On a warm, sunny day, Durango’s parks transform into community centers where people relax and both kids and grownups can play.
But if park visitors take a deeper look at the city’s green spaces, they’ll dive into one of the city’s most highly valued programs – and unique histories dating back to the city’s birth.
In the past, parks featured roaming cows, outdoor movies and grandmas harvesting dandelions. In 2021, the Parks and Recreation Department has one of the highest budgets, $7.9 million, of all city departments. Its 35 parks come ready for kayaking, cycling, swinging or just reading.
“This is an important thing to remember: Parks make life better. You see that everywhere around the world, but certainly that’s true in Durango,” said Cathy Metz, Parks and Recreation director. “People come, live, embrace Durango because of the parks program.”
The city’s parks range in size from 0.3 acres to 38.3 acres, but more than half are about 3 acres or smaller. Some were established before Durango became a city. They come with soccer and ball fields, basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds, picnic areas, trails and fishing access along the winding Animas River.
Cows, astronauts and dandelion wineWhen the Durango & Rio Grande Railroad Co. laid out the town in 1880, parks were in the original plan for Durango.
“They didn’t want Durango to be a typical Western boom town that was overcrowded and had narrow streets,” said Charles DiFerdinando, who serves on the La Plata County Historical Society board of directors. “They wanted it to have amenities that would attract families and provide an atmosphere so future generations would want to live here.”
Before World War II, some of the parks would start each spring covered with cardboard boxes and paper bags, he said.
People wanted to harvest the dandelions for their spring greens or dandelion wine, and covering (or bleaching) the plants made them taste less bitter.
“Even though some of these ladies wouldn’t touch alcohol, they would drink dandelion wine for its medicinal properties,” DiFerdinando said. “After they started using chemical (pesticides), people got smart and realized they would poison themselves if they tried to eat the plants.”
People can now avoid those pesticides at eight parks, called “organic parks,” around town.
If it wasn’t paper bags covering the parks, it was cows. People used to let their herds pasture in parks for free food in the summer until it became such an issue that the city passed an ordinance saying cows can’t pasture in public parks, he said.
In the spring, the herds of cows would still pass through town on their way to the mountains for summer pasture.
“If you didn’t have a fence in front of your house, the cows would be in your front yard eating all of your landscaping,” DiFerdinando said.
The parks come with unique histories. Animas City, Pioneer and Fanto parks are the oldest in the city, depending on who you ask.
Brookside Park, a 1.98-acre plot of land at 2301 Main Ave., was the site of Durango’s first outdoor movie theater. The railway and realty company that owned the park used dances and movies to lure people to the park in hopes they would decide to buy a plot of land nearby. That’s how the area around 32nd Street and Main Avenue was developed, DiFerdinando said.
The 1.93-acre Roosa Park inspired a middle school student’s two-year dive into Durango’s history and the life of Durango-born astronaut Stuart Roosa. Last week, the park received one of 10 moon trees in Durango, descendants of seeds that orbited the moon with Roosa.
Until funding sunsetsThe city’s parks program is heavily valued and used, but its primary funding source comes with an end date.
The 2005 half-cent sales tax increase, which supports open space acquisition, preservation, park development and trail development, will sunset in 2026.
Once the tax ends, it’s up to voters to authorize a new sales tax funding source – or not.
“Let’s say that money goes away. That would put more burden on the general fund to pay for maintenance of parks that came on because of this tax,” Metz said. “That would have a significant impact on the quality of parks in Durango and the opportunity for new park projects.”
Until then, the city is focused on maintaining and improving its award-winning park system, one of the top priorities listed by residents, Metz said.
Mason Center Park, a 3.12-acre attraction for school groups and neighbors, is getting a face-lift. Just this week, the dilapidated Mason Center was demolished leaving room for a more contiguous 3.12-acre park and landscaping improvements at 12th Street and East Third Avenue.
For five years, residents have waited for amenities to return to Santa Rita Park after being removed during construction of the water reclamation facility. This summer, the city will bring back two sand volleyball courts, a full-sized basketball court with lighting for evening use and a picnic shelter.
“It’s a long wait for the community. People have been very patient, and we look forward to being able to get those amenities back in the park,” Metz said.
