After a long wait, the city of Durango’s plan to extend the Animas River Trail north to a new river access at Oxbow Park and Preserve is ready to use – almost.
Durangoans and visitors have been hanging out at the river at Oxbow Park for years. In the past, they often ended up parking in nearby apartment lots or even trespassing to reach the popular beach and swimming areas.
One decade of planning and millions of dollars later, the community finally has legal, convenient access to the river. While sand castles, paddleboards and picnics abounded at the popular Oxbow Park beach on Labor Day, the many river trail users have to wait for construction to finish before they can enjoy an easy ride or walk to the park.
“We’ve planned for the extension of the Animas River Trail up to Oxbow Park and Preserve for a decade,” said Cathy Metz, director of Durango Parks and Recreation. “Opening up the park is a big step for the community, and we’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from the community members. We’re happy that we’re finally able to open it.”
Oxbow Park and Preserve is a 44-acre area along 1.7 miles of the Animas River in north Durango, with most of the land, about 38 acres, dedicated as a natural preserve for wildlife habitat. It has also had a boat ramp to access the Animas River and a beach where people can hang out.
The city’s northern extension of the trail, a $5.8 million project, is partially completed. One stretch, from 36th Street north to the park, is ready to use. The stretch from Animas City Park to 36th Street will be finished in October.
With the new river access, the paddling community gets a paved boat ramp and an extra 1.3 river miles on the city-managed portion of the Animas River – a course that stretches 8.4 river miles from Oxbow Park to Dallabetta Park.
For beach-goers, the new development means designated parking for vehicles and trailers, convenient bathrooms and changing areas and a loading-unloading loop next to the water.
The river access was a long time coming. Developed public access points were a top priority in the 2013 Animas River Management Plan. When the city bought Oxbow Park and Preserve for about $1.5 million in 2012, the purchase opened the door to an access point farther upstream. Construction started in 2019, a $2.1 million endeavor.
“The big goal of this project was to provide a passage for people on the river trail, as well as legal access to the river to prevent some of the trespassing that has historically occurred,” Metz said.
People have always wanted to visit that stretch of river, often walking along the railroad tracks or through private property to get there. Even construction at the park didn’t stop people from going in, eliciting complaints from nearby homeowners.
“Now that it’s coming to completion, the public will be able to get easily to the areas that they’ve been wanting to get to,” Metz said. “To get to it in the past, they had to trespass.”
On Labor Day, people were making lunches at makeshift tables in the back of their vehicles and blowing up floats in the new parking lot.
Lindsey Ratcliff was sitting on the sidewalk eating snacks in the shade – which she hoped to see more of in the park. As a resident north of Durango, she was excited about the north extension of the Animas River Trail: It would be perfect for days when she wanted to bike into town, but didn’t want the headache of using Main Avenue.
“The beach was beautiful. Given the amount of space, it felt safe to be in during COVID,” Ratcliff said.
While picnic tables are included in the river access design, they’ll be installed later this month. It’s one of a few features of the project that are still in progress. Vegetation is planted and will eventually shade more areas of the river access, but right now, it’s mostly unshaded.
Some people wanted bicycle racks, while others hoped to see more trash cans, especially close to the beach area. One person saw the railroad track running between the parking lot and river access and hoped no one would get injured by the train.
Bike racks will be added based on need and available funding, Metz said.
Many people were excited to be able to unload close to the river, spread out on the beach and have access to the Animas River Trail.
“The kids, they’ll be able to ride to school,” said Tim Kuss, who lives north of Durango. “There was such a disconnect on the north end of town. It was a little dangerous for them to get to school without going on Main (Avenue).”
“It’s been pretty cool having it open and having your designated place to park instead of the apartment complex,” said Amanda Flores of Farmington.
Before the access was completed, Flores would have to park at a nearby apartment complex where her friend lives. They would have to cross the street with their blanket, snacks, coolers and floats, then walk all the way to the beach. She said it felt a little dangerous, especially with children.
“This is a really cool spot. We come to Durango all the time, but we found it through my friend,” she said. “It’s wonderful. We love it.”