I’m riding shotgun in a mountain-battered pickup truck that belongs to Heather, my guide for the day, who’s carting us along a two-lane highway toward the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum in rural Colorado. For the past few minutes, I’ve been peering silently out toward a landscape of sky and snow-capped mountains that’s so perfectly picturesque, I feel like someone has taped a postcard to the window.
If You Go …
Bar D Chuckwagon
8080 County Road 250
209 W. College Dr.
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
479 Main Ave.
Durango Mountain Resort #1 Skier Place
Elk Point Lodge
21730 County Road 501, Bayfield (970) 884-2482
Ken and Sue’s
636 Main Ave.
Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Trail Tours
50 Animas View Dr.
The Rochester Hotel and Leland House
721 E. 2nd Ave.
Soaring Tree Top Adventures
Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum
77 County Road 517, Ignacio
Steamworks Brewing Company
801 E. 2nd Ave.
699 Main Ave.
Vallecito Lake Country Market
18071 County Road 501, Bayfield
When my plane touched the tarmac in Durango an hour ago, I certainly wasn’t expecting to step out into a booming metropolis. But it wasn’t until I walked through the city’s airport, with its lone, little security line, that I realized how small this town is.
And that’s just how the locals like it.
Take, as evidence, an exchange I have with a Durango native near the end of my 72-hour stay. I tell her that I’m writing a story about her hometown. “Don’t make it sound too good,” she quips. “We don’t want Durango getting big.”
It’s a common sentiment here. Not that the city doesn’t welcome out-of-towners — Durango thrives on a tourism season that lasts most of the year — but many locals find charm in knowing that their corner of Colorado remains one of the state’s best-kept secrets.
We’re already pressed for time when we arrive at the museum, and we hustle through the permanent collection, which comprises an interesting array of artifacts — photographs, artwork, traditional garb — many of which are on loan from the private collections of members of the Southern Ute tribe.
We hop back in Heather’s truck and head north to make our afternoon horseback ride at Elk Point Lodge, grabbing food along the way at a gas station diner called the Vallecito Lake Country Market. As we pull into Elk Point’s dirt lot, we’re greeted by Lark Kokesh, the owner, who tells us all about the lodge’s 10 rental cabins and gives us a tour of its new spa, replete with an on-site masseuse and a hot tub that offers a stunning view of Vallecito Lake.
She then introduces us to Pete, our slender, soft-spoken trail guide, who emerges with a pair of strapping horses for Heather and me. Our horses form a line as they traipse through the trees and brush of the surrounding valley, where it’s almost silent save for the clacking of hooves. We maintain a peaceful pace, until Pete suddenly swivels back on his saddle. “Hold on to your horn!” he yells, and without further warning, his horse takes off into a gallop. My trailing horse immediately follows suit, inducing me into a full-fledged panic that lasts only the few seconds before Pete slows down again. He whips his head around and grins. “They know who the boss is,” Pete says.
Our next stop is downtown Durango, where Heather takes me down Main Avenue, flush with bars, shops, eateries and art galleries. We head over one street to drop my bags off at the Leland House, an old apartment building that’s been refurbished as a quaint 10-room inn.
Soon, we’re en route to an outdoor dinner and show at the Bar D Chuckwagon, a Durango institution since 1969. Though we don’t arrive early enough to peruse the shops out front for southwestern souvenirs, we’re right on time for the 7:30 p.m. dinner bell.
The food is cowboy to the core: a choice of chicken or beef beside a baked potato, hot beans, cold applesauce and a square of spice cake. After dinner, the Bar D Wranglers quartet takes the stage for a concert of quirky cowboy tunes, sharing tongue-in-cheek tips on how best to cook possum as well as other similar bits of wisdom.