Hiking toward Heaven: Durango, Colorado.

Pics from a jeep tour and a hike around Durango.
High water and river play – best snowmelt runoff in 25 years.
Best places to visit in Durango.
How Olga Little saved 17 miners.


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San Juan mountains still covered in snow in June 2019. This is the road to La Plata Canyon. Click to enlarge photo, then hit back-arrow to return to blog article.

Durango is in southwest Colorado, just over the border with New Mexico. Just a 4-hour drive from Albuquerque, the town is bustling in summer when the famous tourist train runs from Durango through the mountains to Silverton. Silver and gold and other metals were discovered in the mountains in the 1860s.

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Seen along the trail: Lupine – state flower of Colorado.

The San Juan mountains dominate the skyline, and in winter skiers flock to Purgatory, the old name for the ski resort north of Durango. Purgatory was still open for skiing in early May, the latest ever. This past winter was a record year for snow and followed a drought and very poor snowfall a year ago. Here we are in June 2019, and the mountains still sparkle with a lot of unmelted snow.

Durango is a town of variety. Long cold winters, but glorious summers. A magnificent river, the Animas, runs through the middle of town while only a mile away kayaks compete against each other in Smelter rapids during the spring runoff. Magnificent old hotels such as the Strater line Main street – a long street where most of the restaurants and tourist shops exist.

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Rafting at Smelter rapids. I’m guessing this is a class 3 or 4 rapid. The guy at the top of the raft is paddling in air!

Wealthy folks live here — and homeless people. Business types with their leather satchels, and lanky locals jogging along the river front. But a pervading sense that people love the outdoors – skiing in winter and hiking in summer or running the river in rafts and kayaks.

I wanted to see the spring runoff, which was supposed to be huge, and we beelined to Smelter rapids soon after we hit town. The flow was 4,500 cubic feet per minute, and that was impressive. Two days later it rose to 5,500 and the rapids had to be class 4. I was told if they became class 5 they would stop the raft tours – too dangerous. One guy told me the river could rise to 7,000 or even 8,000 cubic feet per minute because the snowmelt would continue throughout June and into July.

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At Smelter rapids this alien figure is actually surfing on a standing wave – he did it for over a minute (see video below).

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Video (30 seconds) of surfer riding a standing wave at Smelter rapids. Amazing dexterity! Click on image to begin video, then stop it, then press top back-arrow and you should be back to the blog article.


We took a jeep tour into La Plata Canyon. The name means silver in Spanish. We couldn’t go all the way to Kennebec pass, the high point,  because the road was blocked by an avalanche of snow. But still the waterfalls and snow and mountain views were stunning.

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This magnificent waterfall in La Plata Canyon absolutely burst out of the rocks next to where I was standing.

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Todd and Gillian from Houston built a small snowman right on the avalanche.

The guide told us a story about Olga Little, who led a team of 20 burros carrying food and other supplies up to the miners in La Plata (most working at 11,000 ft), and then hauled a load of silver and gold ore down to the smelters in Durango. She was only 5’4” and 138 lbs. More on Olga below.


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The Gray Nomad resting by the raging Junction Creek.+++++++++++++++++++

One afternoon we hiked along Junction Creek, which was also brimming with rushing water. The trailhead is only 3 miles from downtown. The trail is part of the Colorado Trail (CT) which you can take all the way to Denver! We hiked to the bridge — 7 miles round trip.

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Tiny red flowers (unidentified) watching the flooding Junction Creek.


We also discovered Trimble Hot Springs in the northern part of town. A beautiful site but we didn’t have our swimsuits.

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Trimble Hot Springs on the northern edge of town. Relaxing and not over-crowded.

I would highly recommend a trip to Durango for my Albuquerque readers SOON, as right now the high water slashing through the rivers is a rare sight.

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Wild sweet pea on the Junction Creek trail – first one I’ve ever seen.


POST-SCRIPT 1: I love watching waves at the ocean and rapids in a river. Below is a video of what I’m guessing is a class 4 rapid in Smelter rapids while we were there. The sound of the rushing water almost feels like you’re in a raft.

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Video (10 seconds) of a class 4(?) rapid at Smelter rapids. Click on image to begin video, then stop it, then press top back-arrow and you should be back to the blog article.


POST-SCRIPT 2: In Olga’s most famous story, this small, whipcord strong woman, 29 years old, saved 17 men at the Neglected Mine in winter 1912. There was 10 feet of snow on the ground, and men and burros had only oatmeal to eat. She needed to get them to safety at Transfer Camp, seven miles away. Olga tied everyone together, and she and her eight burros packed the trail as the freezing miners, not used to the winter weather Olga endured daily, trudged along in a snowstorm. They left at 7:30 a.m. and arrived at 11 p.m. Some with frostbite. All alive.

During that long, brutal 30-degrees-below-zero day, she went back and forth, encouraging the men, keeping them on their feet, moving them forward to safety. Olga Little saved their lives in dangerous terrain.

PS: I write blogs about three topics: Inspiration and Hope, and Science and Energy, and Health and Hiking.

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The Gray Nomad ….. Read up and rush up to Durango.
Happy is the man who finds Wisdom and the man who gets understanding…
Wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you can wish for is to be compared to her…
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold on her, and happy is everyone who holds her fast.
The Lord by Wisdom has founded the earth; by understanding He has established the heavens.
[Book of Proverbs, chapter 3].

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4 years ago

Hi Ian, yes it is a beautiful place but not like the trip you made to Utah. One day I would like to go there… It’s on my list. Thank you for sharing this fun adventure trip.

Don C.
Don C.
4 years ago

Ian…your Durango, Colorado blog brings back many fond memories of my family trips there. We weren’t into hiking, like you are, but loved the train ride to Silverton and visiting the many shops and restaurants in town. Thanks for your blog taking me on a mental trip back to a favorite spot of mine on planet earth.

4 years ago

Thank you, Ian! I LOVE Durango as well & have not been there for some time! Need to visit again! I sent your blog to my daughter as she, too, loves Durango & has a girlfriend who currently lives there- a nurse. Her husband is an outdoor recreational guide of sorts or something in the outdoor arena. He also takes people on water rapid tours. Obviously, he loves what he does!

Brian Morrison
Brian Morrison
4 years ago

Great post! I’ll have to check out Trimble Hot Springs next time I’m in the area on holiday.

Barbara Leachman
Barbara Leachman
4 years ago

We stayed in a hotel on the river when we were in Durango. Our room had a balcony and we were able to sit outside and watch the kayakers. I really wanted to do kayaking but never did. Of course, the river wasn’t the way you saw it but it was pretty fast even then. You go on some interesting trips!

4 years ago

Thanks Ian for another impressive blog post. I enjoyed the pictures and your descriptive dialog, it brought back fond memories of my many visits to Durango. I remember when Durango was undiscovered and relatively inexpensive. Great pictures, thanks again

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