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durango colorado forest hike

Don’t let the name give you the wrong impression.  A hike on the Purgatory Flats Trail is anything but purgatory…unless you start sucking air due to the high elevation!  If you are hanging out in and around Durango, traveling the absurdly scenic Highway 550, this is a fantastic option for a short, easy to moderate dayhike.

A Scenic Beginning

The trailhead is tucked back just off the highway in a ritzy neighborhood next to a beautiful little fishing pond.  It appears this is called Lake Purgatory.  This is a nice little roadside stop even if you are not planning on hiking, with 360 degree mountain scenery all around.  My wife and I hung out and ate lunch here after our hike.

The trail takes off into the forest across the street from the parking lot.  As expected from the scenery during the drive up and at the parking area, the trail is immediately beautiful.  We came in early June, so everything was freshly green, and the wildflowers were just popping up.  At an elevation of 8700 feet in Colorado, this is the land of the quaking aspen.

purgatory lake colorado

The view toward the West Needle Mountains from Purgatory Lake. Trailhead parking is visible on the edge of lake on the right side.

Heading on Down

Most Colorado trails head up, and often straight up.  Not this one.  The Purgatory Flats Trail heads east, tumbling down a bit of a slope, sandwiched between a couple of small streams.  Keep your eyes peeled and your ears open, you might catch a glimpse of a small waterfall!  At every turn there are beautiful stands of aspen, their leaves quaking in the wind overhead.  It isn’t a really steep downhill in most places, just a moderate descent into the forest.

About a half a mile there is a little creek crossing. Flat stones have been placed for a simple, easy, and fun place to cross the creek.  At one point the trail becomes the creek bed for a trickle of a stream, forcing the hiker to take a little more care with their steps.  Soon the forest starts opening up a bit, and the trail approaches a rocky viewpoint.

aspen hike colorado

Purgatory Flats Trail is idyllic to say the least as it winds through the aspen forest.

The Perfect Place To Rest

Not that we were tired yet, but we thought this would be a great place to stop and enjoy the scenery.  Just below, tucked in the valley called Purgatory Flats, a mountain stream called Cascade Creek runs rapidly through the trees.  To the south is the forested canyon of Cascade Creek, making its way inevitably to the larger Animas River.  If we were to continue on the trail, this is where we would eventually end up.

Towering above, straight ahead, is the 13,000 foot massif of the West Needle Mountains.  Early June is snowmelt here in the Rockies, and while there is no snow at our feet, the high peaks are still dusted with white.  The flanks of the West Needles are blanketed with a thick layer of Quaking Aspen, Engelmann Spruce, White Fir, and other subalpine trees.  This scene is truly a sight to behold.

purgatory flats needle mountains

The West Needle Mountains from the viewpoint just above Purgatory Flats. Cascade Creek is visible in the valley below.

rocky mountain high

The view down Cascade Creek Canyon and its forested hillsides.

Back on Up

We could have continued on down to the flats and visit the creek, the storm clouds building made us think twice.  We decide to head back to the car and see more of Colorado.  We have only gone but a three-quarters of a mile, but the downhill has been deceptively easy.  The hike out is not a beast, but it can get the blood pumping and lungs screaming.  The beauty of the forest and mountains still awes, regardless of your physical stamina.

The scenery during the climb out of Purgatory Flats.

The scenery during the climb out of Purgatory Flats.

Final Thoughts

I would recommend this hike to pretty much anyone!  For novice hikers, especially those from low elevations, this will probably be of moderate difficulty.  For experienced mountain hikers, it’s a piece of cake.  Either way, it’s short and sweet and stunningly beautiful.  It’s super convenient to access too.  Remember you can go a little further than the viewpoint and hang out by the creek.  We even met a pair of backpackers that were simply hiking in a mile and then staying overnight by the creek.  For the adventurers out there, Purgatory Flats Trail is a great way to access the famed Chicago Basin and its 14,000 foot peaks, especially if you want to avoid taking the train to get there.  For a simple dayhike, it’s perfect if you’re bringing the kids or the dogs too.  Really, Purgatory Flats offers something for everyone.


From downtown Durango, drive about 26 miles north on Highway 550.  As you approach the Durango Mountain Ski Resort (formerly known as Purgatory), turn right on Tacoma Drive and park in the dirt lot by the lake on the left hand side.  If you pass the lake while on the highway, you’ve missed it!

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