Ridgway – Gateway to the San Juans
Nestled in picturesque Uncompaghre Valley, in southwestern Colorado, Ridgway is surrounded by the majestic snow-capped peaks of the Cimarron and San Juan mountains. At an elevation of 7000+ feet, the town is cradled in the heart of the San Juan Mountain range that has 14 of Colorado’s 53 peaks that exceed 14,000 ft elevation. Visitors quickly discover why Ridgway, coined Gateway to the San Juans, is the historic hub of one of the most scenic and photographed areas in America and, without exaggeration, the world.
Situated at the junction of Colorado Hwy 62 leading over the Dallas Divide and westward toward Telluride and US Highway 550, which travels south to Ouray, Silverton and Durango, Ridgway is a gateway to the spectacular loop known as the San Juan Skyway. Hwy 550 travels north from Ridgway 25 miles to Montrose and another 60 miles to Grand Junction. Montrose has the closest airport served by scheduled airlines is Montrose Regional Airport. Telluride Airport is located 37 miles away.
Ridgway sits in the shadows of magnificent Mt. Sneffels (14,150 ft.) that, with its spires, pinnacles, rugged ridges and beautiful slopes full of aspens and flowers, often is said to be Colorado’s most beautiful mountain. Not only is this “Queen of the San Juans” on countless calendars and postcards, some people may recall its gorgeous vistas in “How the West was One” and even more vividly in “True Grit.” But Mount Sneffels is much better known to all types of hikers, climbers and mountaineers as one of their more favored mountains in Colorado for outdoor adventures.
Ridgway combines endless possibilities for nature enthusiasts and a fascinating history as the place where the Rio Grande Southern began its journey up and over the Dallas Divide to service the mining communities of Telluride, Ophir, and Rico and Durango. Providing the link to two sections of the Denver & Rio Grande, Ridgway serviced the railroad’s engines in its roundhouse and provided offices to conduct everyday business. Thousands of railroad history enthusiasts and others visit the Ridgway Railroad Museum every year to learn everything about the rise and fall of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad.
Steep forested mountains and cliffs surround Uncompaghre Valley. From its birth in Lake Como, high in the San Juans, the Uncompaghre River makes a 75-mile journey toward the Gunnison River. Running north through Ouray Valley and Ridgway to Ridgway State Park, the river was damned to create 5-mile-long Ridgway Reservoir. The lake impounded by Ridgway Dam was first filled in 1990 for irrigation of the Uncompahgre Valley and for flood control purposes. The Uncompahgre Valley is an agricultural valley. Agriculture was made possible by the construction of the Gunnison Tunnel that diverted water from the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre River. Up until the mid-1970s, the Valley had a great reputation for growing sugar beets.
The Uncompahgre River between the town of Ridgway and the Ridgway Reservoir is great for rafting and seeing wonderful wildlife with the majestic San Juan Mountains as the backdrop. Only 25 miles from Ridgway, the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area encompasses Gunnison Gorge Wilderness, Flat Top-Peach Valley, and the Gunnison River Recreation Area. The Gunnison River cuts a wide path through the breathtaking sandstone and black granite canyon.
Ridgway is a sunny town with more than 240 sunny days per year. Rain per year is less than half the US average. August usually is the rainiest month and June the driest. The rainiest season of the year is autumn and the driest is spring. No surprise, mountainous Ridgway gets as much as 75 inches of snow per year. Summer high temperature is a little over 80 degrees. The winter low is about 7 degrees, usually in January.
Each spring, snow melt from surrounding mountains brings increased water flow to the Gunnison and other local rivers. Ridgway offers a perfect base for rafters and kayakers who want to experience the run-off by boating down rivers. The Gunnison Gorge Wilderness offers a pristine backcountry experience. Fourteen miles of the Gunnison River flows through this wilderness area offering very diverse recreational opportunities. Well known for its challenging whitewater boating, it also features world class trout waters. The upland desert landscape of the Flat Top-Peach Valley area provides outstanding off-highway vehicle riding.
Secluded alpine lakes and streams in the vicinity of Ridgway along the Uncompahgre Corridor are full of stocked and native trout that attract fishermen from around the world year-round. Some walk and wade the Uncompahgre River in Ridgway State Park. A prime habitat for Rainbow, Brown and Cutthroat trout, the Ridgway Reservoir is a great fishing destination for anglers and their families. Anglers have many choices for fishing near Ridgway, including in fall and winter, from tributaries of the Uncompahgre River to the serene settings of alpine lakes reached by short hikes.
Just four mile north of Ridgway, beautiful Ridgway State Park was created with the Ridgway Reservoir at its heart. The park is a favorite for fishing, boating, kayaking, windsurfing, standup paddle boarding, picnicking, and swimming. The park is full of wildlife — elk, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, black bear, mule deer and more. More than 140 species of migratory and resident birds have been identified in the park. Bald eagles winter in Uncompahgre Valley from November to April while golden eagles are year-round residents. The park is full of birding opportunities throughout the year.
Named for the Spanish Jesuits that first explored the area in 1777, the Dominguez and Escalante Canyons are rich in history, wildlife, and scenery. The Gunnison River carves its way through Dominguez canyon revealing cottonwood stands. Along the river banks can be seen deer and desert bighorn sheep. Native American rock-art and spectacular desert flora and fauna can be found on numerous side-hikes.
Ridgway is very fortunate to have Ridgway Area Trails (RAT), a local chapter of COPMOBA (Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association) and a very fun system of biking trails in and around the town. Dedicated to trail advocacy and construction all over western Colorado, COPMOBA has been around since 1989. RAT’s easily accessible trail system in and around Ridgway is the result of many years of RAT and COPMOBA advocating for it with the town, Ouray County, the BLM and Colorado’s Parks and Wildlife (CPW) that even provided a grant. The short trails and loops collectively named RAT consist of both singletrack and dirt road. New trails constantly are being added. Riding the whole network is currently about 10 miles and 800 vertical feet. You can either drive to the trailhead which is just about 1/4 mile up Owl Creek Pass Road or just pedal right out of Ridgway along the river trail. Ridgway also provides easy access to numerous other fantastic mountain biking trails that also are frequented by hikers.
In sum, visitors to Ridgway and nearby Ouray will enjoy spectacular waterways that, in the language of the Utes, have the name “Uncompahgre”. In addition to very clean water and air, residents, visitors and ranches that dot the Valley, together with nature’s sundry creatures, are blessed with more than 240 days of sunshine, a lush spring, spectacular wildflowers, a golden fall and snowy winters. Nature around Ridgway provides the perfect setting for hiking or biking, jeeping in high country on old mining roads, rafting, fishing, hunting and more.
With such an abundance of nature’s blessing in the vicinity of Ridgway, the roughly thousand people who make their home in the town consider themselves very fortunate. Some of the town’s distinctive qualities are reflected in its galleries, artist’s studios, outdoor summer concert series, many live music venues. Ridgway was officially certified by Colorado as a Colorado Creative District (CCD). CCD certification officially confirms that Ridgway has an abundance of design, film & media, literary & publishing, performing arts, and visual arts & crafts in addition to its historic heritage. Home to many creative entrepreneurs, visitors frequently find walkable Ridgway buzzing with arts, cultural activities, festivals and special events that draw on works by the town’s artists, craftsmen, writers and musicians. Parks, walking and biking paths are sprinkled with sculptures created by locals. As a perfect complement for Ridgway’s creative offerings, the town has a well-deserved reputation as a foodie town.