October 3, 2012

Riches Of The San Juans

Humans have inhabited Southern Colorado for more than 10,000 years, lured by abundant water, fertile soil, and animals for hunting. Big game hunters came first, followed by hunter-gatherers who constructed shallow pithouses. Later, Ancestral Puebloans designed multi-story villages. Evidence of their presence can be found at nearby Aztec Ruins National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park.

Ute Indians appear in the Animas Valley as early as the 13th century. At first, they live as nomadic hunters and gatherers, but with the introduction of horses stolen from the Spanish, they become raiders and traders. They were followed by the Navajo, who arrived in the area approximately 400 years later.

Anglo settlers came next. In 1860, a prospector discovered gold in the San Juan Mountains north of what would later become Durango, and people flooded the region. Through a series of treaties with the U.S. government, ownership of the lands transferred from the Indians to the newcomers. Navajo still in the area wound up on the reservation in Arizona while the Ute people, who once claimed almost all of Colorado for their own, found themselves restricted to reservations near Towaoc and Ignacio.

In September 1881, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) began serving the San Juan mining district. Railroad officials originally planned to build a station in the existing community of Animas City, but the city refused to pay the railroad dowry, and company executives created their own town nearby, naming it after Durango, Mexico, and Durango, Spain. Durango means water town in Spanish.

With such a rich history and bountiful environment, it takes time to explore this part of Southern Colorado, and depending on what time of year you go, your time in the Durango area can be a very different experience.

If you go during the summer, you can enjoy one of the area’s most popular activities: rafting. Aim to go in July when the Animas River flows steady but isn’t too harrowing. The Animas River also offers world-class fly fishing opportunities as do the San Juan, Dolores and Piedra rivers. Other recreational opportunities abound. Hiking, of course, is popular as is mountain biking and horseback riding. You can also zipline, glide, take a hot air balloon ride or tour the local farms.

Don’t miss the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad—it literally created Durango, and today, it’s the area’s main attraction. The 3.5-hour train ride takes you to nearby Silverton and back. I recommend taking the shuttle to Silverton and riding the train back. The driver on the way up will provide information about the area, and driving to Silverton allows you to spend more time in the small mining town before taking the train back to Durango.

In the winter, the train curtails its schedule and summer activities, like rafting and hiking, aren’t feasible. Instead, visitors participate in winter sports like skiing, cross country skiing, ice skating, sledding, ice fishing, showshoeing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling.

(This post is adapted from my book, Backroads & Byways of Indian Country, released in Spring 2012 by Countryman Press.)

Image Credit: Mike Blanchard / Shutterstock

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