By Brook Sutton
Durango, Colorado has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to outdoor recreation. That is, of course, if world-class trails, skiing, cycling, hiking, hunting, rafting, kayaking, climbing, paddleboarding (and more) make you blush. Otherwise, this city of 19,000 bypasses the embarrassment and skips directly to appreciating the boundless riches.
Durango was hardly “undiscovered” by outdoor enthusiasts before founders began setting up businesses there. But the proliferation of successful startups has firmly established the city as a primary hub for Colorado’s broader outdoor industry.
Since its founding as a railroad and mining town in 1880, Durango has always attracted an outdoor-oriented population. The community’s passion for recreation remains alive and flourishing. Today, it’s not only expressed through weekend adventures and physical challenges. It’s also supported by a business-friendly environment with a robust support structure for new and existing outdoor-focused companies.
A Location Primed for Adventure
Durango sits in a valley (6,512-ft elevation) with the rugged San Juan Mountains to the north, and the broad La Plata Mountains to the west. It is the southern terminus of the 486-mile Colorado Trail. The Animas River runs right through the center of town, and there are multiple nearby lakes for a water fix.
Within a 4-hour drive, you can be in: the red rock canyons of Moab, Utah; the heart of the Colorado Rockies in Crested Butte; approaching the cultural meccas of Taos or Santa Fe; or marveling in the geologic grandeur of Monument Valley, Arizona.
Even with so much to explore in close proximity, Durango has enough outdoor fun to keep even the most ardent and adventurous outdoor enthusiasts busy at home.
The First Boom of Outdoor Industry Startups in Durango
In the 1980s and early 1990s, outdoor recreation was experiencing a rapid evolution. While Nationwide Outdoor Recreation Plans had been reviewed by Congress since 1973, the 1979 edition made bold predictions.
As quoted in a New York Times article, by Joanne Fishman (Dec. 31, 1979), “‘The growth projections for outdoor sports are straight up,’ says Meg Maguire, associate director for recreation at the Department of Interior’s Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, which drew up the national plan.” According to the Times reporting, a migration from the North to the South and West, due in large part to “improved recreational opportunities.”
Skiing topped the list for growth, as did canoeing (and other watersports, as waterways were actively being cleaned up under recent environmental laws). Cycling, the report noted, remained one of the most popular activities, and would continue to grow.
Durango, it seems, was tailor-made for the moment. Between the natural geography and the passionate community of outdoor enthusiasts, outdoor recreation flourished. Professional athletes, too, were either homegrown or moved to Durango in droves.
“Durango has the highest percentage of national, world and Olympians per capita than any town in the US. This is primarily due to the culture and the vast access to the outdoors,” said Mary Monroe, the Executive Director of Durango Trails, a local advocacy organization.
“Durango Trails plans, builds and maintains trails; educates trail users and creates connections on over 300 miles of trail within 30 minutes of downtown. This access lures employees for workforce attraction and retention, helps Fort Lewis College recruit students including trails used for geology tours to athletes training and greatly contributes to the quality of life for Durango residents and visitors alike.”
It follows that Durango became a serious draw for outdoor industry events, businesses, and founders. Innovations in materials and equipment were on fast forward during this time, and many Durango area-based entrepreneurs were leading the charge.
A few outdoor startups from the early outdoor recreation in Durango:
- 1972: The first bike vs. train race takes place and will become the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, the longest-running cycling race in the United States
- 1982: Jack’s Plastic Welding founded in Aztec, New Mexico (36 miles south of Durango)
- 1983: Legendary waterman and raft builder, Milt Wiley, establishes 4Corners Riversports along with his three daughters, Nancy, Janet and Amy
- 1983: Inaugural Animas River Days (then called: Navajo Trails Fiesta Whitewater Rodeo) takes place
- 1989: Bouré Cycling Clothing moves to Durango
- 1990: Yeti Cycles moves to Durango (currently in Golden, Colorado)
- 1990: Osprey Packs moves to Dolores (now in Cortez, 45 miles west of Durango)
Any discussion of Durango as an outdoor recreation isn’t complete with a nod to the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, the longest-running cycling race in the United States. Since 1972, participants have ridden 50 miles, over two mountain passes, from Durango to Silverton in a “race” against the train. The event draws over 1900 riders each year.
Another early (and still ongoing) event that set both a celebratory and competitive tone for the community is Animas River Days. Since 1983, it’s brought locals, fun-seekers, and professional kayakers to the river.
