, and braking skills.
Horse Gulch sits on the south side of town and is a favorite with the local bike shops. It boasts nearly 30 miles of steep and narrow trails suited for the avid cyclist who’s up for the challenge.
While you are there, you might wanna check out Raiders Ridge. Just north of Horse Gulch and east of town, the unrelenting, techy trail drops straight down the southwest spine. Locals describe Raiders as legendary, saying it makes Moab look easy!
Colorado Trail from Junction Creek. If you are looking for something a little less white-knuckled, consider riding the southernmost section of the spectacular Colorado Trail. Winding nearly 500 miles across Colorado’s high country, the Colorado Trail connects hikers and bikers from Denver to Durango. And some of the best (and highest!) of the Colorado Trail is right here in Durango.
Segment 28 is the final section on the south side, connecting the Kennebec Trailhead to Junction Creek Trailhead. The ambitious will make a loop out of it, riding up fire road 204 north out of town to the section’s official start at Champion Venture Road. But the rest of us will appreciate shuttling to the start at Champion Venture road and riding back down to town.
Of course, you can ride the Colorado Trail right out of Durango as an out and back by taking Junction Creek Road to forest road 204. The trail head is about 3.5 miles up the road from Route 550 (Main Avenue). Most riders starting in town follow the trail up 10 miles to High Point. It’s a 2,500′ foot climb, but it’s well worth the descent.
However you decide to ride this segment of the Colorado Trail, it fills the eyes with mesas, pine forests, and views of the La Plata Mountains as you ride along the creek back towards town.
Purgatory Bike Park trails
Just north of town on the west side of Route 550 sits Purgatory Resort. Ranked as one of the best ski bargains in winter, come summer, the lift services riders to over 1,600 acres of clay-based single track, epic flow, and backcountry trails. The trail team at Purgatory has been busy, adding new fast and flowy trails each year. The result is a great set of family friendly trails with just enough spice for the veteran rider.
Shangri-La trail is Purgatory’s freshest downhill trail. Designed with berms, massive carving turns, and wood features, this sweet velvet single track offers a little something for everyone to test their riding skills.
Divinity Flow trail is a short, but super lively trail that whips you down a dirt luge course with plenty of jump options sending you off kickers, wallrides, bridges, and berms. Each jump has an optional ride around, making this a great trail to ride with your novice friends and family, who can still have fun while you pursue your higher power.
World Cup DH trail. This advanced, but flowy downhill trail cruises through alpine meadows, interrupted by a series of cliff’d, forested bands with a mix of fall line drops and technical traverses. The trail spills you out through a set of steep, off-camber turns that challenge all riders.
The Purgatory Bike Park has a full fleet of Rocky Mountain bikes available to rent for half and full days. And if it’s been a while since you’ve swung a leg over a bike, Purgatory offers lessons to help coach your technique, or simply guide you around the mountain for a tour of the trails.
Purgatory lift pass prices, hours and dates are:
For more information, head on over to Purgatory’s website.
High Country trails – 550 Corridor
The east side of San Juan Skyway spans the impressive San Juan Mountains, with the north portion –the Million Dollar Highway– consistently ranking as one of the most scenic drives in North America. Needless to say, the views from the saddle are spectacular and the access… Well, if you’re looking for some backcountry rides that climb high into the mountains, it’s worth the trip north out of Durango to explore the 550 corridor.
The further north you drive on 550, the higher you get. These routes are all point-to-point. If you are more inclined to descend, drop a car on the south side and drive north for your start.
Colorado Trail from Little Molas Lake. The San Juan Mountains contain some of the very best of the nearly 500-mile Colorado Trail. If you have time to get out of town, drive 12 miles past Purgatory Bike Park to Molas Pass. Take forest road 584 on the west to the trail head (next to Little Molas Lake). The 20.5 mile out-and-back trail kisses the San Juan skyline, never ducking below 10,000 feet! The going is difficult, but the endless views will fill your tank as you slip through the glory and beauty of the San Juan Mountains.