Durangoans have used Buckley Park’s grassy space for historic anniversaries, countless community events, protests, live performances and relaxation.
But in 2020, its owner, Durango School District 9-R, started talking about selling the beloved downtown space. In December, the district agreed to negotiate a land swap with the city to preserve the park. One possible trade is Fanto Park, just south of Park Elementary School.
Durango City Council met to discuss the park’s future this week but did not announce any decisions.
The city is waiting for the district’s superintendent transition before reinitiating discussions about protecting Buckley Park, Metz said.
Metz, who will retire in July, isn’t worried about leaving behind the program she’s led for more than two decades. The program is guided by the master plan – which is based on clear community priorities, she said.
“That’s why this guiding document is our foundation,” Metz said. “The community participated in the process and spoke very clearly about priorities and where the park system should go in the future.”
Looking for a park to visit? Here’s a quick guide:
Animas City ParkOne of the oldest parks in the city, Animas City offers 1.25 acres with picnic tables and a playground at 3274 East Second Ave., accessible to those with impaired mobility.
The first white settlement in the Animas Valley, Animas City was established in 1876. In 1880, it denied the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad a site for a depot. The railroad moved 2 miles to the south, built its depot and created Durango. Animas City was annexed by the city of Durango in 1948.
Brookside ParkA 1.98-acre organic park, Brookside has picnic tables and a playground at 2301 Main Ave., accessible to those with impaired mobility.
The park dates back to the 1920s. Situated next to part of Junction Creek, it has been the site of the Brookside Campgrounds, a mobile home camp.
Buckley ParkThe 1.6-acre park at 1250 Main Ave. is a grassy area with seating close to downtown Durango.
Durangoans have used Buckley Park’s grassy space for historic anniversaries, countless community events, protests and live performances. Its owner, Durango School District 9-R, plans to sell or transfer the property.
Chapman HillChapman Hill offers skiing, natural surface trails and restrooms at 500 Florida Road, all accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act. At 38.32 acres, it is Durango’s largest park.
Chapman Hill has undergone three name changes. It was called Third Avenue Hill until the city held a renaming contest in the 1960s. The entry chosen was Calico Hill, named after the spotty spring snowmelt. In 1979, it was renamed Chapman Hill after Colton Chapman, a retired engineer who worked in the 1950s with children on skiing and other youth recreation activities before there was a formal recreation program. Chapman died in 1978.
Crestview ParkCrestview Park is a 0.33-acre grassy area at 1935 Crestview Drive, named after the surrounding subdivision. It is Durango’s smallest park.
Cundiff ParkThis 17.65-acre park at 460 South Camino del Rio comes with river access, a BMX track, fishing and trails.
Cundiff Park was named in 2004 after Stan Cundiff, a former parks maintenance superintendent who retired after 47 years of service. Under his leadership, many city parks were built, and he ensured the parks were well-maintained, according to the city of Durango. Cundiff died in 2007.
Dallabetta ParkThe 7.86-acre park offers a picnic area, fishing and trails at 12120 La Posta Road (County Road 213).
In 1996, Angie Candelaria, on behalf of the Angelo Dallabetta Family Trust, donated a 4.12-acre parcel to the city for park purposes. At the request of the family at the time of the donation, the site was named Dallabetta Park. More acreage was acquired in 2005.
Designated Off-Leash AreaThis park includes 23.6 acres with trails at 21850 U.S. Highway 160 for pets and their humans to roam.
The park was created when a portion of the 79.14-acre Smelter/Tailer property transferred to the city in 2000 and was designated as an off-leash area for dogs in 2003.
Durango Community Recreation Center & AmphitheaterThis park located in front of the Durango Community Recreation Center includes a small amphitheater with seating levels and trees in the backdrop. It has a large grassy area and a good-size playground feature with slides and climbing elements. It receives a score of 91 out of 100 points, and sits on 6.83 acres.
Durango Softball Complex at Fort Lewis CollegeThe park’s 9.48 acres includes three ball fields, a soccer field, restrooms, a playground and a picnic shelter at 1430 Rim Drive. The facilities are accessible to those with impaired mobility.
Easter Heights ParkThis 3.09-acre park consists of a grassy area at 10 Willow Place, off North College Drive.
