Ouray & The Beaumont Hotel & Spa
Less than 10 years after the town of Ouray was founded in the heart of the rugged San Juan Mountains, it was being acclaimed as “the prettiest town in Colorado.” The boom caused by the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RG) spurred construction of fine buildings that enhanced the beautiful setting. In 1880-1890 the population tripled. The town officially became a city. An electric plant was installed in 1885. And the beautiful Beaumont Hotel was completed in 1886, shortly before a new brick school house was erected. Prosperity had arrived in Ouray that can be seen in photos of the city’s 4th of July parade on Main Street with the Beaumont Hotel in the background. The premier building in Ouray, it was one of the first buildings in the city to use electricity. Even the Silver Crash of 1893 couldn’t do more than briefly dampen Ouray’s growth and prosperity. In future years tourism became more important. Box Canyon was developed. The Ouray Hot Springs Pool was built in 1927. By the 1960s Ouray came to be known as “The Jeep Capital of the World.”
When the nomadic Tabeguache Ute Indians arrived in the San Juans around 1300 A.D., they soon discovered hot springs bumbling up in the beautiful valley below the little amphitheater that eons later became the City of Ouray. Gold strikes in nearby mountains attracted prospectors during the 1850s. In the mid-1870s, about two years after the Utes ceded the San Juans, prospectors began making their way down the Uncompahgre River and Bear Creek to the heavily wooded bowl. Mining claims for gold ore soon would be filed. But history shows that the real attraction to and value of what became Ouray was its suitability as a town site and base near many newly discovered mines. And not long afterwards, Ouray became a tourist attraction.
Named “Uncompahgre” by prospectors, just a few miles to the south many more prospectors were at work in Imogene and Yankee Boy Basin. In 1876, when the town was incorporated, it was named “Ouray” in honor of the trusted Ute chief responsible for Utes agreeing to a peace treaty years earlier. In the early 1880s, after rich ore finds in the Red Mountain District, the Denver & Rio Gauge Railroad and the Million Dollar Highway were built to connect Ouray with the new mines. Ouray soon progressed from a mining camp to a thriving town. In 1888 the Silverton Railroad was built from Silverton to the Red Mountains but Ouray continued to thrive – as a tourist destination. In the late 1880s and early 1890s tourists began to discover the San Juan’s beauty and Ouray’s hot springs. Box Canyon, the Fern Grottos of the Uncompahgre Gorge and the Crystal Caves were popular tourist attractions. The Million Dollar Highway was popularized by the media and D&RG as the route to visit “God’s County”.
The story of the restoration and preservation of the Beaumont Hotel & Spa in the early 2000s and afterwards is very much the history of “ Ouray Gem of the Rockies.” After restoration to its former grandeur, in 2003 the hotel won the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation as well as the National Preservation Award and in 2004 the Preserve America Presidential Award. The Beaumont Hotel’s nickname—the “Flagship of the San Juans”—applies as well to Ouray itself. Ouray is listed in the National Register of Historic Districts and most of its vintage structures are still standing.
A very popular stop for sightseers driving the San Juan Skyway, Ouray is surrounded by some of the nation’s most outstanding scenery and trails. Located in the heart of Uncompahgre National Forest, Mt. Sneffels (14,150-ft.) rises to the west of town in the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness. Trails in the eastern and western portions of the Wilderness lead to wonderful wildflower displays, especially in Yankee Boy Basin. Trails within the Wilderness include the Blue Lakes, Alder, Dallas Whipple Mountain and Deep Creek. Northeast of Ouray is the Uncompahgre Wilderness (99,000 acres), home to two fourteeners, Wetterhorn Peak and Uncompahgre Peak as well as numerous peaks over 13,000-ft.
After a day enjoying some of the dozens of outdoor activities in the vicinity of town, visitors soak in pools fed by natural hot springs while gazing at the red sandstone and granite cliffs towering above Ouray. Just north of the Hot Springs, the Uncompahgre River Trail offers a nice walk in town. Visitors looking for a longer scenic walk, from several access points in town the 6-mile Ouray Perimeter Trail leads to Cascade Falls, the Baby Bathtubs and Canyon Creek’s spectacular gorge. Visits to one of the area’s ghost towns usually requires a 4WD but a few are accessible with just a passenger car.
Those with a 4WD have fantastic choices of backcountry roads, some like Yankee Boy Basin with both ghost towns and beautiful wildflowers, others that lead to beautiful places like Twin Falls. The Alpine Loop Scenic and Historic Byway leading over 12,000-ft. passes to Lake City and back only has a brief snow-free window (June to September) but the 65-mile drive in a 4WD and its incredible landscape is not to be missed. The Alpine Loop traverses two mountain passes: Engineer Pass (12,000-ft.) and Wetterhorn that provide great views and photo ops of Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn peaks, both towering more than 14,000-ft. On a more southern Loop route, Cinnamon Pass (12,000-ft.) provides stunning views of some of the nation’s highest mountains — Handies, Sunshine and Redcloud peaks.
Visitors to Ouray who decide to hike the 6.3 miles (RT) to the three scenic Blue Lakes in a beautiful basin surrounded by rugged ridges and peaks do so again and again. Like many of the other hikes in the Ouray area, the trail provides options for those with the time and energy to ascend further and admire even more wonderful panoramic views of peaks and jagged ridges. Punctuated here and there by abandoned mines, trails like the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail display amazing effort and ingenuity that went into construction back in the mining era. Combinations of hikes through wildflower-filled meadows and visits to mines like the Grizzly Bear Mine and the Yellow Jacket Mine are only a few miles away from Ouray on the Million Dollar Highway.
Many of these marvelous trails, like the hike to Blaine Basin, don’t require a great deal of effort and yet tend to be lightly used. The same is true of the RAT mountain bike system in the vicinity of Ouray. Mountain bikers of all skill levels can find trails from downtown Ouray. Both beginners and advanced mountain bikers are really enthusiastic about biking options in the vicinity of Ouray. From easy family rides to grueling rides in the San Juans and Cimarron Mountains, Ouray offers an almost unlimited variety of choices. The Uncompahgre near Ouray also is laced with outstanding motorcycle, ATV and jeep routes with a wide range of skill and equipment requirements.
The Ouray Ice Park is a human-made ice-climbing park built and operated by a local nonprofit in a spectacular natural gorge within walking distance of Ouray. Water tumbles over cliffs and then freezes in the canyon creating a massive wall of solid blue ice. From mid-December through mid-March, spend a relaxing “Ice Day” day in Ouray and then stroll from downtown to the best ice climbing venue in the world, with its more than 200 ice climbs.
With the coming of spring, snowmelt from the San Juan Mountains flows into local rivers. Visitors to Ouray and its lucky residents turn to rafting, kayaking and other adventure opportunities in the area’s fabulous rivers: Uncompahgre River; Lower Gunnison River; Gunnison River/Gunnison Gorge; San Miguel River; and the Animas River.
Together with all of Ouray’s quiet pleasures, the area’s alpine lakes and fast moving waters captivate visitors seeking the one-of-a-kind exhilaration of kayaking, rafting and canoeing, especially in the midst of pristine wilderness and stunning forms of geology. After spending a morning or afternoon, for example, on a rafting trip down the rapid-filled Gunnison River Gorge, envision spending an hour or so in a hot tub and spa session at the Hotel Beaumont & Spa. Whether it’s in a rushing river or in a hot tub in town, Ouray provides people with very memorable healing waters.