Hanging out with nature in alpine towns of Colorado

The remote mountain town of Durango, Colorado, has seen a tourism boom during the pandemic, as urban dwellers plagued by cabin fever head out in pursuit of alpine scenery, hot springs and outdoor activities.
The remote mountain town of Durango, Colorado, has seen a tourism boom during the pandemic, as urban dwellers plagued by cabin fever head out in pursuit of alpine scenery, hot springs and outdoor activities. PHOTO: VISIT DURANGO
(Left) Two hours from Durango in Ouray, Colorado, is a rock-climbing experience known as a “via ferrata” – a cabled and runged path across a steep section of mountain – that winds across the Uncompahgre Gorge. (Right) After a hike at the Sand
(Left) Two hours from Durango in Ouray, Colorado, is a rock-climbing experience known as a “via ferrata” – a cabled and runged path across a steep section of mountain – that winds across the Uncompahgre Gorge. (Right) After a hike at the Sand Canyon trail nearby, visitors can enjoy an alfresco wine-tasting session at Sutcliffe Vineyards, which is an hour’s drive from Durango, Colorado.PHOTOS: ALISON DE SOUZA

I'll admit I had not even heard of Durango, Colorado, until a few months ago.

But cabin fever from months under lockdown due to the pandemic had sparked an intense longing for an outdoorsy holiday. And knowing long hikes and long drives often restore me to my factory settings, I began researching places to go in Colorado, known for its stunning alpine scenery, hot springs and plethora of outdoor pursuits.

Friends suggested popular spots such as Colorado Springs or the Rocky Mountain National Park, but then I met a woman from the Durango tourism office at the Go West Summit, a virtual tourism industry event focusing on the American West, who told me about this hidden gem in south-west Colorado.

You need to drive a bit to get there, but that would be part of my decompression. I flew from Los Angeles, where I am based, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, then did an easy 31/2-hour drive to Durango.

I arrived as the sun was setting on its charming downtown area, framed by the San Juan Mountains and shimmering Animas River and dotted by Victorian structures from the late 19th century, when this was a bustling mining town.

One of them is the Rochester Hotel (www.rochesterhotel.com), a cosy boutique property tastefully decorated to reflect the town's past as the "Hollywood of the Rockies", its hallways adorned by posters of Westerns filmed in the area, including Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969) and How The West Was Won (1963).

It is a good base from which to explore the surrounding areas and the town itself, which has no shortage of excellent dining options, whether it is an alfresco bite at the 11th Street Station Food Truck Collective or at farm-to-table restaurant Eolus, which you can then walk off with a lovely stroll along the river.

But if it is history you want, there is no better time-travel machine than the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (www.durangotrain.com), a steampowered, coal-fired train that has been running since the 1880s, when it ferried gold and silver from mines in the San Juan Mountains.

The route is nothing short of spectacular, running parallel, in parts, to the San Juan Skyway, a series of winding roads that has been rated one of the most scenic drives in the United States. The train roars and whistles thrillingly as it winds along clifftops, rivers and canyons, offering breathtaking and, from the few open-air cars, vertiginous views of the landscape.

After the ride, you can stop for lunch at James Ranch, a 162ha family farm that has been a pioneer in the sustainable agriculture movement that is so trendy now.

Grab a seat outdoors and order one of the delectable burgers from the James Ranch Grill (www.jamesranch.net/grill) - made from beef that has been raised its whole life on green pastures, then cooked to perfection and topped with one of the raw cheeses made in-house.

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A short hop away is the Durango Hot Springs Resort & Spa (www.durangohotspringsresortandspa.com), a rather civilised way to enjoy one of Colorado's many mineral-rich geothermal springs, which you can comfortably soak in even in the depths of winter.

Durango also puts you within striking distance of Mesa Verde National Park - a Unesco World Heritage site - and the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument nearby.

Here, you can hike past the ruins of cliff dwellings and other remarkable structures built by the Anasazi, an ancient Native American culture - either alone or with a knowledgeable guide from Durango Rivertrippers (www.durangorivertrippers.com), which has an archaeologist who can explain the fascinating history of the region.

Mr John Sutcliffe, who owns the only winery in the area, Sutcliffe Vineyards (www.sutcliffewines.com) - a perfect spot for a bit of apres-hike wine-tasting - will also regale you with stories of local Native American history.

Depending on the season, there is heaps more to do in and around Durango, but I chose to end my trip by driving two hours to another far-flung mountain town, Ouray.

In the winter, it is home to a world-famous ice-climbing park, but another must-do here is the Ouray Via Ferrata - "via ferrata" is an Italian term for a cabled and runged rock-climbing course across a steep section of mountain, invented as a way to move soldiers across the Dolomites in World War I. This one is about 1.25km long and takes three to five hours to complete as you clip and unclip yourself to a series of cables high above the Uncompahgre River.

No rock-climbing experience is necessary, but novices must hire a guide from a company such as San Juan Expeditions in Durango (sanjuanexpeditions.com) and follow strict safety protocols.

Being reasonably strong and not too scared of heights help as well, and while I was far from perfect on both those fronts, it occurred to me - as I hung on for dear life - that you cannot get more "outside" than this.

Which makes it arguably one of the best things you can do to escape from it all during a pandemic.

• The writer's visit was hosted in part by Visit Durango.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2020, with the headline 'Hanging out with nature in alpine towns of Colorado'. Print Edition | Subscribe