Ouray may not have its own ski area, but when it comes to winter sports, there is plenty to keep you busy. This hamlet in southwestern Colorado enjoys an envious location in the heart of the San Juan Mountains. The town sits at 7,700 feet, and is surrounded by peaks that soar another 5,000 feet.
No wonder that some have called Ouray the “Switzerland of the Rockies.” Switzerland or not, this Colorado community is all about enjoying the outdoors. Speak to any of the shop owners along Main Street, and chances are that you will hear stories of other lives that have been abandoned for the allure of this Rocky Mountain village and its nature-loving lifestyle.
And it’s easy to see why.
The biggest winter draw is undoubtedly the Ouray Ice Park, billed as the first ice climbing park in the world. The park lies in the shaded, steep-walled Uncompahgre Gorge. The ice is formed by sprayers that divert water from the town reservoir to strategic locations along the canyon. The result is a safe, ice-filled wonderland.
While I had always enjoyed watching climbers, I hadn’t thought of trying it for myself. But then I heard about Kim Reynolds and her company, Chicks with Picks. Reynolds specializes in helping women learn to climb. Her enthusiasm for the sport is obvious. And though I was a bit hesitant about climbing at first, Reynolds chatted encouragingly while she explained the gear and how we would approach the climb. Then we headed out to the ice.
Unlike many locations where you have to hike miles to find good ice, access is easy in Ouray. You simply park and hike into the park. It took us 30 minutes to reach the climbing spot that Reynolds had selected for my friend, Ben, and me. (Yes, she is happy to teach men as well.)
After checking all our gear and giving us a quick lesson, Reynolds scampered up the ice to test the route and show us how it is done. She made it look so easy!
Then it was my turn. At first, the feeling was awkward, and I was nervous. Then I learned to let the gear do the work for me. The crampons secured my steps in the ice, while carefully placed picks allowed me to pull myself up to the next step.
It was slow going at first, but I finally made it to the top of the 80-foot canyon wall. And what a rush! Then it was Ben’s turn. He had a smile on his face when he came back down.
After we got the hang of a few skills, Reynolds moved us to another spot in the canyon. One-by-one, we scaled those walls, too, all the while hearing the encouragement of other climbers in the park.
When we were tired, we stopped to eat the lunch we had packed in and watch the other climbers. There were climbers of every age, from age 10 on up. Folks come from all over the world to climb in Ouray. I heard several different accents throughout the canyon.
By the end of the day, we were exhausted, but happy. It brings an incredible feeling of accomplishment when you can scale a wall by your own power. Reynolds had made a convert out of me.
By evening, though, our sore muscles began to protest the day’s activities. This led us to Ouray’s other draw – the mineral hot springs. There are numerous hot springs in Ouray, but our first stop was the Ouray Hot Springs Pool. Smack in the middle of town, the 250 x 150 foot public pool has more than a million gallons of clear mineral waters. Best of all, the hot springs in Ouray don’t have the putrid sulfur smell typical of other hot springs.
It was relaxing to soak in the steaming waters, watching our breath in the cool winter air and taking in the mountain views.
Refreshed from our soak in the pools and a hearty meal at The Outlaw (see our article on Dining in Ouray), we were ready for more adventure the next day.
The sun shone brightly in a Colorado blue sky, and white snow shimmered from the nearby peaks. It was the perfect time to go snowshoeing. Armed with rented gear from Ouray Mountain Sports, we headed to Ironton Park, a valley south of town on U.S. 550.
Founded in 1883, Ironton was once a thriving mining community. Times got tough, however, and now a ghost town is all that remains. Today the Ouray County Nordic Council maintains four miles of groomed trails in the area. The multi-use trail runs past several buildings from the historic ghost town. You can still see wallpaper on the walls of some of the homes. It almost seems like the town’s inhabitants left only yesterday.
But the ghost town was just part of the fun. The trail ran across a wide open valley, and then through secluded forest trails, quiet and peaceful.
After a few hours of snowshoeing, it was time to try another Ouray restaurant (see Dining in Ouray) and hit another hot springs. There are hot springs at the Box Canyon Lodge, which has four redwood hot tubs on the mountainside behind the lodge, and at The Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa.
As it was getting dark, we headed to The Wiesbaden to soak in its outdoor Lorelei pool. (The Wiesbaden also has an indoor Vaporcave with soaking pool.) Under a clear winter sky dotted with thousands of stars, we could unwind and savor the moment.
There are many experiences to appreciate when you’re visiting Ouray. On our last day in town, we decided to take one more hike. Though it was the dead of winter, we wanted to see the Box Canon Falls.
Located a short walk from town, the Box Canon Falls Park is perfect for those who love hiking, birding (a large population of Black Swifts lives in the canon walls during the summer) and natural beauty. A 285-foot waterfall plunges into a tight quartzite canyon, and the hike offers beautiful views.
The waterfall rushed beneath a large ice formation, its roar echoing off the canyon walls. Overhead, the sun shone brightly in another blue sky, and the air was crisp and clear. It was the kind of moment that makes you truly appreciate Colorado. And it was this kind of moment that will keep me coming back to Ouray.
If You Go
Going with your family or a group? These luxury vacation rentals are perfect. The 1,400-square-foot units are located right on Main Street. For reservations, call 970-318-6546.
Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs
Ouray’s most popular lodge offers traditional one- or two-bedroom rooms to two-room suites with kitchens and fireplaces. The lodge backs to the mountainside on the edge of town right next to Box Canon Falls. www.boxcanyonouray.com