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Weekends: Durango, Colo.

Weekends: Durango, Colo.

A less visited resort in the state’s southwest corner offers inspiring views amid plenty of powder.
By Deborah Marks, Senior Editor, SKI Magazine
posted: 12/16/2008

Pity the ski resorts removed from Colorado’s busy I-70 corridor, which corrals 65 percent of the state’s skier visits to some of North America’s best-known mountains. Or so you could be forgiven for thinking. Pity, instead, anyone who hasn’t veered off that well-beaten path. It’s a mistake that a weekend in Durango—340 miles from Colorado’s busy east-west interstate—will remedy.

Born during the mining boom of the late 1800s, Durango displays its historic roots on the well-preserved facades of buildings and storefronts that line its 2.5-mile main street. The 126-year-old coal-fired Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad still chugs along the tracks that connect the town of Durango to Silverton Mountain, 46 miles away. On its 2,000-foot ascent, the railroad passes Purgatory Mountain at Durango Mountain Resort, 25 miles north of town.

This year, Purgatory unveils Phase 1 of its 25-year master plan—$100 million of renovations at the base this year alone—its first significant redevelopment since the mountain opened in 1965. In December, the Purgatory Lodge opened, offering slopeside access to 1,200 skiable acres, 260 annual inches of snow and more than 300 blue-sky days. The makings of a fine ski weekend, indeed.

Day One
The 340-mile drive from Denver makes for a rather long journey (about seven hours), so weekenders should also consider flying: 12 daily nonstop flights arrive at Durango-La Plata Airport, 19 miles southeast of town (flydurango.com). If you choose to drive, the trip crosses several mountain passes, which can be snow-covered or even closed in winter, so confirm your route before heading out.

First, check into the historic Strater Hotel on Main Avenue. Its 93 rooms are decorated with antique furniture and period décor recalling the town’s boom years. The modern bathrooms, high-speed Internet and elevators, thankfully, do not (from $109; 800-247-4431; strater.com).

Claiming as many restaurants per capita as San Francisco, Durango offers no shortage of options. Counterbalance the town’s Old West ambience with a modern dinner at Cosmopolitan, serving contemporary American cuisine from a menu that changes weekly (970-259-2898; cosmodurango.com). The crispy salmon nori roll is a tasty prelude to the duck two ways with roasted-pepper polenta. Don’t consider anything but the chocolate banana wontons for dessert with a glass of brandy or port. Head to the hotel and call it a night.

Day Two
Early never hurts when you’re seeking short liftlines, but if last night’s glass of port turned into two, don’t sweat a late start. Waiting for a chair at Purgatory is a rare occurrence. Not to mention, Purg’s just not that kind of mountain. So check out of your hotel—you’ll be bedding down in the village tonight—and nurse yourself to life with a pastry at the Jean Pierre Bakery, at the corner of Main and College (970-247-7700; jeanpierrebakery.com).

En route to the resort, the view from the road is deceiving. Most of Purg’s terrain is tucked behind the northeast-facing frontside. Board the Purgatory Village Express six-pack. Although the morning sun helps to soften the snow here, it also attracts what crowds do exist. Instead, traverse west, taking the BD&M Expressway to warm up your legs. Follow it under Lift 3, then drop into Boogie or Peace, both moderately steep blues that will have plenty of early sun. Make a few laps on 3, the Hermosa Park Express. The narrow, winding trails and terraced effect of Purg’s slopes make the whole mountain feel like a rollercoaster. The entire mountain is, in fact, a natural terrain park. On your final run down Harris Hill, cut left onto Grizzly Gully, a short swath of bumps under the lift, then ride it once more to the Grizzly double.

Finish the morning on the backside, lapping the steep pitches and sporadic bumps on Ray’s Ridge, Boudreaux’s and Elliott’s under the Legends triple. If some in the group prefer easier trails, Cathedral Tree Way, Gateway and Vincent’s offer a gentler pitch and feed back to the Legends lift. If you’ve got a little fuel left before lunch, bounce through Paul’s Park, a patch of comfortably spaced glades on a slightly uncomfortable pitch. Head back east for a quick burger and more views on Dante’s Deck, then cool down on the front side, cruising the blues and greens under the Engineer lift.

Check into a condo at Purgatory Lodge, the cornerstone of the resort’s redevelopment. The two- to four-bedroom units have granite countertops, gas fireplaces, balconies and wireless Internet (from $580; 800-982-6103; durangomountainresort.com). There’s not much in the way of restaurants yet at the base, so head to town for sushi and Pacific fusion cuisine at East by Southwest (easbysouthwest.com; 970-247-5533). Before you tuck in, pray for powder.

Day Three
Inside the triangle formed by Durango to the south, Silverton to the east and Telluride to the north are 35,000 acres of national forest, on which San Juan Ski Company runs Colorado’s largest cat-skiing operation ($325 per person; includes skis, equipment and lunch; 800-208-1780; sanjuanski.com). Meet your guides at 8 a.m. at the main ticket office in Purgatory Lodge, where you’ll get outfitted with powder skis and safety gear and briefed on basic avvy safety. The terrain is appropriate for intermediates and above (must be 12 or older), and groups meet the cat at the top of chair 1. No new snow last night? No worries. With the only permit in the area, the guides can always find untouched powder. A warm up on Milk Run, a gently pitched glade of well-spaced, half-buried pines, sets the tone. Guides let guests peel off, free to map their own course and rendezvous back at the cat, 500 feet below.

And so it goes for the next six hours, as the cat canvasses the Cascade and Hermosa Creek drainages, mining the best exposures and averaging 10 to 12 descents of between 400 to 2,000 feet. Take a break for a bagged lunch (supplied) and clear views of some of the sharpest peaks in the San Juans. Return—grudgingly—to the resort at 4 p.m.

It’s time to pack up for the ride home—just be glad you’re not among the 65 percent sitting in traffic on the interstate.

SIGNPOST: Durango Mountain Resort, CO
1,200 skiable acres; 2,029 vertical feet; summit elevation 10,822 feet; 260 annual inches; 85 trails; 9 lifts. Lift tickets: $62; teen 13–18 and senior 62–69 $49; youth 6–12 $34; over 70 $22; 5 and under ski free.

Getting There: From Denver, take 285 south 200 miles to Center, then Highway 160 west 115 miles to Durango. Purgatory is 25 miles north of town on Highway 550.

Info: 800-982-6103; durangomountainresort.com

- SKI MAGAZINE, JANUARY 2009

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