The Town of Ouray

Ice Climber Ascending

A historic town tucked in a beautiful and serene box canyon, and a magical place that has been called the “Switzerland of America,” Ouray has been one of America’s and Colorado’s most hidden destinations for tourists from around the world. The legacies of Native Americans and Spanish people inhabiting the area followed by many very busy mining camps still infuse the place that outdoor enthusiasts have transformed into a four-seasons playground. Located along the legendary “Million Dollar Highway,” the small mountain town has earned its reputation among travelers in-the-know as a very special place to go for both outdoor adventure choices and much-needed relaxation.

From some of the best ice climbing in the world in its own Ice Park to groomed stretches of the Uncompahgre in winter and hikes at other times, the town is filled with and encircled by outdoor activity and tour choices. Located on the edge of town, the famous Ouray Hot Springs Pool includes a hot pool for therapeutic adult soaking, a lap pool for fitness seekers, and a shallow pool for kids, maybe after their ice climbing lessons at Ouray Ice Park. With so much family-friendly fun to enjoy and natural beauty to explore, when it’s time to hang up hiking shoes and boots, the town offers visitors a wonderful mix of food, beverage and brewery options along with no shortage of unique shopping experiences on the town’s Main Street, registered as a National Historic District. Two-thirds of Ouray’s original Victorian structures are still occupied and have been restored to retain the town’s original charm. Visitors can learn all about the town’s history at the Ouray County Museum.

When centuries before the white man nomadic Utes discovered the area known today as Ouray, little wonder that, in summer, spring and fall, they were deeply attracted to the beautiful amphitheater, its three waterfalls, and creeks flowing into what we know as the Uncompahgre River. Moving their camps to different elevations in the seasons, the Utes took full advantage of geologic activity that created the multi-colored cliffs around today’s Ouray. Ouray’s setting is a product of tremendous geologic activity in the San Juans. Ouray’s great bowl itself was carved out of volcanic strata by glaciers. In the midst of the results of these geologic forces, the Utes found an abundance of deer, elk and sheep scrambling on mountainsides. The Utes also found, and no doubt used, hot springs that surfaced within the city limits of today’s Ouray. Like current visitors to Ouray, the Utes appreciated the curative and relaxing powers of the hot springs. So much so, in fact, that when the Utes ceded the San Juans to the U.S. government in 1873, the northern two-thirds of the valley between present-day Ouray and Ridgway that contained springs had to be given back to the Utes.

The Town of Ouray

By the early 1860s prospectors that had swarmed into Colorado already were camping in what became Ouray County. By the early 1870s the Utes and their Chief Ouray had learned enough to keep as much of their land as possible through treaties and negotiation. After the Utes allowed whites to take possession of the San Juan Mountains, Utes were able to live on land north of the present City of Ouray. By the mid-1870s, silver and gold discoveries were bringing prospectors and even families to the Ouray bowl that soon was named Ouray after the cooperative Ute chief. Ouray grew with amazing speed. In 1876 stores started to spring up in Ouray and the town was officially incorporated. As a sign of progress, in 1877 a hotel housed in a log cabin moved into a two-story log building (now Ouray’s Community Center). By 1878 Ouray’s population had risen to about eight hundred and even mail services were started. By the 1880s Ouray was the second largest town in the San Juans. Silverton was the largest.

Over the next few years trails and roads to Ouray would be built including the toll road built by Otto Mears that eventually became part of the “Million Dollar Highway.” Mears famous toll road from Silverton to Ouray was completed in 1883. Growth in Ouray quickened with the coming of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (D&RGR) from the north in 1887. Mears toll road later connected a terminus of D&RGR in Ouray to one in Silverton for transporting ore between the two towns. When the Silver Purchasing act of 1893 obliterated silver mining in Ouray and elsewhere in the USA, miners quickly turned to gold. The Camp Bird Mine located on Canyon Creek above Ouray became one of the most famous gold mines in Colorado.

But Ouray-the-mining-town became Ouray-the-tourist destination from its inception. Besides its spectacular location and surroundings, hot springs turned the town into a mecca for visitors eager for that very special kind of relaxation and recreation. Trails in the vicinity of Ouray also became the perfect routes for backcountry adventures in the mountains for jeeps, 4X4s, and bikes. With Ouray as a base, adventurers for example can follow the Alpine Loop on some of its 75 miles of dirt roads and trails that follow historic pathways of Native Americans and miners traversing the area that today encompasses Ouray, Silverton, Lake City and Telluride. Some of these travelers head over Cinnamon Pass to the Victorian mining town of Lake City, perhaps returning via Engineer Pass. Both passes are above 12,000 feet.

The start of the Loop could be Corkscrew Gulch, only 8 miles from Ouray, especially beautiful in the fall with its stands of aspen. Less challenging but so very beautiful in spring and early summer, Yankee Boy Basin just below Mt. Sneffels adds wildflowers in season to its waterfalls. Framed by the 14,000-ft. peaks of the Sneffels

Mine Ruins in the Fall Foliage