The wilderness around southern Colorado is like a time machine. With each step in sandstone canyons or on windswept 14,000-foot behemoths, you get transported to a land away from modern stresses and worry. Out in the wilds of greater Durango, you are with the mountains, and exposed in the elements like the communities that have lived here for thousands of years. Perfectly combining alpine lakes and snowy summits with the reddish orange of canyons and pillars of the desert Southwest, this region is one of archaeological and visual wonderlands.
While there may still be snow up in the San Juans, the lowlands have some amazing, typically snow-free, destinations to get you out and exploring the historical and mind-blowing canyons and valleys near the Utah and New Mexico borders. As you walk along the sandstone canyons, glancing up toward ancient cliffs and caves, your mind starts to drift, and you feel like you are becoming one with this ancient and spiritual land. Carrying all the gear, food and, water that you will need in your Osprey Variant Pack, your imagination is sure to be running wild as you wander the trails of Mesa Verde National Park or Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
The highlight of the lowlands in the greater Durango area is Mesa Verde National Park, just a short 40-minute drive from town. For thousands of years, the Ancestral Pueblo people walked these canyons and lived in cliff dwellings, that are now protected, studied, and easily accessible, thanks to the National Park Service. While hiking is limited to designated trails in the park, the opportunities to see amazing cave dwellings make this a highly sought after destination.
If you have never explored Mesa Verde before, the iconic and stunning Nordenskiold Site No. 16 Trail is a must-do hike. While the name itself isn’t exactly inspirational, the stunning set of ancient ruins is, and you will fall in love with both the view and the trail. At just two miles round-trip, it’s not an overwhelming route, and families traveling with all ages can enjoy it. The trail is crowded in the summer, but it’s perfect for pictures and quiet reflection in the off-season months. Be sure to load up your pack with snacks, camera, gear, and water, and take your time looking around and getting swept up in how life used to be. Other fantastic trail options in the park include the 2.4-mile Petroglyph Point Trail, and the 7.8-mile Prater Ridge Trail, that is known for its beautiful, wide vistas.
There is another series of cliffs, rocky valleys, and ancient dwellings an hour and a half west of Durango. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is home to the largest concentration of Anasazi ruins in the United States, with nearly 6,000 recorded sites. The best way to explore this land is by heading out on the trails starting at Sand Canyon. With several well-marked loop trails to choose from, you can’t go wrong. They all have stunning sandstone cliffs and insanely gorgeous rock formations, and you’ll pass endless ancient dwellings in almost every nook and cranny. Exploring Canyons of the Ancients in the late winter and early spring months is ideal as the temperature is cooler, but you will have to deal with the Cedar Gnats, better known as “No-See-Ums.” Don’t let that stop you from exploring this gem; just remember to keep moving, wear long socks, long sleeves, and a hat. With the right gear, you can explore for miles with no annoyance.
If snow is what you are longing to explore, there are two local destinations full of adventure, powder, and unrivaled views. Two hours north of Durango, Telluride is probably the most well-known destination, and is an epic basecamp for endless adventure. If you’re like most of the people who come here, you are going to be needing a lot of gear—if you are in need of a pack able to handle a good amount of stuff for a variety of sports, the Osprey Farpoint is a good place to start.
While skiing is by far the most popular thing to do here, another option is to check out the backcountry while staying in one of the 16 huts in the San Juan Hut System. You could also stay closer to town and take a fat bike out before ending your day dining and drinking.
While Telluride is gorgeous and fun, many locals flock to the stunning and gorgeous 14,000-foot mountain, Handies Peak. Handies is one of those 14ers that never gets boring no matter how many times you visit, and it doesn’t matter what season you visit during—it’s always a treat. At 5.4 miles round-trip and gaining just 2,448 feet, the summit trail of Handies is a worthy goal for weekend adventurers looking to challenge themselves on the next level.
The trail passes by Sloane Lake on the way to the summit, and can feel quite steep at times. However, with an ever-growing panorama, the hike will leave you drooling as much as sweating. Reaching the summit can, and should, be done if you are looking for an awesome, challenging hike. The view from the top is nearly indescribable, and is arguably one of the best views in all of southern Colorado. As the spring sun glistens off the melting ice and deep blue waters on Sloane Lake, everything seems perfect from way up high.
All of these adventures are ideal for winter break and the early spring months, but more destinations are awaiting your wanderlust. Located in the “Big Tin Hut” in the heart of Durango, the staff at Backcountry Experience will help hook you up with amazing locations, as well as set you up with the latest ski technology, perfect-fitting hiking boots, and the latest cutting edge backpack to help you feel confident and comfortable exploring the San Juans.