Why Durango: Some locals bristle at the notion that anyone would call Durango a "ski town. Skiing, after all, is just one diversion. With its proximity to the Four Corners region, Durango is a hub for heritage tourism, and it's a short drive to points like Taos, N.M. "When it's not snowing, we have a truly great town - a town unto itself, says Sandy Bruce, a retired bank executive from New York who owns a ranch with her husband, Mike. The couple gave up the boardroom for a tack room. "We have nine horses, seven cats and five dogs, she says. Moving here from the East was easy, since the place is a melting pot of transplants. "We liked the town, and the town liked us.
The Skiing: Never mind (for now) the older fixed-grip lifts, the unpaved parking lots and the weathered base facilities. It's the skiing - and the view - that counts. And there are 1,200 acres of fluff, including long, looping cruisers that make up half of the terrain and a few black-diamonds off the Legends Lift. Temps rarely plunge too low. Purgatory Village Express, a six-pack chair, gets you up the main mountain in short order, and from there you zig-zag across the slopes to the back bowls. Crowds are rare, except on "the beach at Purgatory Village. New projects are now underway as part of a 20-year, $100 million master plan that will soon transform the base area.
The Vibe: Durango is a thoroughly Western town that oozes history, but the rough-hewn atmosphere is tempered by the academia of Fort Lewis College. Wallflowers beware: This place thrives on volunteerism. Residents are asked to lend a hand with film festivals, parades, barbecues, concerts, plays, lectures and more. And does anyone dine at home? Apparently not. There are more than 100 restaurants, from fast food to Nepalese, with a higher count per capita than San Francisco (one per 160 compared to one per 185). Most joints are busy even on weeknights. Crowds are a mix of students, empty-nesters, touring retirees and good ol' boys, and somehow they all get along. Maybe the brewpubs and wine bars can take credit for that.
The Life: Durango is a thoroughly self-sufficient mountain town that doesn't lack for much. Education is one of the major employment opportunities, thanks to the presence of two colleges and the largest public school district in southwest Colorado. There's no shortage of medical care - a concern in mountain communities - since Mercy Regional Medical Center has 130-plus physicians, a cardiology unit and a new $80 million Level III trauma center. Housing isn't cheap - the median single family home price is $423,000 - but that's still less than half the cost of Aspen or Vail. What is cheap is property tax; assessments are made on less than 10 percent of a home's value. The region's largest employer is the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, but higher-paying jobs can be found in real estate, technology, construction and light manufacturing.
The Visit: Fly into Durango/La Plata County Airport and rent a car for the 38-mile drive to the ski area (or 12-mile drive to town). Until the newest lodges and condos in Purgatory Village are completed, bed down at The Purgatory Village Hotel, which has comfy condo units and views of the slopes. In town, the historic 93-room Strater Hotel, dating to 1887, offers luxurious rooms and a Victorian ambience. Durango has plenty of dining options, including Steamworks Brewing Company for homemade suds and Ken & Sue's for gourmet fare. Diversions include riding the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and visiting Mesa Verde National Park.