About 30 years ago, a group of people in Ouray saw limitless opportunities all around them.
Mining had left the Western Slope town nestled in the box canyon framed by the San Juans, the rugged splendor of which is most stunning this time of year with aspens aglow.
“The miners had created trails all over these mountains, an incredible number of them,” says Bob Risch, president of the Ouray Trail Group. “When mining shut down, those trails fell out of use.”
So the group went about restoring them and putting them on a map. They created the first one in 1986.
“Since then,” Risch says, “the number of trails has grown from 13 to 84. We’ve got over 300 miles of maintained trail in (Ouray County). For a small county, that’s pretty good.”
So good that the City Council was compelled last year to give Ouray (pronounded You-ray) a lofty title. Long considered “The Switzerland of America,” Ouray also now calls itself the “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Colorado.”
It boasts a strong case.
“Leave your door, and you’re out hiking,” Mayor Pam Larson says.
Many tourism-reliant mountain communities struggle as the seasons change, but Ouray is an exception. Just ask Lora Slawitschka, owner of the Ouray Chalet Inn. Business has never been better since her parents bought the place in 1971. That, Slawitschka says, is due in large part to the ice-climbing venue in walking distance from Main Street.
A deep gorge has been developed into a renowned park that in January will host the 23rd annual Ouray Ice Festival. Climbers from around the world compete on epic icicles and slick, blue sheets.
The party-filled weekend draws crowds in the thousands.
All the while, visitors are exposed to other winter offerings in the surrounding outdoors – backcountry skiing and snowmobiling, for example, in the scenic bounty of terrain off Red Mountain Pass, which starts just south of downtown, weaving up past high meadows and ponds and mining remains.
No wonder Ouray Hot Springs, smackdab in the heart of town, stays open year-round. The facility recently underwent a multimillion-dollar expansion for more soaking under the gaze of craggy pinnacles and jagged peaks.
“We used to sled over Main Street and not worry about traffic when I was a kid,” Slawitschka says. “These days, obviously, that’s no longer an option.”
While Ouray is prone to hubbub, she says, it’s maintained the kind of village charm lost to ski areas in places such as, say, nearby Telluride, another Colorado mining camp-turned-famous getaway.
“There’s a quote from this book I just loaned,” Slawitschka says. “‘If Telluride is heaven, then Ouray is where the angels go on vacation.'”
About 1,000 call Ouray their permanent vacation. They live in the neighborhoods on either side of Main Street, where unpaved roads end and the woods begin.
Looking up from town, Risch and fellow mappers can only imagine the number of trails yet to be logged.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get them all,” he says.
The opportunities for adventure are indeed overwhelming.
Allow us to offer some tips for your next visit to the area, whatever the season may be:
Hit the trails:
The Perimeter Trail circumnavigates Ouray in a moderate 6 miles that never lose the views. Other popular footpaths include the Bear Creek Trail, a nationally designated scenic trail that rises on cliff bands to historic mining sites, and the Blue Lakes Trail, great for backpacking into the breathtaking basin of the Mount Sneffels Wilderness.
The Dallas Creek Loop, spanning about 40 miles between Ouray and Ridgway, makes for an epic mountain bike ride. The Portland Trail is shorter but nonetheless a white-knuckling option. Check out Ridgway’s singletrack system, with trails named the likes of Big Cheese, Exterminator and Speedy Gonzales.
Chasing waterfalls? Box Canyon Falls and Cascade Falls are within easy reach.
Hit the roads:
You’ll be glad to have a high-clearance, four-wheel drive on a spring or summer visit. Rentals and tours are also available – of course they’re here at the gateway to some of Colorado’s most scenic passes. The mountains are endless on the Alpine Loop, which travels 63 miles from Ouray to Silverton to Lake City, with a series of ghost towns along the way.
U.S. 550 south of Ouray leads to Silverton over Red Mountain Pass, which is unparalleled in terms of scenery-per-mile and can be enjoyed in any car but isn’t advisable in winter for most drivers. It’s also known as the Million Dollar Highway, one of the “world’s 12 most dangerous roads,” as listed by USA Today.
If you have a capable vehicle, consider the turnoff in town before the highway, pointing you to Yankee Boy Basin.
Soak it up:
Ouray Hot Springs looks like any community pool, complete with waterslides. Rare, though, is this level of relaxation brought to you by sulfur-free waters and soaring peaks. Want something more primitive? Check out Ridgway’s Orvis Hot Springs, where clothing is optional.
Have a snow day:
Ironton Park Cross-Country Ski Area is considered a hidden gem. Nine miles south of town sits a wondrous valley tucked in the mountains, with easy gliding on trails groomed by the Ouray Nordic Council. More intermediate treks on skis or snowshoes can be had at the Ouray Amphitheatre or Ridgway State Park.
Experienced skiers are known to “earn their turns” on the powdery slopes off the pass. Take the kids to Lee’s Ski Hill or to Vinegar Hill for sledding.
*Note: This article was originally published in Fall of 2017
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