Hermosa Creek trail. One of the most popular local rides, this 18-mile ride can be ridden either way, but is most often ridden south from Hermosa Creek. This gives you (mostly) downhill riding with exceptional backcountry flow trails that glide through the alpine forests with views of the La Plata Mountains as well as exceptional access to trails that punch deeper into the wilderness.
This is another ride you’ll want to shuttle to the trailhead. Drop a car at the bottom at the end of forest road 576 out of Hermosa. Then shuttle north to Purgatory and take forest road 578 (Hermosa Park Road) west for about 8.5 miles until you pass Sig Creek Campground. The trailhead for Hermosa Creek is a few meters up the road on the left.
For the really ambitious, this trail can be ridden 77 miles from Hermosa all the way to Telluride! If that’s your jam, reserve 3-4 days to do it comfortably.
Tour de Engineer. Perhaps saving the best for last, the 19.5 mile Tour de Engineer get’s high praise from the MTB Project and locals alike. And it’s not because it’s easy. Expect steep, rocky climbs chased with dollops of phenomenal views.
Starting at Coal Bank Pass, the trail veers west then south through the high country, passing several intersecting trails. So bring a map or load up Trailforks’ Colorado map. The Tour nearly closes a loop – and that can be accomplished if you still have fuel in the tank to tackle the 2,500-foot climb up the Engineer Mountain Trail. But most riders will choose to leave a car down at Cascade Creek and make the drive north to pick up the first car.
This is a wonderful route with a five-mile, non-stop descent and stunning views of the San Juan Mountains!
When to Go & What to Expect:
Fall is a fantastic time to enjoy the trails in Durango. The crowds are gone, the heat has lifted, the hills start to ignite in color. Come fall, Durango has a more ‘local vibe’.
While the trails are open until the snow flies, Purgatory’s season is open through August 16th, 9:00am-4:00pm (seven days a week and weather permitting). After the 16th, Purgatory operates weekends only (Saturday and Sunday) through October 4th.
The health landscape is constantly fluid. Durango has taken extensive measures to integrate new rules and regulations meant to keep the population safe and healthy during COVID. Durango welcomes you, but asks that you do your part to protect vulnerable travelers and locals by following their safety guidelines, including practicing social distancing, and wearing masks in public spaces (free masks can be found at the Durango Welcome Center in downtown Durango). It’s good practice to bring a bandana or buff on the trails to cover up when passing other riders.
What’s the best mountain bike for riding in Durango?
De rigueur for backcountry Colorado, the trails are steep and rocky. Bring an all-mountain, enduro, or trail bike with 140-170mm of travel to suck in the terrain (or bring your skills to compensate).
Don’t have a bike? Wondering where to rent a mountain bike in Durango? Here are the best bike shops to rent a bike, replace broken (or forgotten) parts and gear, or just grab more local knowledge:
Purgatory Sports (2615 Main Ave., 970-385-8901), rents out the Devinci Django, a carbon 29 trail bike. If you are up at Purgatory Bike Park, they can outfit you (and the kids) with more downhill-oriented bikes from Rocky Mountain.
2nd Avenue Sports (640 E 2nd Ave., 970-247-4511), rents all manners of bikes by the day, and includes pedal of your choice (SPD, Time, Crank Brothers, Flats), flat repair kit, lock, trail map and expert advice to point you in the right direction.
Pedal the Peaks (598 Main Ave B, 970-259-6880), is a Durango favorite and has extensive knowledge about rides in and around towns. The owner, David Howard, loves to talk shop about the ‘local’ trail favorites. He’ll suit you up right with a bike from Ibis, Evil, Transition, Intense or Orbea. Full suspension alloy demos are available for $45 half day/$65 full day. Full suspension carbon bikes go for $65 a half day/ $95 for a full day. Discounts are available for multi-day rentals.
