For many people, the holiday season brims with nostalgia and is a time to embrace decades-old family traditions, classic movies, and even caroling.
A southwestern city that embodies this old-fashioned cheer is Durango, Colorado, located less than thirty minutes from the New Mexico border in the state’s southwest corner. Like Colorado’s better-known cities, Durango is a snow-capped paradise awash with mountain views. But it also has many other unique adventures to enjoy during the holidays, the crown jewel of which is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
A Train and a Town
Durango literally wouldn’t exist if not for its iconic railway system. The company that created it, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, also founded the town of Durango within the Animas River Valley in 1880. Two years later, the tracks to Silverton, a town around fifty miles north, were laid. From its origin, this train always had a dual purpose as a passenger train and a hauler of precious metals, mostly gold and silver from the San Juan Mountains. And, even though the D&SNGR has faced stiff challenges over its century-plus of existence, including financial difficulties, natural disasters, and pandemics, it’s estimated that it has delivered more than $300 million of precious metals during its lifetime.
By the latter half of the twentieth century, America’s railway industry was changing, and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad changed with it by emphasizing the tourism experience, adding more trains to ride, and winterizing the compartments. The charm of the trains and the surrounding area was still evident at this time by the fact that dozens of Hollywood movies were filmed here, including the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and that the railway was deemed a National Historic Landmark.
Today, the D&SNGR is as popular as ever. In 2021, USA Today readers voted it the best scenic train ride in North America, and approximately 200,000 enthusiasts flock to Durango each year for the opportunity to ride one of the few working century-old steam-powered trains remaining in the country. The company that runs the railway, American Heritage Railways, offers a vast array of special experiences, including a scenic, nine-hour, round-trip excursion to Silverton, a locomotive cab ride with a train engineer, photography-focused trips, and various holiday-themed trains throughout the year—including some particularly magical trains during the winter season.
All Aboard for Holiday Fun
If you travel here for the holidays, you may feel like you’re in a magical movie. That’s because the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad offers a special holiday train ride for both kids and kids at heart, The Polar Expressä Train Ride. You and your family will indulge in traveling to the “North Pole” while singing Christmas carols, listening to a reading of The Polar Express book, and, yes, drinking hot chocolate. After you experience a light show up north, Santa even boards the train and delivers the first gift of Christmas, making it an experience everyone will treasure.
Looking for another family-oriented locomotive experience? The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has you covered with its Cascade Canyon Winter Train. Available starting around Thanksgiving, this experience features breathtaking mountain, forest, and river views along your fifty-plus-mile, five-hour journey, as well as a one-hour layover to explore nature firsthand in Cascade Canyon, located deep in the San Juan National Forest.
Downtown Durango and Beyond
As memorable as these train rides are, they are just a few of the festive things to do in Durango during the holiday season. Whether you prefer a cozy, casual stay, snowy outdoor adventures, or a little of both, your itinerary will be jam-packed and joy-filled.
If holiday shopping is high on your to-do list, be sure to visit downtown Durango, where dozens of local merchants ply their trades. You may find yourself spending hours rummaging through all the stores on or near Main Avenue, as goods include art, jewelry, food, clothes, toys, and much more. And if you’re in town in early December, mark your calendar for Noel Nite, Durango’s one-day shopping event celebrating the season and offering great deals.
While you’re enjoying your holiday shopping in and around town, you’ll also want to eat. Fortunately, Durango is a foodie paradise, with memorable places like Eleventh Street Station, a converted service station with a coffee shop, food trucks, and more. No matter the cuisine, you’ll likely find it here. In fact, with almost two hundred restaurants, Durango has more restaurants per capita than San Francisco—so eat up.
People come to Colorado to experience a winter wonderland, and Durango is no exception. In addition to dashing down one of the area’s many skiing and snowboarding trails, you can also go snowmobiling, snow tubing, and even snowshoeing. If you consider yourself truly adventurous, you can also try your hand at ice climbing in Cascade Canyon or brave the cold while sitting at one of several ice-fishing spots in the area. And after a long day of outdoor adventures, you can enjoy relaxing in the 120-degree natural spring at Durango Hot Springs Resort and Spa.
If you venture outside of town, you’ll discover even more to explore, especially history. Several national parks and monuments are within driving distance, including San Juan National Forest, a nearly two-million-acre expanse approximately thirty-five miles north via Route 550. Also, with this area of the country being steeped in American Indian history, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to learn more about it both in and out of town. In addition to downtown establishments like Toh-Atin Gallery, which sells authentic American Indian jewelry, art, and crafts, you can stroll through the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum, located about thirty minutes southeast of the city, to learn more about the Núuchi people.
Finally, what holiday trip would truly be complete without a sleigh ride? Around twenty miles north of downtown, you’ll find Buck’s Livery, which offers forty-five-minute horse-drawn sleigh rides that will make you feel like you’re in a Currier and Ives print. You must reserve your day and time beforehand, though, so make sure to plan ahead.
Durango is one of those special places that perfectly marries the present and the past for a one-of-a-kind experience. Visit here during the holidays to ride the rails, soak up the small-town vibe, find adventure, and celebrate the season while surrounded by the mountainous majesty of the Southwest.
For more info, visit durango.org or durangotrain.com