It’s hard to imagine a more quintessential mountain town than Durango, Colorado. Nestled in southwestern Colorado’s Animas River Valley and surrounded by rugged peaks, Durango feels like the Old West.
The Animas River Valley is packed with history dating back thousands of years. Ancestral Puebloans occupied the valley, taking advantage of its plentiful wildlife, fertile soil, and natural water source as much as 2,500 years ago. Eventually, groups of Ancestral Puebloans headed for the mesa-dotted landscapes farther south and west of the Animas River Valley—today, we know this area as Mesa Verde. A few centuries later, Ute people migrated to the Durango area, where they set up shop in the homes created by their predecessors on the banks of the Animas River.
There are two different explanations as to how the Animas River and valley got the name we use today. In any case, they occur in the same era—during the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors first began to explore the area. One story has it that a group of conquistadors associated with Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was killed on the riverbanks.
In Catholic theology, people who die without being read their last rites can’t ascend to heaven. Instead, they are sent to Purgatory, where they must remain until they achieve holiness. Far from the nearest town, let alone Catholic priest, the conquistadors were relegated to Purgatory, and their souls haunted the Animas ever after. The river was dubbed "El Río de las Ánimas Perdidas en Purgatorio," which translates roughly to River of Lost Souls in Purgatory.
The second popular legend about the Animas’ name has it that Spanish explorers spotted all the empty homes left behind when Ancestral Puebloans mysteriously left the area. The conquistadors, disturbed by the haunting visual of the abandoned dwellings, christened the river "Río de las Ánimas Perdidas"—River of Lost Souls.
Like much of the rest of western Colorado, the Animas River Valley began to see major economic development in the 19th century, when prospector Charles Baker and his party discovered gold flakes in the San Juan Mountains, just north of modern-day Durango. Growth in the Animas area was slowed when resources were diverted to the Civil War during the 1860s. Still, the town itself was established in 1880, and by the following year, the Denver & Rio Grande Railway had reached Durango. In 1882, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which stretches north from Durango to Silverton, was completed.
The original purpose of the railroad was to move gold and ore, but it’s been operating continuously for more than a century now. Passengers can still take in views of the Animas River Valley—some of which are only accessible by train—with a ride on the scenic railroad today.
As the 19th century wore on, the economy in the Animas River Valley came full-circle, turning primarily to ranching and agriculture—a throwback to the livelihood of its early inhabitants, who relied on the valley’s rich soil. The area’s agricultural history only adds to its Old West feel; it should come as no surprise that much of the 1969 classic Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed near the Narrow Gauge Railroad and along the Animas River.
The river isn’t the only geographical feature in the area to share the Animas moniker. Animas City Mountain, just north of Durango proper, is home to a six-mile loop trail that includes a viewpoint at the highest point on the mesa. It’s a challenging run or hike—regardless of which direction you do the loop, you’re heading into at least 2.5 miles of steady uphill climbing—but the 360-degree views of Durango and the Animas Valley are well worth it. The ghost towns of Animas City and Animas Forks, too, lie within the Animas River Valley. The former is now considered a suburb of Durango, while the latter is just a few miles northwest of Silverton on the Alpine Loop, an unpaved road system that also accesses Lake City and Ouray.
Continue heading north from Animas Mountain toward Silverton, and you’ll hit Purgatory—literally. This ski resort boasts 85 ski trails and is open year-round, with mountain bike rentals and lessons available in the summer. Its name pays homage to the same event that gave the Animas its name, but the Purgatory title has another origin, too. During the Animas River Valley’s mining heyday, it’s said that miners often tried to make their way from Durango to the silver boom town of Silverton. By the time they made it as far as the present-day resort, an area known down low as "Purgatory Flats," many couldn’t see a way up and over the mountains to Silverton, but they’d already come too far to feel good about turning around. They, too, were stuck in Purgatory. (These days, you won’t mind being caught in limbo here.)
Tons of local businesses in the town of Durango bear the Animas name, too. After a day of floating the Animas River, a beloved local adventure, head to Animas Brewing Company, whose delicious beers (including, of course, an Animas Ale) and relaxed atmosphere are exemplary of the Animas River Valley spirit.
Originally written for Durango Area Tourism Office.