Mushrooms in the Mountains

By Kathleen O’Conner

 Summer/Fall 2022

Summer is upon us, and with it come the monsoons bringing much-needed moisture to the San Juan Mountains. But for some, these rainy dog days of summer mark the height of another exciting event; the deeply revered mushroom foraging season – a beloved time of year that stirs up giddy anticipation throughout the region. 

With quirky names – such as velvet foot, puffball, and shaggy mane – matched only by their equally odd life cycles, wild mushrooms are highly sought after in the higher elevations around Durango. Mushroom enthusiasts can find a vast array of edible mushrooms throughout the western slope, including some relatively easy-to-find species, once optimal temperature and moisture conditions are met. Lucky for us neophytes, there are plenty of experienced mushroom enthusiasts are plentiful willing to assist with meanderings into mycophilia (aka love of mushrooms).


Take, for example, Brady Wilson, a local mushroom aficionado and foraging guide. Wilson has been a fungi forager for most of his 42 years. While growing up in Snowmass Village, Wilson was inspired by his parents, who planted a seed (or a spore, rather) for mushroom appreciation. “During hikes, my mom and dad would point out the mushrooms they knew were edible, and also the ones they knew were toxic,” Wilson explains. Today Wilson leads privately guided forays and is one of three mushroom experts leading Purgatory Resort’s guided foraging event, occurring in conjunction with the resort’s Mushroom & Wine Festival in August. 


Lobsters and Boletes, and Morels, Oh My!

Foragers may find edible mushrooms beginning in spring with the arrival of yellow or blonde morels. These cone-shaped mushrooms with rippled, hollow caps are found at elevations lower than their mushroom cousins- generally around 7,000 feet. Though uncommon in these parts, both blonde and “burnt” morels (found at higher elevations in the late summer months) are considered a delicacy and superior in flavor to other wild mushrooms. “Most people who know wild mushrooms will choose morels as their favorite,” Wilson says.  

Unlike the rare and secretive morels, another highly prized but more prevalent mushroom is the meaty and nutty flavored porcini, commonly referred to as the king bolete. Found at elevations between 9,000 to 12,000 feet in mixed spruce and conifer forests, porcinis lack the typical gills- those thin, paper-like structures on the underside of the mushroom cap that serve in spore dispersal. Like many fungi, porcinis are mycorrhizal. In other words, they form a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of trees (in this case, spruce and conifer), contributing to greater water and nutrient uptake for the trees while providing a food source for the fungus or “mycelium.” Mycelium, the underground network of root-like structures, is what produces the aboveground fruiting body, or what we call a mushroom. “The mushroom is the fruit of the mycelium-the actual living organism,” Wilson explains. “So, a mushroom is equivalent to the apple from a tree.” 

One of the more bizarre fungi you may encounter during a forage is the lobster mushroom. Recognized by its billowy, bright orange color, these mysterious, soil-dwelling fungi are, technically, not mushrooms at all. Instead, it’s a parasitic fungus that infects other mushrooms, enveloping them in its signature fiery-orange crusty covering, similar in color to the shell of a cooked lobster. Once infected, the host mushroom transforms, not only in appearance but also in its texture and flavor profile. Lobster mushrooms, found among ponderosa pine forests, are reportedly delicious and are considered a lucky find. 

Finally, the wildly popular chanterelles are found around mixed-conifer forest edges, growing in clusters. Interestingly, this mushroom is said to emit an apricot scent. As Wilson describes it, “if your basket is full of chanterelles, there’s a distinct aroma of fruitiness wafting out of it,” he says. 


Purgatory Resort’s Mushroom & Wine Festival


Purgatory Resort’s annual Mushroom & Wine Festival celebrates all things mushroom, with participants learning how to identify edible mushrooms while also experiencing just how tasty wild mushrooms can be. Beginning on August 19th, the weekend event entails a Friday evening mushroom-themed five-course dinner with wine pairings. Purgatory Resort’s executive chef, Joseph Albright, designs each course based on the mushrooms he finds beforehand. According to Matthew Krichman, Purgatory Resort’s events manager, with only 100 seats available, this event fills up fast. And with good reason. “In my opinion,” Krichman says, “this is the best meal you will have in Durango. Full stop.” 

In addition to the feast, the resort hosts a mushroom foray on Saturday where participants learn how to identify mushrooms in the area. Last year, the event attracted 75 eager attendees and will most likely attract more this year. ” I encourage people who are curious about mushrooms but don’t know much about them to treat themselves to this experience,” Krichman says. “There’s no better way to learn about mushrooms than to go out with somebody who really knows what they’re doing.”


Forage With Care


If you take a dive into mushroom hunting, it’s essential to remember a few things. First, to prevent damage to the underlying mycelium, it’s best to harvest the mushroom by cutting at the aboveground part of the stem with a clean knife, not plucking it from the ground. Next, remove as much dirt as you can before placing the mushrooms in your basket. Baskets or mesh bags are best for collecting, as this aids in spore dispersal as you continue collecting. Also, if you stumble upon a large patch of mushrooms, it’s considered a kindness not to collect the whole patch. “I take half of any given patch that I find, and I leave the rest,” Wilson says. “That’s for both subsequent foragers and also for the health of the ecosystem.”


Finally, and most crucial, is the importance of never eating any mushroom you have not positively identified. Many poisonous “look-alikes” grow in the area, so forage with those who are experienced and knowledgeable. 


Field guides specific to this region can be purchased downtown at Maria’s Bookshop. And stop by Urban Market for a plethora of fun, mushroom-themed prints, puzzles, and kitchen decorum.


 Tickets for Purgatory’s Mushroom & Wine Festival go on sale in mid-June.


To learn more, visit


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Change Pricing Plan

We recommend you check the details of Pricing Plans before changing. Click Here

$Unlimited daysPay Per Listing0 regular & 0 featured listings

$100360 daysPay Per Listing0 regular & 0 featured listings

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This