When telling Jeff I wanted to stay 6 days in Ouray (pronounced yur ay, not Our ay), he asked me something like, “What’s Ouray”? Despite his many visits to Colorado on ski trips in his younger days, he’d never heard of this town.
Ouray is at the top of the Million Dollar Highway that connects Durango, Silverton, and Ouray. There are several theories about why it’s called the Million Dollar Highway. One suggests it’s because of all the rich mining sites the road led to. Another is that it offers million-dollar reviews. But we found a sign located at the beautiful scenic turn-off claims it cost $10k per mile to build way back in the 1800s. Maybe that’s why.
After I explained to Jeff where Ouray was, his next question was, “What is there to do in Ouray that can take six whole days?” The TLDR version of this post? SO MANY THINGS! We can’t wait to go back!
Ouray Via Ferrata
Our first activity in Ouray was the very amazing, super challenging, and totally awesome Ouray Via Ferrata. We (meaning me) tend to be adventure junkies and always up for a challenge. I first read about these cool courses on The Charming Millers adventure in Jackson Hole, WY. I’ve been looking for a chance to do one ever since.
What the heck is a Via Ferrata? A Via Ferrata is Italian for “iron path”. Its a rock climbing course designed for the cautious adventurer.
It uses safety harnesses, steel cables, and iron bar rungs to help you climb up sheer rock faces.
Cable bridges are there to help you traverse canyons.
Via Ferratas have existed for many centuries to help small Alpine towns stay connected. But building these adrenaline-producing adventure courses took off in the 1970s and 80s. There are now an estimated 2000+ courses all over the world. Approximately 15 of them are in the United States.
This adventure was one of the highlights of our trip for both of us! If you have a bit of adventure in you, we highly recommend you check these out.
Things to know before you go to a Via Ferrata
- You don’t need to be super athletic to do these courses but having a basic foundation of fitness helps.
- The course in Ouray is free to use if you already have the equipment. But, if you aren’t an experienced rock climber, we recommend paying for a guide. These guides provide all the equipment and take you through the course.
- Unless you have a real desire to face your fear of heights, this may not be the activity for you.
- Plan activities that are not physically demanding for the next couple of days. There’s a good chance you’ll be pretty sore.
- Ouray and many other Via Ferrata courses are in high altitudes. Altitude sickness is a real thing. Give yourself a few days to adjust if you are just coming from a low-altitude climate.
When an area is ripe with minerals and precious metals, it eventually leads to mining. Mining regularly leads to small towns. And small towns often lead to ghost towns when the mines dry up.
The San Juan Mountains are ripe with ghost towns and I just love the idea of abandoned buildings.
Check out my other blog, NicoleBandes.com,
for some of my abandoned building photography.
After our very taxing climb, we set out on some more leisurely ghost town hikes. I identified three “townsites” with some buildings still standing. They also said they were accessible with a standard vehicle. Many roads around Ouray need something more like a Jeep or off-road vehicle.
The first up was Irontown, founded in 1883 to service the Red Mountain Mining District. It remained inhabited until its last resident died in the 1960s.
It also provided some of the best photo ops for abandoned buildings.
I can see a lot of stories in the works.
Next up was the Joker.
Only the dorm building remained standing at this site.
But we took a detour off the main trail and found lots of mushrooms.
We also found a crazy water canal that lead to something quite unusual.
It looked like either a toxic chemical site or something from another world. Pictures do not do this site justice. The reddish dirt had a distinct crunch to it rather than a muddy feel.
We attempted to drive to the Red Mountain Mine but the roads turned out to be a bit much for our stiff-suspension, not-designed-for-heavy-off-roading vehicle. Instead, we found the location where some of the homes had been relocated.
Ouray is often called the Switzerland of America.
That might be because it is almost surrounded by mountains rising on every side of the small town.
Even Rizzo thinks this mountain perimeter makes for a great trail with stunning views.
