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Pilot Getaways: Powder & the Polar ExpressPilot Getaways: Powder & the Polar Express

Durango/Silverton ColoradoDurango/Silverton Colorado

Editor's note: To give you some ideas for airports to visit when you attend the AOPA Colorado Springs Fly-In on Sept. 26, we asked the GA travel experts at Pilot Getaways to share some of their favorite nearby fly-out destinations. This article originally appeared in the Pilot Getaways magazine. Want more? We've secured exclusive AOPA members-only discount pricing for a subscription. Plus, you can peruse other Pilot Getaways articles on AOPA.org.
  • Redge Greenberg flies his RV-8 with Jake Jensen past the Needle Mountains and Balsam Lake about 7 nautical miles south of Silverton. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • In strong winds, watch for downdrafts on short final to Rwy 1 at Animas Air Park due to steep dropoffs before the threshold. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Aerial view of Durango-La Plata County Airport (DRO) facing north. Photo by George A. Kounis.
  • Silverton Mountain provides challenging, powdery slopes for expert skiers. Photo by Aaron Brill/Silverton Mountain.
  • The Polar Express Train. Photo by Yvonne Lashmett/D&SNGRR.
  • The Polar Express train is a special Christmas treat for kids. Photo by Yvonne Lashmett/D&SNGRR.
  • Durango’s Bar D Chuckwagon Suppers combine hearty BBQ fare with fun, Western music all summer. Photo by Rick Scarborough/Bar D Chuckwagon.

Subscribe to Pilot Getaways at a special AOPA members-only rate.In the corner of Colorado at the base of the imposing San Juan Mountains, Durango serves as a gateway to a huge array of unique adventures. The legendary Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, always a delight in summer or fall, offers a special children’s treat in the month before Christmas when it’s transformed into the “Polar Express” of literary and cinematic fame. Your child can relive this sweet story, traveling to the North Pole after dark in his or her pajamas and meeting Santa.

In Silverton to the north, winter means powder—big powder. Silverton Mountain is a little-known, ultra-challenging ski area. If you’re an expert skier, you’ve got to try this mountain. At the end of the day, you’ll be exhausted and elated, having faced North America’s highest and steepest ski slopes, with deep, virgin powder everywhere, and usually fewer than 100 people on the mountain. Skiing here will blow your mind; you won’t want to leave.

Summer and fall activities round out the entertainment options, from special train rides to an all-day zip line experience in the woods, and a pristine, high-end dude ranch with horses, cattle, and rafting.

Flying There

Two airports service the Durango area. Durango-La Plata County Airport (DRO) is the larger airport. It is about 10 nm southeast of town and has instrument approaches, regular airline service, rental cars, long FBO hours, and a 9,201-foot Runway 3/21. Avflight Durango provides full services, including heated hangars. The aircraft handling fee starts at $10, and is waived with a minimum fuel purchase, open 6 a.m.–9 p.m., 970-259-7400. Animas Air Park (00C) is only 5 nm from town; it has a 5,010-foot runway and a smaller FBO. The nearest rental cars to Animas are in town at Enterprise, which delivers cars to the airport with 24-hour notice (see Transportation). Gregg Flying Service has full-service 100LL ($5.18/gal) and Jet A ($6.83/gal), tiedowns single $5, twins $7.50, and maintenance, open 8 a.m.–5 p.m., 970-247-4632.

If your aircraft and mountain flying skills permit, you can fly the scenic routes depicted here, which are described in the Flying There section. Illustration by George A. Kounis. Click here to see a larger version.

Durango is in southwestern Colorado on the southern slopes of the San Juan Mountains. Peaks to the north exceed 14,000 feet, and even the passes are well above 10,000 feet. If both pilot and plane are up to the task of flying over this high terrain, a few particularly scenic options are: (1) the route from Telluride through 10,222-foot Lizard Head Pass, (2) the route from Montrose through 11,270-foot Red Mountain Pass to Silverton, then along the railroad/highway to Durango, and (3) the route through 10,630-foot Weminuche Pass over the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado’s largest wilderness area. For lower altitudes, skirt west of Telluride via the Cones (ETL), Dove Creek (DVC), Cortez (CEZ), and finally Durango (DRO) VORs. From the southeast to the west, you’ll cross mostly open, albeit high, terrain between 5,000 and 7,000 feet with some peaks approaching 10,000 feet. From the east, you can fly along the southern edge of the San Juan Wilderness to avoid the highest terrain.

DRO has VOR, ILS, and GPS approaches; a good alternate is Farmington’s Four Corners Regional Airport (FMN) in New Mexico, 34 nm southwest. At 5,506 feet MSL, FMN is more than 1,000 feet lower than Durango and is farther away from the mountains, so the weather is usually better there. You can rent a car at FMN for the 50-mile drive to Durango.

