Ouray is small town located in southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. In addition to being in a beautiful setting, it abounds with outdoor activities.
Initially, the region’s hot springs drew the Ute Native Americans to initially settle the area. Then came the miners. Silver miners came in 1875. The 1890s brought gold miners. And then came a different type of mining: that of tourists flocking to the area in the 20th century.
The town’s current popularity comes from a combination of its hot springs, several waterfalls its many hiking and mountain biking trails and from its position as the northern entrance of the so-called Million Dollar Highway.
But the town is known for its outdoors activities. These include hot springs, waterfalls, hiking, rock climbing, ice climbing (including the country’s only ice climbing school) and trail bike riding. The only activities that are missing are the activities that have propelled the recent growth of many Colorado mountain towns: skiing and snowboarding.
Ouray’s Historic Downtown
Although Ouray is best know for its outdoor activities, its historic downtown area is also a draw. The town has dozens of restored 19th-century Victorian buildings including including the Wright Opera House, the Elks Lodge, and the Office Block.
With the San Juan Mountains in the background, Ouray’s mineral-rich hot springs are a big draw. The approximately 100 degree water comes from Box Canyon and is a good way to unwind after a day of activities.
Lower Cascade Falls
The city also has many waterfalls. The 200-foot Lower Cascade Falls is the last of seven waterfalls of Ouray’s Cascade River. While only a quarter of a mile from the trailhead, the trailhead is about a half-mile on a relatively steep road from the city’s main street. We walked there on a very hot day and suggest you drive the short distance. Unfortunately, the minimal autumn flow during our visit was barely worth the effort.
Box Canon Falls
We found Box Canyon a little more interesting. Water falls from the 300-foot sheer walls within Box Canyon. A roughly 65-step stairway takes you from the entry down through the dramatically carved canyon walls to the mouth of a tunnel from which the roaring water pours out of the mountain, into the river. A steeper, roughly 100-step staircase, plus about a 1/3 mile uphill hike along rocky ridge takes you to a catwalk over the canyon through a cave that leads to the Perimeter Trail.
Bear Creek Falls
The falls are actually a few miles along the Million Dollar Highway on the way south to Silverton. The dramatic falls, which can only be seen via a roadside overlook, plunges about 120 feet down the side of a sheer cliff into a pool at the bottom.
Million Dollar Highway
And speaking of Million Dollar Highway (U.S. Route 550), Ouray is a stop along the scenic road that renowned for its breathtaking views and winding mountain roads.
The highway’s name technically refers to the cost (about $10,000 per mile) of building the 12-mile stretch of U.S. Route 550 from Silverton to Durango. Since then, the term has been expanded to include the entire 70-mile distance from Ouray to Durango. The road passes through one of the most rugged stretches of the San Juan Mountains. The beautiful but dangerous (with few guardrails) road passes between tall mountains and alongside deep canyons.
The 23 mile, 40 minute stretch of the highway from Ouray to Silverton climbs gradually to its highest point (11,018 feet) at Red Mountain Pass whose surrounding mountains are indeed red from the tailings left from decades of mining. The Pass is also marked by a stretch of elevated track that carried miners from the ground surface into the 100 miles of tunnels through the Idarado mine. Much of the land is undergoing a massive reclamation project to overcome the damage done by mining. Unfortunately the Idarado mine’s current owner, is not helping to fund the project.
The natural beauty of the area was enhanced during our early October visit with acres upon acres of bright yellow aspens against orangish bushes and ground cover and deep green evergreens.
As we were only passing through Ouray, we only had one meal here, a lunch. With our first couple of choices closed, we ended up at Ouray Brewery. We split a large, perfectly cooked ½-pound beef burger with smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, and a side of very crispy French fries. Tom tied the brewery’s one IPA: a Gayerville Hazy IPA which was a bit too hoppy for him.