This post is brought to you by our friends at Visit Durango!
The Animas River is pretty hard to ignore; not only does it run right through the heart of Durango, but it’s also striking in its beauty. The rugged river lends a wild, outdoorsy air to the city, and provides loads of opportunities for adventure. It has also played an important role in the city’s history. From its legendary past to its current reputation as one of the best spots for fishing and whitewater rafting, and even to its future, the Animas is a part of Durango’s heart and soul.
The legend of the River of Lost Souls
The importance of the Animas was apparent even to Durango’s earliest visitors. Spanish explorer Juan Maria Antonio Rivera, who extensively explored the Southwest and was one of the first explorers to visit the area, named the Animas River. Its name translates to “The River of Souls.” There’s a theory, though, that the full name he gave the river was “Rio de las Animas Perdidas”… The River of Lost Souls.
Of course, as the story goes, he didn’t give the river such a dramatic name for no reason. “The River of Lost Souls” supposedly refers to a band of conquistadors who allegedly died on its shores before receiving their last rites. Chilling. Whether or not the spooky name was the original one given to the river, the legend lives on. Durango’s Purgatory Mountain and Resort are the most obvious references to the lost souls. Sadly, though there’s little evidence that the river’s original name had the word “Perdidas” in it, there are some interesting theories as to where the word came from. It’s possible that an earlier Spanish expedition came through and named it that, or that Juan Maria Antonio Rivera and his men confused the Animas with another river, but it’s more likely that English settlers who settled the region 100 years later added it in themselves. The first known reference to the River of Lost Souls doesn’t appear until 1885, in Ernest Ingersoll’s Crest of the Continent.
Wherever the name came from, it’s a sight to see, however you experience it. The tracks of the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad also follow along the river, providing stunning views along the way. A lot of the train’s route features landscapes you can’t see from the highway, so if you’re looking for stellar, one-of-a-kind views of the river, a ride to Silverton and back is worth considering. Plus, the train– set against the blue waters of the river and the green pines of the forest– is perfectly picturesque.
The Animas River Today
One of the most popular activities on the Animas River is whitewater rafting. The Smelter Whitewater Park on the lower Animas is perfect for mild to intermediate adventurers. The Upper Animas is a bit more intense of a journey, with Class V rapids to conquer. Whether you take a 1/2 day trip, a 3/4 day cruise, a full day float, or even multi-day adventures, there’s a rafting excursion for everyone.
There are a lot of reasons why the Animas River is perfect for fly fishing. It’s wide, there are loads of public access points (including lots of trails paralleling it through town), and it’s loaded with fish; most notably rainbow and brown trout. While most fish caught are in the respectable 10-15 inch range, your chances of catching a record-breaker in the Animas are pretty good. In fact, parts of the Animas have been declared Gold Medal Waters by the Colorado Wildlife Commission, meaning they’re ideal for catching large trout.
The town of Durango has made the most of the river by developing the Animas River Trail. It’s nearly seven miles of paved pathway, winding through downtown Durango along the river’s greenway. It’s what connects the city’s whole network of paths and trails, and provides access to all kinds of spots like parks, the library, the downtown, and more. And, whether you’re an avid paddler yourself, or you just want to watch the pros at work, the annual Animas River Days (held each summer) is not to be missed. The whitewater rodeo brings together whitewater slalomers, freestyle kayakers, boatercross enthusiasts, surf competitors, and raft sprinters for some epic competition. The whole thing ends with a river parade through the whitewater park.
Looking for even more fun on the water? A few miles from the Animas River is a newly- opened part of the Animas-La Plata Water Project: Lake Nighthorse. The lake opened to the public for recreational use for the first time on April 1, 2018, after years of anticipation. The reservoir provides a litany of water activities, including some (like motorized boating and swimming) that you might not be able to try on the river. You can also fish (the lake is stocked with rainbow trout, brown trout, and kokanee salmon), kayak, canoe, paddleboard, and much more on Lake Nighthorse. Two days a week (Mondays and Wednesdays) are designated as “no-wake” days, so if you’re looking for a quiet day on the lake, make sure to take full advantage!