History

Ute and Navajo Indians lived in the San Juan Mountains until the Brunot Treaty of 1873 opened the area to settlers, most in search of gold and silver. The Denver & Rio Grande Railway founded Durango in 1880 and completed the line from Durango to Silverton by July 1882. Mining companies advertised widely in European newspapers, promising jobs and land. By 1885, Silverton boasted 1,100 inhabitants, mostly men; many spoke little English. Death lurked everywhere—from mining accidents, avalanches, suicide, robbery, and violence in connection with saloons and bordellos. These businesses congregated on the east side of town, while families and respectable businesses stuck to the west side.

Silver prices collapsed during the Panic of 1893. Then, in 1919, approximately 10 percent of the town’s population died in the worldwide flu pandemic, followed by further plunges in silver prices. Thus began a long decline in Silverton’s size and prosperity. Silverton’s last mine closed in 1991, leaving the town dependent on tourism. (Due to heavy winter snows, the train only brings tourists in summer and fall; the rest of the year it is only accessible by car.) Businesses began boarding up in winter, and the economy declined.

In 2001, when Aaron and Jen Brill proposed the Silverton Mountain Ski Area, the Town Board unanimously supported it. Environmentalists normally opposed to ski area development declined to oppose this one, as there would be no grooming or cutting of trees for runs, and only one 1973-vintage chairlift would operate from a minimalist base. In this avalanche-prone area, most skiing would be guided, with a limit as low as 80 skiers daily. Silverton Mountain opened in early 2002, becoming Colorado’s first new ski area in 20 years.

What to Do

Skiing or snowboarding at Silverton Mountain is like nowhere else: all-thrills, no-frills, and for expert skiers only. This is skiing the way it was meant to be—just your wits and skill on a wild mountain. The lift begins at 10,400 feet and takes you to 12,300 feet, but you can hike to 13,487 feet, making this the highest ski area in North America (make sure you’re physically prepared for the high altitude). It’s also the steepest; the “easiest” run is 35 degrees. Even from the lift, it’s more like heli-skiing, since you can often make the first tracks down a run. You exit the lift above a beautiful cirque for optional hiking along a ridge to access up to 1,819 acres of backcountry-type terrain. You’ll encounter a mountain left in its natural state, except for avalanche mitigation, and discover chutes, cliffs, and wide bowls with bottomless powder (the mountain averages over 400 inches of snow per year). Even early skiing can be great. December 2010 set a record with over 200 inches in that month alone.

Redge Greenberg flies his RV-8 with Jake Jensen on the way from Durango to Silverton in the San Juan Mountains. Photo by George A. Kounis.

You need to be comfortable on black diamond slopes and variable snow conditions, and be able to hike 5–20 minutes along ridgelines. You must also carry an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe pole (rent all for $36); liability releases are mandatory. The “lodge” is a Quonset tent with salvaged furniture. There’s no running water, but you can buy bottled water, and a sack lunch is $11.

When you exit the lift, you can ski right down, or hike 5–10-minutes for access to greater terrain variety. Expect 3–6 guided runs per day, which might not sound like much, but you’re really working it all the way down. Once your guide feels you can handle it, you’ll get more challenging terrain. Got seven gnarly ski-bum friends who don’t know how to stop all day? Eight is enough for your own insane group, and your guide will bring it on!

If you opt for unguided skiing, you’ll be on your own, so you’ll need to assess the mountain and winds yourself. You can get lost or hit a dead-end, so scout before you drop. Try skiing the Backside first, then the Westside, following the sun. And remember the most remote areas close first, so they can be swept by the ski patrol. Take that epic run earlier in the day.

Guided and unguided skiing are available Dec–mid-Jan and early Apr (check website for dates, the mountain is not open every day), $49 per day lift ticket. Guided-only skiing is additionally available Thu–Sun (mid-Jan–Mar) and is limited to 80 skiers per day, $99–$139 for an all-day guide and ticket. Private guides are $425 for one person plus $225–$260 for each additional person, including gourmet lunch with beer or wine. Avalanche gear and ski and snowboard rentals are available, but bring your own boots and snowboard bindings; reserve tickets and rentals online.

Heli-skiing or boarding lets you drop into outrageous terrain for the ride of your life. One drop is $179 plus lift ticket, or you can go for a whole day, six runs with access to 22,000 acres of ski terrain, $999. Reserve online or at the base, 970-387-5706.