It is the lowest-ranking park in Durango, according to a ranking system used by the Parks and Recreation Department. It earned 33 out of 100 points because there is no available parking and it is located at the end of a cul-de-sac.
Fanto ParkFanto Park is a 2.98-acre, organic park with a playground, basketball court and soccer field at Park Elementary School (445 East Seventh Ave.). It is accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Fanto Park was named for Rose Fanto, an influential tavern owner and a generous supporter of charities. The tavern she and her husband owned at the end of Main Avenue became the social center for the south end of town in the 1920s. It is the oldest park in the city of Durango. Animas City and Pioneer parks are older, but were located outside Durango and then annexed into the city. It is the inspiration for the name of Park Elementary School.
Fassbinder ParkThis 1.38-acre park at 140 W. Park Ave. comes with restrooms, picnic tables and a playground that meet accessibility standards.
It was named after Peter Fassbinder, a Durango pioneer who started out as a farmer and ended up a developer with more than 160 acres of land around the Animas River. Fassbinder built the first bridge over the river.
Folsom ParkAt 8.67 acres, Folsom Park provides restrooms, a picnic area and playground, a basketball court, and soccer and ball fields that meet accessibility standards. It is an organic park located at 11 Folsom Place.
The park was named after Dr. William Henry Charles Folsom, a pioneer dentist in the 1880s and the original owner of the Animas City Cemetery. The Folsom family donated the park land.
Hillcrest View ParkThis park includes a playground on 0.50 acres at 222 Hillcrest Drive. It was named after the surrounding subdivision.
Historic Tram ParkThis park at 307 Tipple Ave. is 1.36 acres and provides a picnic area, playground and trail that are accessible to those with impaired mobility.
Iris ParkIris Park is a 0.48-acre organic park with a picnic area and trail that meet accessibility standards at 1235 Camino del Rio.
Iris Park was named after Nellie “Iris” Spencer at the urging of Parks and Forestry Board member and Fort Lewis College history professor Duane Smith, according to city records. Spencer was Durango’s leading madam until the 1950s, and her “house” was where the park is now located. The adjoining road in front of the city’s River City Hall is Nellie Lane.
Jenkins Ranch ParkThis park, at 435 Jenkins Ranch Road, is 7.82 acres and includes restrooms, a picnic area, playground, tennis courts and trails that meet accessibility requirements.
The park is named after Marion and Louise Jenkins, who owned the land currently occupied by the SkyRidge neighborhood, Hillcrest subdivision and Hillcrest Golf Course, based on a recommendation from the Parks and Forestry Advisory Board. Marion Jenkins moved to the family ranch in about 1920. Over the years, the ranch grew to 520 acres and was used primarily for cattle and crops.
Lion’s DenThis 10.5-acre park includes restrooms, a picnic area and a trail. Located at 2401 Rim Drive, it also provides an overlook of Durango.
The Lion’s Den was named for the Lions Club, which rebuilt the shelter at the park to celebrate the city’s centennial in 1981. It was built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Because of vandalism, it is open to the public only by arrangement with Durango Parks and Recreation.
Mason Center ParkMason Center Park is a 3.12-acre plot with a playground and tennis courts that meets accessibility standards, at 301 E. 12th St.
It was named after the former Mason Elementary School in 1996 at the recommendation of the Recreation Advisory Board.
Memorial ParkThis 15.36-acre park includes restrooms, a picnic area, playground, fishing and trail. It meets federal accessibility requirements and is located at 2901 East Third Ave.
Memorial Park was developed in 1973 and named in recognition of the service clubs in Durango. Within the park is the Oppie Reames Nature Trail, dedicated in memory of Oppie Reames, who throughout her life was an avid promoter of nature.
Needham ParkNeedham Park is a 0.90-acre organic park at 2455 West Third Ave. with a playground, basketball and tennis courts, and a soccer field that meets accessibility requirements.
Elza “Pa” Needham was a longtime principal and administrator in Durango schools. He retired in 1952 as superintendent. The park was named after Needham Elementary School, according to city records.
Oxbow Park and PreserveOxbow Park at 500 Animas View Drive includes trails, restrooms, river access, fishing and picnic areas that meet federal accessibility regulations. It is both a developed park and a preserve, considered open space by the city. Together, the park and preserve are 44.1 acres.
