Zack and I discovered the San Juan Mountains by total accident. It was May of 2020, and we were looking for a place to decompress from four months of lock down in our 500 square foot Brooklyn apartment, where we could hear the sounds of sirens 24 hours a day (this was at the peak part of the pandemic in NYC). We basically looked for any available Airbnb in Colorado that had a good enough kitchen for me to do my job, and by total chance, ended up in Ridgway, a tiny town on the northern base of the mountain range. You could see the peaks of Mt. Sneffels from our yard; in 20 minutes, you could be walking through a green meadow filled with alpine rivers and waterfalls. We fell in love.
A year later, we decided to come back to the San Juans, this time to Durango, a much larger town on the southern end of the range. Durango is a college town, and has a thriving restaurant scene (locals love to share that they’ve been neck-in-neck for “most restaurants per capita” with San Francisco for years). It’s the type of town that begs you to get out and have adventures, whether you’re biking along the extensive river path, rafting down in the in-town rapids, hiking the trails, soaking in the hot springs, or just trying new produce at the farmers market. It’s one of my favorite places we’ve ever been (we actually tried to buy a house there and failed, a story for another day), and I hope you get a chance to experience its magic too.
The best healthy restaurants in Durango
There are a lot of restaurant options in Durango and I’d say most of them offer solidly B to B+ food. This isn’t a town I’d go to for world-class, creative fare, but it’s options far surpass that of most similarly sized mountain towns. Here are my top picks:
James Ranch—a fast casual spot where you order at a counter and then find a seat at a picnic table, James Ranch has grass-fed burgers (plus vegetarian options), farm-fresh salads, and thick-cut fries. It’s nestled in a gorgeous spot just north of town in the Animas River Valley, with stunning views from pretty much every table. Call ahead or check the website to see if there’s live music on the day you’re going, and be sure to check out the attached market for essentially a small farmers market worth of small purveyor groceries.
11th Street Station—a collection of food trucks with a coffee shop and bar, 11th Street Station is smack in the middle of the historic downtown and a super fun scene (there was live music pretty much every time we came). Backcountry Gourmet makes amazing breakfast burritos and sliders, and Zawadi, which serves African cuisine, was one of the best restaurants we ate at in Durango (although I prefer the more extensive options at their main restaurant, just up the street).
PRIMI—a pasta and wine bar with incredibly delicious pastas and salads featuring local ingredients, this is a lovely place to sit outside and watch the world pass by. They also have amazing cocktails and mocktails.
Cream Bean Berry—this is the best ice cream I’ve ever had, and I’ve lived in places like SF and NYC that are famous for their fancy, artisanal ice cream. Made from local, organic ingredients (with vegan options!), they have both classic flavors (the mint chip is a must try) and really unique ones (the berry crisp was pure heaven). Worth the long line that inevitably forms on hot summer nights.
Bread—a place to buy, well, bread, Bread has some of the best loaves I’ve ever tried. You can also pop in for sandwiches, cookies, and other baked goods but I highly recommend just getting a baguette to eat with butter for a glorious picnic lunch along the river.
Durango Farmers Market—Durango has an amazing farmers market, with live music, tons of stands for produce, local goods like kombucha, cookies, and salad dressing, and a good amount of hot food for brunch. The sweet potato burritos at the stir-fry place are especially good and the smoothie truck has creative and delicious concoctions.
Nature’s Oasis—you know I love a grocery store and while Natural Grocers is usually my favorite when I’m on the West Coast, this Durango local spot blew them out of the water. They have my favorite natural brands (Olipop, Siete, even my De La Calle tepache) alongside tons of local Colorado brands. They also have a hot bar for to-go meals and pretty decent prices. It was a little further from my house than the other grocery stores but always very much worth the trip.
The best things to do in Durango
Durango Hot Springs—we LOVED the hot springs, and ended up going 5+ times during our four weeks in Durango. First of all, they’re in a beautiful, natural environment, nestled on a hillside overlooking the Animas River Valley. There are a ton of different pools of varying temperatures and a cold plunge, so you can bop around and switch it up. There’s also a health food and elixir truck and a normal alcohol bar, which combined the live music they have many nights, turns the whole place into a very social vibe. We made new friends every single time we went (it’s hard not to feel somewhat intimate with someone when you’re soaking in a pool with them!)—this is far and away the best spot for getting to know some locals. Highly, highly recommend (do drinks LOTS of water though—you can bring a bottle, there’s a filtered refill station on site).