Kids and beginning skiers love Silverton’s Kendall Mountain, with one double chairlift, a four-run ski area with a 240-foot vertical drop, ski and snowboard lessons, small jumps, rails, and other features for boarders. Snowshoe trails, a sledding hill, and cross-country routes are also available. You can rent skis, boots, boards, snowshoes, sleds, tubes, or skates, $5–$45; open Fri–Sun 11 a.m.–4 p.m., lift tickets $10–$20, skating, sledding, and tubing free, 1 Kendall Place, Silverton, 970-387-5522 ext. 10.

Pulled by 1920s coal-fired steam locomotives, the famed Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad provides spectacular views of the San Juan Mountains as it follows the Animas River. From late November to early May, the Cascade Canyon winter train travels 26 miles each way to the wye (triangular railroad junction) at Cascade Station, departing Durango at 9:45 a.m. and returning at 2:45 p.m. On the 55-minute stop at Cascade Canyon, you can have lunch, walk by the river, or take photos. The black locomotive and yellow cars backed by a winter wonderland of snow-clad trees make you feel like you’ve crawled inside a Currier and Ives poster, tickets $34–$99. A super treat for kids is the Polar Express Train that departs from Durango after dark mid-Nov–first Sat in Jan. On a magical train ride to the North Pole, the heart-warming story of the Polar Express will come to life. Invited by the friendly conductor, pajama-clad children climb aboard the old steam train. Everyone enjoys hot chocolate and treats served by personal chefs who also read the story out loud. Arriving at the North Pole, the children look out the windows to see Santa and his helpers in the snow. Then Santa boards the train and visits everyone on the way back, with a special gift for every child, departures at 5:15, 6:50, and 8:25 p.m., tickets $21–$66.

From May to October, the train climbs the full 45.4 miles from Durango to Silverton at 9,318 feet, a 3-1/2 hour trip. You can stay in Silverton overnight or return to Durango the same day. In late spring, snowmelt swells the Animas River, and electric green aspen leaves wink as you pass by in the historic train. Backpackers and fishermen get off midway to access remote wilderness. In fall, the aspen lining the route and carpeting nearby slopes turn bright yellow, and October brings a special kid’s train: the Peanuts Great Pumpkin Patch Express. You can always get great photos of the locomotive and cars in front of you when they round a curve, but some special trains allow photographers to exit, and then the train backs up and steams by them for extra special photos, tickets $49–$199, 479 Main Ave., 970-247-2733 or 877-872-4607.

Victorian-era Silverton is tiny, and perfect for walking. Shop for Christmas items, Native American art, train souvenirs, and unique handmade trinkets. In summer, watch a staged gunfight, see the old jail (now a Historical Museum), or take a mine tour. Our kids loved the Old Hundred Gold Mine Tour on a tram that penetrated 1,500 feet into the mountain, and panning for gold outside, daily mid-May–Sep, trams hourly 10 a.m.–4 p.m., tickets $10–$19, 721 County Rd. 4A, Silverton, 970-387-5444 or 800-872-3009.

The world’s longest zip line course runs through the San Juans and is accessible by railroad. Photo by Scott DW Smith/Soaring Tree Top Adventure.

In summer, you can fly the longest zip line course of its kind, with 27 spans across 180 private acres, accessible only via the train; guests ride in their own red First Class car. Soaring Tree Top Adventures’ patented technology lets you zip fast through the trees, yet easily slow down at the end of each span, making it safe for young and old alike. Whiz through aspen and old-growth ponderosa, then enjoy lunch on a tree platform overlooking the river. Naturalists give insights into local ecology between rides. After lunch, you’ll zip over the river many times, learn how to do tricks like riding upside down, race your friend, and finish with an epic 1,400-foot ride. Meet at the Durango station at 8 a.m., and you’re back in Durango by 5:45 p.m., $499, including four-course meal, eco-tour, and soaring, mid-May to mid-Oct, reserve online or call 970-769-2357.

Where to Stay

In 1902, Louis Wyman Sr. erected the Victorian-style Wyman Building on the west side of Silverton as a place for church-going citizens to go for parties and dances, away from the saloons and brothels on the east side of town. Today, it is the Wyman Hotel & Inn; its 18 rooms are tastefully furnished with antiques. In summer, you can stay in a real caboose with an antique Spanish bed and whirlpool. Four rooms also have whirlpools; the Elevator Room’s whirlpool sits inside a 1902 elevator. Second-floor rooms offer views of town and the mountains, and are perfect for watching the sunrise illuminate Kendall Mountain’s slopes. “Hotel” room rates include complimentary tea, coffee, or hot chocolate only; the “B&B” rate (about $30 extra per couple) includes afternoon tea and pastries and a full breakfast of cereal, pastries, oatmeal, coffee, and juices, as well as a hot dish like ham and cheese omelet or eggs Benedict. Guests get free pickup at the train depot in a private trolley, closed mid-Oct–mid-Dec, open Wed–Sun (mid-Dec–Mar), closed Apr, open daily (May–mid-Oct), $145–$240, pets $25 day in certain rooms, 1371 Greene St, Silverton, 970-387-5372 or 800-609-7845.