The city purchased the land as open space in 2012 with a reserved right to develop a portion of the site for a park and river access that was completed in 2020. The Natural Lands Preservation Advisory Board and La Plata Open Space Conservancy collaborated on naming the area as Oxbow Park and Preserve.
Pioneer ParkThis 2.35-acre park provides a picnic area, playground and organic park maintenance. The park meets accessibility requirements and is located at 261 E. 37th St.
The original Animas Park was renamed Pioneer Park in 1981. Dating from the 1870s, Pioneer Park and Animas City Park are two of the three oldest parks in Durango. The other park is Fanto Park.
Rank ParkAt 6.45 acres, Rank Park at 149 E. 22nd St. includes a playground, fishing access and meets accessibility standards for those with mobility impairments.
The park is named after Robert Rank, who was city manager of Durango from 1960 to 1980.
Riverfront ParkRiverfront Park offers picnic tables, a fishing area and trails at 1295 Camino del Rio. The organically managed park is 1.1 acres and meets accessibility standards.
The park was developed in 1984 and named by the city for its location along the Animas River, according to city records.
Riverview Sports ComplexThis complex includes restrooms, a picnic area, playground, soccer field and three ball fields spanning 11.22 acres. It is located at 2900 Mesa Ave. next to Riverview Elementary School and meets federal accessibility requirements.
Within the complex is Devin Hart Soccer Field, named for a 17-year-old Durango High School student and soccer player who died of heart failure in 1991. Barbara McDaniel Memorial Playground is adjacent to the complex, named after a well-respected Riverview teacher who died of cancer in 1977.
Roosa ParkRoosa Park is a 1.93-acre grassy area at 1349 Roosa Ave.
Astronaut Stuart Roosa, born in Durango in 1933, was the command module pilot on the Apollo 14 moon mission in 1971. He remained in lunar orbit while astronauts Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell explored the moon. He carried hundreds of tree seeds on the mission, which were later distributed around the world. Roosa Park includes an American sycamore “moon tree.” Roosa died in 1994.
Rotary ParkThis 1.87-acre park at 1565 East Second Ave. includes restrooms, a picnic area and fishing area that meet accessibility requirements.
It was named for the Rotary Club, which donated money to build the gazebo in the park. The city accepted the finished gazebo in 1982.
Santa Rita ParkSanta Rita Park at 149 South Camino del Rio is 14.49 acres and includes restrooms, a picnic area, fishing access and a trail that meets federal accessibility requirements.
It was originally named Gateway Park when it was created in 1980. The park was renamed in 1999 in honor of the Hispanic neighborhood that occupied the area up until the early 1970s. Durangoan Abe Beltran came up with the name Santa Rita, after his late daughter.
Schneider Park and Skate ParkSchneider Park, at 950 Roosa Ave., is located next to the Durango Skate Park at 1300 Roosa Ave. The parks span 6.93 acres and offer restrooms, a picnic area, playground, fishing area and trail that meet accessibility standards.
Werner Schneider was a Durango High School shop and mechanical drawing teacher who retired in the 1960s. The land became available after the city tore down a “slum” in the 1970s, according to city records.
Smith Sports Complex at Fort Lewis CollegeThis 17.05-acre park includes restrooms, a picnic area and playground, a soccer field, tennis courts and trail. It meets federal accessibility standards and is located at 700 Talon Lane.
The complex is the city’s highest-ranking park, according to a scoring system used by the Parks and Recreation Department. It scored 93 out of 100.
Three Springs Confluence ParkThis 15.28-acre property with trails is at 100 Confluence Ave. and was acquired in 2006.
Viles ParkViles Park includes a picnic area and playground that meet federal accessibility requirements. It is 0.82 acres and located at 245 E. Park Ave.
The park is named after Danny Viles. Viles was a philanthropist and general manager of the Vanadium Corporation of America mill at the foot of Smelter Mountain during the 1950s. The mill closed in 1963.
Whitewater ParkThe city’s Whitewater Park on the Animas River also offers restrooms, a picnic area, fishing access and trails. It is 7.4 acres at 107 Camino del Rio.
The park includes the popular rafting area and kayak course at Smelter Rapids. It was created in 1990.