Bringing your own bike? Consider shipping it directly to Pedal to Peaks and they’ll build it for you for a flat rate of $65, and disassemble it and ship it home for another $65. Considering it can cost upwards of $100 to fly with a bike (each way) these days, this is a bargain.
While most shops rent helmets, all shops recommend you bring your own these days.
Other outdoor activities in Durango
Whether giving the trail-worn body a rest or seeking family friendly side excursions, there is no shortage of activities in and around Durango to keep you busy. As you would expect, most of them are outdoors.
Cool off in the Animas river on a guided river trip or lazy float. Tubes can be rented at the Ski Barn on Main Street (they also have a fantastic selection of cycling gear). Don’t want to get your feet wet? You can watch kayakers hone their barrel rolls on the river next to the Durango Visitor Center (111 South Camino del Rio, 800-525-8855).
Interested in trading saddles? For a true cowboy style experience, check out Palmer Quarter Horses (970-385-7656) or Buck’s Livery (970-385-2110) for a guided horseback ride through the San Juan backcountry. Experiences range from an hour ($65), two-hour ($95), half-day ($240), to multi-day trips (call).
30 minutes west, Mesa Verde National Park has some of the best preserved examples of cliff dwellings in the nation. View points are currently open, but tours and dwellings are closed, following national guidelines for reopening. Keep an eye on their website to get the latest status on reopening.
Of course, the outdoors is free and the safest place to explore. Miles upon miles of hiking trails are close by and open just a little ways up the 550 corridor.
What to do in downtown Durango
Durango is quickly becoming known for its food and drink, and many rides start and end at the coffee shop. Some of the best include Durango Joes Coffee, 81301 Coffee, and Bread, which gets high accolades for its cookies and pastries.
Wrap your ride with a pint at one of these local favorites. Animas Brewing (1560 E 2nd Ave., 970-403-8850), is right off the bike path and is a family friendly stop. Ska Brewing (225 Girard St., 970-247-5792), is world renowned for their innovative and creative beer selections. And Carver Brewing Company has a mix of microbrew and great pub food.
If you’re just looking for a quick bite to eat, 11th Street has a fleet of food trucks ready to serve. When the dinner bell rings, head to Steamworks (801 E 2nd Ave., 970-259-9200) for a burger and brew. East By Southwest (160 E College Dr., 970-247-5533) has got you covered for Sushi and Thai. And if you brought a change of clothes, suit up for some fine dining at the Ore House (147 E College Dr., 970- 247-5707) for a local slab of steak (and not so local tail of lobster). Currently the Ore House services curb-side pickup.
Where to Stay
Bed down for the night with some serious historic swagger at the Strater Hotel (699 Main Avenue, 970.247.4431). Operating since 1887, standard queens run $156; kings are available for $174 a night. The western ambiance is free.
If you want to stay up valley, Purgatory Resort (970-247-9000) has summer specials starting at $102 a night.
If you’re roughing it, camping is available close to downtown up at Junction Creek. Further out of town, head up the 550 corridor to Molas Campground, and Haviland Campground. Prices range from $20 for tent flat, up to $80 a night with RV hookup. Spots can be fiercely sought after during the peak season, with reservations quickly snatched up 6-9 months in advance. Come mid September, campgrounds switch to first-come, first-served.
How to get to Durango
Seven hours south of Denver, four hours north of Albuquerque, and eight and a half hours from Salt Lake, Durango is central (albeit a bit of a drive) to the big towns in the mountain southwest. You can fly into to Durango (DRO), or if you are on a more leisurely schedule, consider flying into Montrose, Colorado, rent a car and head down the spectacular San Juan Skyway to take in the fall colors.
Need to know
Sitting at 6500′ and trails only climbing higher, the sun and thin air can bring a beating lowlanders. Stay hydrated and bring your sunblock of choice.
This content was originally published here.