Downtown Durango’s Strater Hotel offers fine dining, a theater, Western saloon, and a spectacular antique collection. Photo courtesy of Strater Hotel.

Durango’s 93-room Strater Hotel near the railroad depot boasts the world’s largest collection of American walnut furniture, lavished throughout the hotel and guestrooms. You can celebrate at two unique bars. The Office offers a relaxing and smoke-free environment with live entertainment at 7 p.m., including blues, Country and Western, reggae, or unplugged rock. The Diamond Belle Saloon will take you right back to the Wild West, with its original ragtime piano, and costumed dance hall girls and bartenders. They also serve lunch and light evening fare. Famed Western author Louis L’Amour always stayed right above the Diamond Belle; its honky-tonk music helped him set the mood in his novels. Sundays at the Belle brings a plated brunch 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Next to the hotel, the Henry Strater Theatre has been home to old-time melodrama and quality music since 1962. You can enjoy fine dining before the show at the Mahogany Grille restaurant, recipient of multiple awards of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. Rooms run $92–$289, 699 Main Ave., 970-247-4431 or 800-247-4431.

Where to Eat

Silverton’s Brown Bear Café is a popular local hangout. Après-ski, you’ll trade toasts with a fair percentage of the people you shared Silverton Mountain with, since there are so few. The magnificent wood bar was built in 1893 for use in a local saloon. It eventually turned up in Durango, painted purple. It took a year to remove 16 coats of paint and restore its natural beauty. The Roast Beef Dinner is a favorite, with mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, and soup or salad, entrées $9–$22. For breakfast, the blueberry pancakes are hands-down winners, and excellent pre-ski fuel; they’re absolutely packed with big, fresh, berries, $7; open 6:30 a.m.–9 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in winter), closed Nov & Apr and Tue–Wed in winter, 1129 Greene St., Silverton, 970-387-5630.

Silverton’s Pickle Barrel offers good food and wines for lunch or dinner. Photo by Gina M. Rosato/Pickle Barrel.

The Pickle Barrel is another favorite. It’s housed within Silverton’s first commercial masonry structure, built in 1880. It’s cozy inside, with interior walls of brown stone, brick, and wood shingles and a pine-plank ceiling. You can enjoy a bottle of wine without going broke here, $12–$36. It’s known for its Prime Rib, though we feasted on Elk Sirloin with a cherry port sauce, entrées $14–$23, open Tue–Sun for lunch and dinner, 1304 Greene St., Silverton, 970-387-5713.

For dinner and great summer-evening entertainment all in one, head nine miles north of Durango to the Bar D Chuckwagon Suppers. The booth opens at 5:30 p.m. with dinner at 7:30, but you’ll find lots to do in between. There’s a little train for kids; a leather, blacksmith, kid’s cowboy, and chocolate shops for the family; and a record shop with music by the Bar D Wranglers. The dinner line serves 700 guests in 30 minutes; you’ll choose from roast beef or boneless chicken breast, each simmered in BBQ sauce, or a 12-ounce flame-broiled Rib Eye. Additional fixin’s include baked potato, baked beans, biscuits, chunky applesauce, spice cake, and coffee or lemonade. Everyone sits outdoors on picnic tables surrounded by huge pine trees, with the stage above up front. The Bar D Wranglers are consummate musicians, pickin’ and fiddlin’ their way through lively Western and cowboy tunes, with plenty of comedy thrown in. Reserve by phone or online, meals $24–$34, children $10, Memorial Day–Labor Day, 8080 County Rd. 250, 970-247-5753.

Transportation

In winter, Silverton is only accessible by car; rental cars are available at the FBO at Durango-La Plata County Airport, reserve in advance $50–$200, 970-259-7400. Enterprise in Durango delivers cars to Animas Air Park with 24-hour notice, $43–$130 per day, Mon–Fri 8 a.m.–6 p.m., Sat 9 a.m.–noon, closed Sun, 970-259-2101. If you only plan to take the train, you can call a taxi, about $44 each way from the airport to town, Buckhorn Limo, 970-769-0933.

With the greatest number of 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, the San Juan Mountains are known for outdoor adventure. Durango at the base of the mountains, as well as Silverton deep in the heart of them, offer unforgettable experiences, whether it’s a weekend of extreme skiing, a ride on the classic Narrow-Gauge Railroad, or a week at a wilderness dude ranch.

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Topics: US Travel, Technique, Mountain Flying

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