During the first big wave of mountain biking popularity, Durango became synonymous with the sport, and was repeatedly selected to host premier mountain bike events. The city held the Colorado State Off Road Championships in 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1992, and 1993. It held the National Mountain Bike Championships (NORBA) 1986, 1987, 1989, and 1992, as the sport was at a peak in popularity. In 1990, Durango held the first-ever UCI World Mountain Bike Championships.
The early boom of high profile events and outdoor startups cleared the trail for Durango’s future as a hub of Colorado’s outdoor industry. The more recent proliferation of outdoor startups is solidifying that legacy and procuring new opportunities.
"Durango is a town full of people who love to actually spend time outdoors."
Joey Ernst, Co-Owner of Bedrock Bags
Today’s Outdoor Industry Ecosystem In and Around Durango
Today’s outdoor industry ecosystem in Southwest Colorado spans a wide range of business types: tech, food and nutrition, bike, snowsports, watersports, global marketing service leaders, and more. This is just a small sample of the active business climate:
A local journalist pivoted her talents to public relations in 2001, founding what would become Verde Brand Communications, one of leading PR agencies in the international outdoor industry. Two medical pros launched Base Medical in 2017, to provide online, hybrid and remote wilderness medical training.
In 2012, Tailwind Nutrition disrupted the sports nutrition world and continues to see exponential growth. From another sector in the food space, Farm To Summit launched its sustainably-minded, dehydrated meals in 2021, and is already sold in over 50 retail locations.
Cycling continues to be a dominant industry in Durango, with Bedrock Bags (bikepacking accessories, est. 2015), Tectonic Components (pedal manufacturer, est. 2020), Myth Cycles (custom and semi-custom frames, est. 2017), and Sanitas Cycles (handmade titanium frames, est. 2021).
“We’ve done well in Durango not just because of our excellent product and customer service, but also because Durango is a town full of people who love to actually spend time outdoors – and need quality gear to do so,” said Joey Ernst, Co-Owner of Bedrock Bags. “Combine that with a significant ethic of localism, and outdoor-focused small businesses tend to succeed in Durango!”
Incorporating technology with adventure, TripOutside (est. in 2018, moved to Durango in 2020) enables users to discover and book outdoor adventures and gear rentals online. Expedition Outside (est. 2017) provides a similar online booking, but specifically for anglers to access private waterways in Southern Colorado.
Sasquatch Campers builds expedition-style campers in the nearby town of Silverton.
In the broader region around Durango, founders draw inspiration from their environment for product development and headquartering their businesses. Alpacka Raft (Mancos, est. 2000) revolutionized and popularized packrafting. Cold Case Gear (Pagosa Springs, est. 2018) makes tough-as-nails cases to protect your phone in cold weather. Sasquatch Campers (Silverton, est. 2021) builds expedition-style campers.
Retail as a Force
The story of the outdoor industry in Durango is not complete without a nod to the enduring retail community. As one of the most competitive sectors in any industry, Durango outdoor retailers are models of community leadership and success.
The leading three independent, specialty, outdoor retailers have been in business for an average of 34 years. One outfitting specialty shop has operated consistently since 1928.
“Durango has developed a small business, local-first culture,” said Ben Rockis, owner of Backcountry Experience. “Pair that with a strong identity as an ‘outdoor town,’ and the result is a community driven to support independent outdoor retail.”
The community and tourism industry support four full-service bike shops, plus several bike repair shops, used gear shops, and rental shops. 4CornersRiversports is still a major hub for kayaking, rafting, and paddleboarding, and there are multiple specialty operations for ski, snowboard, angling, hunting, among others.
A Bright Future for the Southwestern Outdoor Industry
In the span between the 1990s and today, Durango area outdoor businesses have largely continued to thrive. Like any other place, Durango isn’t immune to national and global economic challenges, as experienced in 2008 for example. Even so, the city has proven highly resilient for property values, business success, and the local economy.
There can be some logistical challenges to operating in Durango, such as shipping and transportation, affordable real estate and manufacturing space, but the demand for products, for good jobs, and for outdoor inspiration is unrelenting.
Where Durango’s cost of living can be above average, the greater Southwestern region has alternate options to discover enthusiastic employees, more affordable real estate, and the same access to exceptional recreation. Pagosa Springs, Mancos, Silverton and Cortez are accessible entry points for founders.