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During Durango’s silver-mining boom years in the late 1800s, when the dollars chiseled from the San Juan Mountains fostered quick and unruly growth, the city was heralded as the “Denver of the Southwest.” Just its name-Durango-evokes images of gunslingers, saloon fights, harlots and hangings, all of which were integral parts of the city’s first boom. Back then, Durango’s dusty Main Avenue was the line that separated the business district from the red-light district. Underneath was a complex tunnel system, which allowed both sides to fraternize without the scrutiny of “upstanding” eyes. Now, Main Avenue is a Victorian-style center of commerce loaded with tourist draws. Then, making a living from the land forged a town with a driven, Western character. Today, the town’s inhabitants share the adventurous spirit and drive of their forefathers and mothers, but as new industries have replaced old ones, the community’s focus has shifted.
Definitions of modern-day Durango vary depending on which of the 15,000 citizens you talk to. Ranching and farming families are still prominent, but there’s a new breed of cowboy, as well-one that throws a leg over a mountain bike instead of a horse, one that pulls a camming device from a harness for rock climbing instead of a gun from a holster.
A look into a Durangoan’s garage likely will reveal at least one mountain bike, a kayak, climbing gear, a quiver of skis, snowshoes-anything it takes to enjoy every waking moment in this outdoor paradise. Situated at 6,512 feet and in Southern Colorado’s temperate zone, an adventure athlete couldn’t dream up a more accommodating playground. Its natural charms are largely a function of its isolated location: Durango is contained by the San Juan Mountains to the north, numerous sage-dotted mesas to the east and west, and long, tawny deserts that lie like welcome mats to the southwest.
Ranching and farming roots combined with a recent hardcore recreationalist migration make this town’s ever-changing community an interesting mix-but everyone is drawn together by a love for the land and the willingness to work hard to make the dream of living in Durango a reality.
Mining, farming, logging and ranching were the town’s main trades through the Fifties, when the oil and gas boom blew into the region, attracting the newcomers that flock with every promising new industry. The oil and gas business tapped out in the Eighties, leaving Durango’s economy as flat as its mesas. But Durango survived, largely because of its college and ski area.
In 1957, struggling Fort Lewis College relocated from rural Hesperus, 25 miles to the west, to a mesa overlooking town. With an enrollment of 4,000, the college is now one of the two largest employers in town. “Had it not moved here, the college may not have survived,” says Marilyn Malberg, who, like her husband Dutch, has lived in Durango her entire life. “Now, I think Durango wouldn’t have survived without the college.”
The development of Purgatory Resort in 1965 continued the evolution of Durango. During its first decade, the resort was closely tied to the community even though it is 25 miles distant. But in 1975, Purgatory started to aggressively market itself. Since then, it has grown into a successful destination resort.
Skiers either love or hate Purgatory’s unique terrain. Glacier-formed benches fall onto each other, creating challenging descents. Those who love Purgatory know there are thousands of ways to ski it. Paul’s Park offers steep gladed terrain, while Snag winds through narrow gullies and headwalls. Dead Spike is a classic cruising run, and Bull Run-a bump run that gets more challenging with each turn-is a favorite of mogul skiers.
While on-slope improvements have never put Purgatory on the rarified level of other Colorado resorts such as Vail, its natural draws-challenging terrain and warm weather combined with 268 inches of annual snowfall-lure purists from around the world. Last year, the rresort chalked up 342,000 skier visits.
Purgatory and the service industry it has created employ many of the young adult residents who care more about playing in the mountains than playing the stock market. But because the service industry is seasonal, creative job juggling is a required skill if you’re to make it in Durango. Ivan Unkovskoy, an 11-year member of Purgatory’s ski patrol, works various jobs to pay the bills. He started his own roofing business to keep him afloat in the off-slope months. He has also moonlighted as a professional mountain bike racer for the past several seasons. “To make your income in town is kind of tough, unless you’re totally dedicated to your job,” he says. “Many people have to work two jobs to make rent.”
Working overtime is a price long-time locals are willing to pay. Stroll into the Durango Diner and you’ll find cowboys sitting next to professional athletes-the two make it by living off the land, just in different ways.