Durango & Silverton Railroad—okay, here’s the thing about the train. Pretty much everyone told us to do it before we arrived and it is gorgeous—we sat in the open air part (highly recommend) and watched some of the most stunning scenery ever go by. It goes to Silverton, a super cute mining town in the mountains that you can explore before heading back. BUT! It is a LONG day, and the ride gets—dare I say—a little boring by the end. I’d do it again if I wanted a good taste of nature without hiking, if I had a train buff along with me, or if I just wanted a more chill, relaxing day. But if you get antsy or bored sitting for long stretches, I’d skip it and just drive up to Silverton (a gorgeous journey even along the highway).
The Bookcase & Barber—this is a speakeasy hidden behind a bookcase in a working barber shop. The cocktails are incredibly creative and delicious, but it’s worth going for the experience of saying the secret password and having the attendant swing open the bookcase alone (you can find the current password on their Facebook page).
Four Leaves Winery—tasty wine and a lovely setting makes this a worthwhile place to spend a few hours in the afternoon (it’s great combined with a Vallecito Lake trip, below). Check the website for live music, which makes the experience infinitely lovelier.
Stand Up Paddle Boarding at Vallecito Lake—the drive to Vallecito Lake is gorgeous unto itself, and the lake is perfect for a day out on the water. You can rent SUPs and kayaks at the marina—bring a picnic and make a day of it!
Biking the river path—Durango has a spectacular river path that runs the entire length of town. While it’s great for strolling, you can see the whole length of it by renting some eBikes, which have the bonus of making you feel like you have superhuman strength. We took ours out from Roll Durango, which will deliver and pick-up directly at your Airbnb or hotel if you’re staying in town.
White Water Rafting—Durango is a big rafting town—we were actually there during Animas River Days, a huge rafting festival. We went out with a local enthusiast we met at the hot springs the night before (I told you that you make friends there!) but Mild to Wild is also highly recommended. I was terrified before I went but ended up having the best time, so even if you’re nervous, give it a try—you might surprise yourself!
Day trip to Ouray, Telluride, Ridgway, Blue Lakes loop—this is ambitious but it’s an amazing way to see the best of the San Juans in one fell swoop. Wake up early and drive up the Million Dollar Highway—you can do a quick drive through of Silverton, but mostly admire the views from the car (and what magical views they are) until you get to Ouray. Go visit the waterfall and take a quick walk through the spectacular box canyon before heading to Ridgway for a quick lunch at Eatery 66, which serves some of the best farm-to-table food I’ve had. Head over to the Blue Lakes hike—this is the part I’d leave out if you’re feeling rushed, but it’s also hands down the most beautiful hike I’ve done in the world. Stop at the first lake, 3.2 miles in, and turn back (it’s the prettiest one). Continue onto Telluride, where you can drive all the way to the end of town to enjoy sunset by the waterfalls before grabbing dinner at one of the delicious local eateries (I love Brown Dog Pizza—get the Detroit style—and Siam for delicious Thai food). Drive back to Durango and sleep—you’ve earned it!!
The best hikes in the Durango area
Animas Mountain Loop—this hike literally starts in a downtown neighborhood. While it appears dry at first, the desert cedes to gorgeous mountain meadows as you get higher up, and you’re rewarded with views of the Animas River Valley and gorgeous rock formations. A fun afternoon jaunt.
Engineer Mountain Trail—definitely a full day hike, this is a rewarding if grueling climb up the side of a mountain. There’s tons of diversity, with forests, meadows, and overlooks. Pack lunch and lots of water.
Fourmile Falls—a bit out of town, near Pagosa Springs, this is worth the drive. It’s hands down one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done, and while it’s long, it’s not steep at all, making this a great day-long outing for both novice and experienced hikers. On your way back, stop at Pagosa Hot Springs for a different experience than the Durango one (it’s by the river, which you can do cold dunks in between soaks!).
Purgatory Trail—a great trail to customize to your length and needs—it’s beautiful right out the gate, with stunning views of the San Juans, so if you want to just do a mile out and back, that’s fine. It gets harder the further you go but definitely pays off the effort.
Where to stay in Durango
I wouldn’t say that Durango is known for it’s luxury accomodations, and strict permitting rules mean there aren’t a ton of Airbnb options. For simple comfort and an excellent location, we liked our Airbnb quite a bit although it was definitely in the “homey” versus “chic” category. The Strater Hotel is another great choice, with a beautiful historic structure and a central, downtown location.
I hope you enjoyed this Durango Healthy Travel Guide! Let me know any other recommendations in the comments below!
Check out my other travel guides!
- Tucson Healthy Travel Guide
- St. George/Zion & Bryce Canyon National Park Healthy Travel Guide
- Santa Fe Healthy Travel Guide