As the Montrose, CO Summer weather heats up, myself and many others far and wide trek to Ouray, CO for cooler mountain temps and outdoor fun.
In the last several days alone, I hit upon most of the major pleasures in Ouray: hiking, climbing, viewing, and soaking…
Ouray is a hotbed of great hikes, often right from your doorstep. Nestled in some of the most dramatic San Juan peaks of Southwest Colorado, a visitor can walk through town in any direction and stumble upon a trailhead.
The Ampitheatre, a large cirque Southeast of town, is a spectacular place for hiking in Summer, and snowshoeing in Winter. It connects to the Cascade Falls, which are running hard right now. Once up into the area, there are many roly-poly trails that offer downhill “rests”. South of town heading towards Silverton on the San Juan Skyway, the Bear Creek trail has some of the steepest switchbacks in the history of the universe, and they traverse over the highway on top of an old rock tunnel. Bear Creek valley serves up “classic” Colorado views, like you’re walking in a National Geographic Calendar of Colorado.
Last week, while trying to find the Sandias climbing area, I got lost (thanks to the lousy guidebook, more to come on that) and ended up on the Old Twin Peaks trail. It peels off the perimeter trail on the West side of town. It was the first time I visited this section of town, and the quaint old homes stacked on the hillside made me feel like it was 1892. After a mile of switchbacks, the trail tops out in a high-altitude meadow so luscious and green in Spring that I expected Julie Andrews to pop out from behind an Aspen tree in full song. The trail follows another steep canyon further Northeast, towards Telluride as the crow flies.
Within minutes on most Ouray trails, hikers disappear into woods only to pop back out again on lookouts over town that define “idyllic”. The West side trails offer ridiculous twilight views of the Ampitheatre and Cascade Falls across the valley.
The perimeter trail is quite popular because it is mostly flat. It circles town on both the East & West sides, winding through areas that border the Ice Park and connect with the Ampitheatre. If you only have a limited time to visit Ouray, this is the best trail to take in the most sites.
The map I purchased was recommended to me by Joe at Ouray Mountain Sports on Main St.: “Hiking Trails of Ouray County” 12th edition topo map. It includes hiking & skiing trails and Sneffels and Wetterhorn approaches. More at Ouraytrails.org.
Easy access climbing from Highway 550 lives in Rotary Park, North of town, and the “Pool Wall”, across the street from the Ouray Hot Springs pool. Rotary park single pitch ranges from 5.5-5.11a, and is a great place for a climb in late afternoon if you have a few hours to kill. My partner and I were there yesterday from 5-7pm, cooling off in the shade from the hot day. Simply drive into Rotary Park, park near the wall, gear up at the picnic tables.
Pool Wall requires a short hike on a skree-ish trail from the hot spring pool parking lot. In June, you can climb while rocking out to the free music festivals in the town park across from the climbing area.
Pool Wall Alcove gets shade early in the day, also a respite from the Summer heat. Ranges are 5.7-5.12, mostly single pitch. “Groove Tube” and the route to the left “Groove is in the Heart” were actually man-made from mining drills, and are super-ultra-mega-classics that should not be missed!
Going South from the Alcove, part of the perimeter trail runs at the base of the Pool Wall into mid-sections “Bay of Pigs”, “The Wading Pool”, “The Deep End”, “The Upper Wall”, and “The Backyard”. Routes get harder into the 12’s and 13’s as you progress South. Lots of classic multi-pitches here, but be mindful of the “Ouray choss” in the upper wall levels. Seemingly solid rocks tend to pulverize in your hands, especially in Spring. Mostly sport, but some trad and mixed routes.
There are many other areas throughout the canyons that radiate out from Ouray. If you have $18 to burn, purchase the “Ouray, Silverton, and Ridgway” guide by Jason Nelson. But, buyer beware! Many directions to the areas are suspect. This was how my attempt to climb the Sandias failed. Always check with the kind folks at Ouray Mountain Sports on Main Street, or ask around at O’Brien’s Pub because there is not much listed for Ouray on Mountain Project. Climbers are friendly in Ouray, and you’ll save yourself headaches while making new pals in the process.
Since there are so many incredible views throughout the state of Colorado, and especially in the San Juans, I rarely encourage payment for views, except in one case: Ouray’s Box Canyon Falls. Never have I seen falls like this in my life.
The creek slices through an impossibly narrow canyon and slams a base of rock with such force the thunder is almost deafening. The park charges $4 admission allowing tourists to travel safely on a metal walkway and stairs taking them all the way into the canyon, and down to the river below. The walkway is covered in spray (mind your cameras), and includes flora/fauna plaques on the Black Swifts and surrounding area.
Views, sound, spray, walkway – it’s full value! An entire package that my climbing partner and I agreed would make an excellent location for a James Bond film. A must do.
Ouray has a public hot springs pool that is clean and family friendly. It sits in the North of town, right at the S-curve. Prices are reasonable, and there are several sections with various temperatures, including a lap pool. Lockers are available for valuables, towel rental, and even swimsuit rental (if you can stand the “ew” factor) is available. Ouray Hot Springs Pool is NOT clothing optional; it is a “public pool”.
North of Ouray approaching Ridgway on the West side of Hwy 550 lies Orvis Hot Springs, a privately run hot springs and spa. Here clothing is optional. The pools are created with native stones from the local area, and are surrounded by lovely gardens in the non-Winter months. Outside the sauna are cold showers. The “lobster pot” is a small pool that is extremely hot. This is the best spot in Winter, where just airing out in the cold or for those more daring, rolling in the snow, will get your skin tingling.
Orvis offers a “quick dip”: if you are in and out within an hour, it’s only $10. I often use this method after a day of climbing, which helps me not stay too long and get home at a reasonable hour. Otherwise, standard fee is $15, towel rental is $1.50, and free coffee and tea are in the kitchen. It’s possible to book rooms here (space is limited), and also camp (space also limited).
Orvis has a definite hippie vibe compared to Ouray Pool. In the locker room the other day, a lady said she travels from the front range to Orvis at least once a year because it’s one of the only places in CO that allows nude soaking. She had several piercings in several places too intense to mention here. If that’s not your bag, go to Ouray Hot Springs.
If you’re flush with moolah and not a dirt-bag like me, Wiesbaden Vapor Caves is another option. It is rarely crowded, except for holiday weekends, and offers a more intimate experience due to its’ smaller size. It’s nestled in the Northeast part of town, a block from the school. The caves were created from a mining effort, and were abandoned from the heat and constant water seeping in. Cost is $15 offering access to an outdoor hot springs pool, and the indoor caves with super hot shallow pool. Water drips off the walls into puddles on the floor, so rubber flip-flops are highly recommended. In the alcove cave, cooler water runs along a mineral wall, allowing for some refreshment after roasting inside. A room full of lounge chairs are next door for maximum cool-off. Although they remodeled their shower area recently, it’s an older place and the facilities are “quaint”. When I really want a break from the world, I go here, especially on a weekday.
There are many other activities in Ouray not detailed here: jeep tours, fishing, ATV tours, hunting, backcountry skiing, ice climbing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, you name it! Hopefully this mini-guide will point you in the right direction. Enjoy Ouray!