The entire Perimeter Trail is a 6-mile loop around downtown Ouray. You’ll pass 4 waterfalls, spectacular views looking down on the town below.
The views will remind you of the ending scene from Sound of Music!
Things to know before you do the Ouray Perimeter Trail
- You don’t need to do the entire 6-mile loop. There are plenty of places to enter and exit the trail so you can see just the areas you are most interested in.
- The steepest part of the loop is entering and exiting near the Ouray Visitor Center on the North end of town. The first mile and a half on each end take you up to the main trail with the sharpest incline/decline.
- Bring hiking poles, good shoes, plenty of water, and some snacks. If you do the entire trail, you will be out there for a while. Alltrails.com says the average is 3 hours and 19 min.
If you are a fan of chain stores and franchises, Ouray might not be the place for you. The only name we recognized was a small True Value on the main street.
You won’t find a Walmart, McDonald’s, or even a large grocery store in Ouray. They do have a very small grocery store downtown, in case you run out of something during your 6-day stay. Grocery store may be stretching it though. Its more like a convenience store than a full grocer.
We think this all adds to the character of the town. Outside of the main street, most of the roads in town aren’t even paved. But then, the population of Ouray is just over 1000.
When on vacation, I’m a big believer that you should never eat where you can eat at home. That means checking out the small town and local restaurants. With a hankerin’ for a great burger, we opted for Maggie’s Kitchen for lunch. After all, the sign says they were voted best burger! And the outdoor seating that allows pets made it an easy choice.
Walk inside Maggie’s and you are greeted with wall-to-ceiling graffiti and a menu with something for everyone, even Willie and Snoop Dog. Notice the 420 burger? We didn’t ask but can only assume it’s a burger version of a pot brownie.
Jeff got the Mushroom Burger while I got my standard Patty Melt on Sourdough. Both were two thumbs up!
On the way back to the campground, we spotted a little fish pond. Most fish ponds are just cute little additions to area parks. This pond, though, had some history behind it.
It turns out the pond started in 1900 when a family moved away from Ouray and tossed their pet goldfish in a pond that had been created by an old brick clay pit. Residents of Ouray then decided they’d turn the entire brickyard and pits into a community swimming pool using the local hot springs.
The fish pond and resulting hot springs pools have been around ever since. We think some of these fish might have been there from the beginning based on their size!
On the Perimeter Trail, we passed an offshoot trail called Baby Bathtubs.
This trail takes you along a stream and up to a small area where families frequently take their little ones to soak in the cool water.
You can choose to hike parts through the creek or take the marked trail.
It was lovely seeing how the water made its mark on all the rock surfaces.
Nicole: “See that black and white butterfly flying around? I saw one on a flower earlier.”
Jeff: “Then wouldn’t it be a buttersit?”
Box Canyon Falls
While there are still lots of things we’d love to do in Ouray on our next trip, our last stop was Box Canyon.
Box Canyon Falls is a city park that showcases an 85-foot waterfall on Canyon Creek.
Unlike traditional waterfalls, Box Canyon is surrounded by 100-foot-high walls.
There are two main trails, High Bridge and Falls Trail. High Bridge is a bit of a hike up to the bridge that crosses the canyon. It gives you a great aerial view of the creek and downtown Ouray. Falls Trail will take you right up close to the falls and the creek.
Box Canyon was our final activity in Ouray. We’d done the High Bridge Trail on our Perimeter Trail hike including the tunnel that connects the bridge to the trail.
Entrance into this city-run park is just $5 per person. The short Falls Trail hike brings you to a slot canyon where Canyon Creek falls from above joining up with the Uncompahgre River below.
A series of catwalks will take you right down to the bank though, at this point, much of the falls are obstructed by a rock face.
Look off to the right and you’ll catch a glimpse of the history of Box Canyon in some abandoned mining equipment.
Well that’s it for our time in Ouray. Off to our last stop in Colorado before heading home.