Ridgway To Ouray
The ultra-scenic San Juan Skyway travels in a 236-mile loop created by US 550 and 160 and State Routes 145 and 62. Although you can begin this marvelous journey at any one of several places, traveling clockwise from Ridgway the Skyway wends through glacial valleys and over high passes between breathtaking peaks in the Rockies, passing panoramas and landscapes that for many decades have inspired Native Americans, pioneers, miners, sports enthusiasts and other visitors. Following US 550 south from Ridgway through Ouray and Silverton to Durango, and then westward past the World Heritage Site of Mesa Verde, it quickly becomes very clear why, in 1988, this drive was designated one of 54 National Scenic Byways and then #1 of 10 All American Roads for its natural beauty and historical significance.
Although not part of the Skyway, to the north of Ridgway the town of Montrose lies on the southern edge of a rich agricultural area, is home for the Ute Indian Museum, and is the gateway to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. One of Colorado’s most impressive geological treasures, much of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is protected as a national monument. Less than 40 miles from Ridgway and just a short drive from Montrose, the awesome rock formations of this steep-walled gorge and the Painted Wall cliff are well worth seeing from either north or south rims.
Ridgway is known as the gateway town to the San Juan Mountains. Part of Ouray County’s mining era, Ridgway was the railroad town connecting Telluride and Ouray. Located about ten miles north of Ouray via the Skyway, it’s a scenic mountain town with a historic downtown of shops, restaurants, and accommodations that has become a hotspot for cultural and artistic events and activities. Visitors traveling north or south on the Skyway can start or finish their journey in Ridgway’s downtown that is both a state-certified Creative District and a Designated Main Street Community. Experience the creative results of Ridgway’s beautification and revitalization at part of the Skyway adventure. Return home with unique gifts for relatives and friends that you’ll find in Ridgway’s galleries, studios and shops. Time your skyway trip with one of Ridgway’s cultural events, concerts or festivals.
A four seasons destination, the area offers ample options for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing that also providing scenic hiking and biking opportunities. Hikers will find 14+ miles of routes in Ridgway State Park. For skiers Ridgway provides easy access to 60 miles of the San Juan Hut System. After a day of hiking, skiing or other outdoor activity around Ridgway, for relaxation and rejuvenation many residents and visitors take their tired muscles to soak in one of the local solar-powered thermal pools. The beautiful, all-inclusive Chipeta Solar Springs Resort has two outdoor solar springs complemented by a marvelous spa. Orvis Hot Springs in Ridgway, a clothing-optional hot springs resort, is blessed with naturally flowing lithium-based hot spring water. The Tabagueche Indians, led by Chief Ouray, soaked in this hot spring of the Uncompaghre river valley.
From Ridgway, Highway 550 heads south toward the upper reaches of spectacular Uncompahgre River Valley. The homeland of the Utes until the Treaty of 1868, just a few years later prospectors already were heading for places in the high valleys to mine ore to be hauled out by burros. But with the Brunot Agreement of 1873, mountain tops were turned over to miners and the Utes held on to valleys and lower elevations that included a farm for Chief Ouray and his wife and trusted advisor, Chipeta. By 1880, infuriated by treaty violations, the Utes revolted which led, in 1881, to their removal from Colorado to Utah. Ouray is named in the honor of the Ute chief.
Silver mines opened in the canyons near Ouray. Otto Mears completed his famous toll road from Silverton to Ouray in 1883. The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad arrived from the north in 1887. After repeal of the Silver Purchasing Act in 1893, the area turned its efforts to gold mining. The Camp Bird Mine located in Canyon Creek above Ouray became the most famous and productive local gold mine. From the time of its founding in the early 1870s, Ouray was a tourist destination as well as a mining town. The Ouray County Museum does an excellent job covering local mining and Indian history.
One of the best features of the Skyway is the many sidetrips that lead to fantastic experiences. About 7 miles west of Ouray, Mount Sneffels is the highest summit of the Sneffels Range. The 14,158-foot fourteener is surrounded by the Mount Sneffels Wilderness of Uncompahgre National Forest. To see Mount Sneffels and Dallas Peak up close, a quarter mile south of Ouray on US 550 turn west onto CR361 toward Yankee Boy Basin. Nestled beneath Potosi Peak, Teakettle Mountain, Cirque Mountain, Stony Mountain, Gilpin Mountain, and Mount Sneffels, Yankee Boy Basin has spectacular alpine scenery, abundant wildflowers, waterfalls, a high-walled canyon and old town sites in this once-booming mining area. As a sidetrip out of Ouray, this is a great short drive that can be combined with a side trip to Box Canyon Falls. Wildflowers are abundant from mid-July through early August when you’re likely to see Monument Plant, Paintbrush, Columbine, Larkspur, Chiming Bluebells, Orange Sneezeweed, Cow Parsnip, Wild Iris, and Dwarf Sunflowers, just to name a few.
Tucked between steep mountainsides, Ouray’s history springs from some of the richest gold strikes made during the 1870s. Today, for visitors to Ouray from the Skyway or elsewhere have a marvelous variety of choices for attractions and outdoor activities. Yankee Boy Basin is nestled beneath a half dozen of the San Juan’s most breathtaking peaks including Mount Sneffels. As a superb complement to a drive on the Skyway, a drive from Ouray to this green-carpeted valley presents spectacular alpine scenery, abundant wildflowers, waterfalls, a high-walled canyon and old town sites from the once-booming mining area. Ouray also is a popular base camp for four wheelers. A jeep road over 13,000+ foot Imogene Pass provides a shortcut to Telluride.
The great drive out of Ouray to Yankee Boy Basin should be combined with a side trip to Box Canyon Falls and a drive over Imogene Pass. An 85-foot cascade of water down Canyon Creek, the waterfall thunders down into a quartzite canyon narrowly surrounded by 100-foot walls. With a Skyway itinerary that includes an overnight in Ouray or a return to Ridgway, some visitors hike over the pass into the Mount Sneffels Wilderness to Blue Lake Basin.
A visit to Ouray also should include Ouray Ice Park set in scenic Uncompahgre Gorge, one of the world’s largest parks dedicated to ice climbing. Climbers will enjoy glacial blue pillars erupting with icy stalactites to diamond sheets cascading down craggy rock faces. After this exhilarating adventure, visitors have a choice of several hot springs, including the completely renovated Ouray Hot Springs Pool.
Between Ouray and Silverton, a spectacular 25-mile stretch known as the “Million Dollar Highway” twists and turns through Uncompahgre Gorge. At one point in the drive you’re only 4 miles from Telluride as the crow flies but, other than the jeep road over Imogene Pass, there aren’t any roads from the steep Gorge over La Junta Peak to Bald Mountain and Telluride. Driving along the edge of a cliff with no guardrails is a very memorable experience in itself. There are several places to stop for picture-taking but the top of Red Mountain Pass, with a summit of 11,075 feet, is a favorite.
Red Mountain, a collapsed volcano cone that got its name from the lava flow and oxidized minerals within the rocky surface, was discovered to have gold in 1860. Miners rushed to the area and proceeded to obtain $850 million worth of gold, silver, and other minerals from its soil. The Million Dollar Highway was engineered and designed by a Russian immigrant named Otto Mears, who became known as the “Pathfinder of the San Juans.” His work through the Uncompahgre Gorge and over Red Mountain is still marveled at by engineers today. The Million Dollar Highway’s name comes from either the cost of construction or from the value of ore bearing fill used in the road. The debate continues as to where the name came from but likely will never be resolved. Whether you’re driving from north to south or the other way, stop at the overlook above Ouray for great views and pictures of the town.