Durango is a biking town and riding up the Million Dollar Highway to Silverton is a classic ride. The local Durango college, Fort Lewis, boasts three National Championships in mountain biking. Every Memorial Day Highway 550, the Million Dollar Highway, is closed from Purgatory Ski Resort to Silverton for the Iron Horse Classic where thousands of cyclists climb from Durango (6500’) over Molas Pass (10,900) and down into Silverton (9300’). Epic climbs on dirt and pavement flow out from town in every direction and quality rental bikes can be acquired at several local stores. We added our own modifications to the Iron Horse climb to include the Animas River Trail and it goes something like this.
Animas River Trail
The Animas River runs through Durango, both literally and figuratively. Along the Animas River runs the Animas River Trail. This is a beautiful seven mile stretch of paved, multi-purpose trail that starts a couple of miles below Durango and right into town.
This is the section of river that everybody plays on. Rafting companies run commercial trips and the locals come out in kayaks, inner tubes, and even surf boards on the holes. Families picnic along the banks and stroll along the paths. It’s flat and casual.
Stops along the way: Historic downtown Durango is full of eclectic eateries, comfy cafes, and tasty treats. All along 3rd avenue sits a cornucopia of culinary curators. This is also the terminus for the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which can be used as a bike shuttle back from Silverton. Coming to downtown Durango by bike is a great way to find a parking space.
Million Dollar Highway: Durango to Pinkerton Hot Springs
This trail segment runs 13.5 miles on back roads through ranchland along the river bottom. To begin with, the Animas River Trail just sort of disappears into suburbia. On the map, the trail ends at 29th street but continues as a sidewalk all the way to 32nd. Google gave several options on where to go, but my favorite is to take 32nd to County Road 250.
250 the classic back road ride. It weaves through horse farms and cattle ranches complete with red barns. You could take 250 above Pinkerton and drop in, but I prefer to head over on Trimble Road to the Million Dollar Highway – Highway 550. It cuts out a little climbing and backtracking. It also lets you enjoy the fantastic stops. Don’t worry about traffic. This section of the Million Dollar Highway has a wide bike lane.
Stops along the way: PJ’s Gourmet Market sits at the corner of Trimble and 550. It’s a great place to pick up a tasty treat for the road from their deli or even just a banana and Gatorade. Further up the hill is the Honeyville store, where you can get anything honey related from tasty jellies to honey wine. If you’re biking on a Saturday, you can’t miss out out the James Ranch and Harvest Grill. It’s the freshest beef you’ll ever have. Pinkerton Hot Springs itself is pretty cool. The mineral rich waters bubbled up to form a muddy, colorful mound.
Million Dollar Highway: Pinkerton Hot Springs to Purgatory
The 14 mile stretch is where the climbing begins in earnest. It’s a steady climb of over 2200’. The bike lanes along the Million Dollar Highway are wide and accommodating. Between the friendly road and steady climbing, this is THE classic Durango hill climb. Along the way, the river bottoms change steadily into alpine forests. Horse ranches get replaced by rustic cabins with a few ponies in the meadows out front. This route is also the return ride from the classic Hermosa Creek mountain bike trail. The alpine scene is completed with views of snow capped mountains, quaking aspens, and alpine lakes.
Stops along the way: About halfway up is the Needles Country Store. This is the last provision directly along the route. Purgatory Ski Resort has a mini mart and restaurant, but you would have to divert off the highway. Many a rider will just flip it at Purgatory and start rolling back downhill. Nothing wrong with that.
Million Dollar Highway: Purgatory to Molas Pass
There is a reason so many people turn around at Purgatory, this next section is intense. Molas Pass is fifteen miles further up the road from Purgatory. It’s the highest mountain pass on the Million Dollar Highway heading to Silverton, topping out just below 11,000’. The air is thin and cold. Even when it’s springtime in the valley, it can still be winter up here. The extra wide bike lanes disappear completely, and you are sharing a lane with the cars. Truth be told, we didn’t ride this section of road, but we did see people grinding up the road. The climb is over 3000’ up, including the climbing back out of the Lime Creek Valley.
Stops along the way: You’re on your own. There composting toilets at Molas Pass but no potable water. Unless you are participating in the Iron Horse Classic. Then, the road is closed to vehicles and there are SAG stops all the way up the mountain. That might be reason enough to ride the Iron Horse right there.
Million Dollar Highway: Molas Pass to Silverton
This is the steepest section of road yet. You drop nearly 2000’ from Molas pass into Silverton over the course of seven miles. This might make a fun downhill, but remember you’ll have to bike back up. Unless, you take the railroad back to Durango, which a lot of riders do. It’s over a 50 miles ride to this point with about 6000’ of elevation gain. You have earned your train ride home.
Stops along the way: Silverton is a classic mining town. Mainstreet is lined with converted saloons and coffee shops. You could almost imagine two cowboys drawing iron at high noon. The historic narrow gauge railroad completes the scene. In many ways, you aren’t biking up a mountain, you’re biking back in time. Hospitality rules king here, so if you can’t find something yummy to eat, you’re not trying.
WHY RIDE THE IRON HORSE CLASSIC?
Does this ride sound like fun to you but you would rather do it with the road closed and support stops along the way? That’s just part of the Iron Horse Classic. It’s a weekend of bike racing, bike tours, parties and fun in Durango Colorado.
The story goes that two brothers, Tom and Jim Mayer had a friendly race. Jim was a brakeman on the railroad that runs between Durango and Silverton. Tom would race him to Silverton on his bicycle. After a few runs, Tom was able to beat the train up the mountain (albeit the train had a few stops and speed restrictions).
In 1972, the historic railroad began operations and a group of 36 riders got together to resume the races. The classic has grown to over 3500 participants and expanded to have events and parties span all of Memorial Day Weekend. If you ever wanted to ride in Durango, the Iron Horse Classic might be the perfect opportunity. If you ride the Iron Horse, here what’s in store for you:
- Beautiful Scenery
- Epic climbs
- The road to Silverton is closed for the race
- SAG stops and support along the way
- Durango is centrally located between Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Salt Lake City
- Friendship and fun
No matter how you choose to ride, Durango has something for you.