Striking natural beauty and ancient human history come together in the mountains of southwest Colorado.
In Durango and the surrounding La Plata County, groups can enjoy the scenery of the San Juan mountain range while learning about the indigenous people who have lived in the area for centuries.
“A big attraction for us is Mesa Verde National Park,” said Marsha Wilson, sales manager at the Durango Area Tourism Office. “It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the ancestral pueblo.”
Some 4,000 archaeological sites can be found within Mesa Verde National Park, which was the first U.S. national park set aside to preserve the work of humans. Since around 1 A.D., the land preserved by the park was the home of the Anasazi people, the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians, who eventually built impressive homes into the sides of the area’s cliffs.
The Anasazi abandoned the area by around 1300, but the homes they carved for themselves in the sides of the cliffs are remarkably well preserved. Today, visitors can take up-close tours of the cliff dwellings, in addition to admiring the high-desert mesas and wildlife in the park.
The most iconic of the sites, now called Cliff Palace, is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Groups can take photos and see the impressive site from the outside or venture into rocks with a guide.
In other areas surrounding Durango, groups can take advantage of numerous opportunities to enjoy the wide-open landscape that makes this area of the country so memorable.
“You have river rafting, hiking, horseback riding, fly-fishing and Jeep tours,” Wilson said. “We also have several lakes close by with lots of different water activities. And there’s lots of biking, too. We’re definitely the mountain bike racing capital of the world.”
Adventure seekers can book Jeep tours into the aspens and old mining towns around Durango or take rafting and floating trips on the Animas River, which runs right through downtown. From downtown hotels, visitors are just steps away from a number of trailheads for scenic hiking, and outfitters can teach travelers to fly-fish in the river as well. During the winter, groups can venture out on snowmobiles, dog sleds or sleighs.
In addition to enjoying the national park and the outdoor recreation in the mountains, church groups touring the Durango area should plan to visit these other attractions.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
One of the most popular activities for groups traveling in the area is a train ride on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which connects Durango to the historic mining town of Silverton 45 miles away. The railroad was founded in 1881 to haul silver ore between the two towns and now serves as a tourist train. At different points during the three-and-a-half-hour journey, passengers will find themselves cutting through narrow rock passages and hugging the edges of cliffs 400 feet above the floor of the Animas River canyon. As the train climbs from Durango to Silverton, the landscape begins to change, and visitors may spot elk, bear and bighorn sheep among the aspen and pine trees.
Southern Ute Museum
Durango and the surrounding territory are on the ancestral lands of the Southern Ute band of Native Americans, and visitors can learn about the tribe’s rich history at the Southern Ute Museum. The museum tells the story of the tribe through the memories and perspectives of tribal members, who range from youth to elders. Native plants and symbolic architecture represent the connection of the Southern Ute people to the land, and exhibits throughout the galleries use artifacts, photos and immersive multimedia to depict the past and present customs and traditions of Colorado’s longest continuous residents. Highlights include a re-created tepee, a schoolroom and a Southern Ute cabin.
Set against the backdrop of the beautiful San Juan Mountains, downtown Durango is scenic and historic. The area is listed on the National Register of Historic Districts and is brimming with Old West heritage, much of it on display in the facades of original 19th-century buildings. On historic Main Avenue, groups can enjoy sites such as the Historic Strater Hotel, which features ragtime piano performances in the Diamond Belle Saloon. Visitors will also find numerous art galleries, boutiques and local restaurants and several breweries, wineries and distilleries in the walkable downtown district. The area hosts numerous special events throughout the year, including the popular Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering each October.
About a half-hour’s drive north of Durango, Purgatory Resort offers four-seasons fun for visiting groups. Carved by glacial activity thousands of years ago, the mountains surrounding the resort offer great terrain for all sorts of activities. In the winter, the property is a popular spot for ski and snowboarding excursions. In the summer, the same terrain is excellent for biking, hiking and mountain coaster rides. Groups will also find plenty of indoor amenities at the resort, including 10 food-and-drink establishments and a dozen retail offerings. Special group accommodations make the resort a popular destination for camps and retreats.