When most people come to Colorado for a winter vacation, it’s all about the skiing. But Ouray, located about four hours from Denver, offers an activity much different than turning down fresh powder.
In this southwestern town, which was put on the map in the 1800s for gold and silver mining, people visit from all over the world to ice climb a canyon surrounded by the jutting 13,000-foot peaks of the San Juan Mountains. And it’s this sport that keeps the town alive in winter.
Even aside from ascending frozen waterfalls, though, the town has plenty to offer – from hiking to hot springs.
Ouray, Colo., is sometimes referred to as the "Gem of the Rockies" — Photo courtesy of Ouray Chamber Resort Association
Ouray Ice Park
In a drive less than five minutes from the town's Main Street sits the world's largest manmade ice park, and guess what. It's free to use!
But if you're new to the sport of ice climbing and yet you want to ascend a frozen waterfall at Ouray Ice Park, then it’s best to hire a guide.
You might start your morning at San Juan Mountain Guides in downtown Ouray to meet Chad, who has 20-plus years experience guiding and mountaineering. After gearing up with a harness and adjusting sturdy crampons to your ice-climbing boots, you'll make your way to the trailhead, a 5-minute drive from the shop.
Even on a weekday morning, the park is usually full of both first-time climbers and also apt climbers who either climb with a partner or self-belay.
The park is manmade and stays in check all winter through the work of ice farmers. Shower heads attached to PVC pipeline trickle recycled water off steep cliffs that eventually freeze into climbable routes.
Some are harder than others in designated climbing zones like the Upper Alcove. Here, not only is the ice some of the steepest and tallest in the park, but it also doesn’t have many open pockets for footholds and handholds.
Ice climbing in Ouray — Photo courtesy of Ouray Chamber Resort Association
After watching some climbers work their way up intimidating 110-foot sheer steep ice walls at the park's entrance, you can make your way to a beginner area called South Park. At the base, Chad will walk you through the basics of how to use your crampons before you climb up an angled snowfield, allowing you to get used to your new pointy kicks.
After four laps, Chad will probably break down the route and set up a more challenging one next. Here, you can start on a sheer wall instead of a snowfield and climb 60 feet to top the route.
Cross-country skiing at Ironton Park Nordic Trails is another outdoor activity worth exploring. And the Ironton Park trails winds by an abandoned mining village that shut down after the silver crash in 1893. More than 300 people once lived here, but only handfuls of homes remain – most either burned down or were demolished for the use of lumber.
Here, pop off your skis and follow a path winding by the shackled wooden homes, some of which have four feet of snow piled on top. More advanced skiers can take off on some of the backcountry trails like Silver Belle (.9 miles), which will take you to the old mine site.
Our favorite backcountry trail is the North Pipeline (.3 miles), which is a steep climb up, but it makes for one fun and fast ride down!
A nonprofit, the Ouray County Nordic Council, maintains the trails, which are free to use.
Ouray is a one of Colorado's best spots for waterfall sightings, and two town favorites are Box Canon Waterfall and Park and Cascade Falls. Both are easily accessible from town.
At Box Canon, there are two trail options. The shortest is the High Falls Trail, which is a quick hike (less than a quarter of a mile) to reach the canyon. From here, you'll be able to see the powerful force of water spilling down a 285-foot waterfall before landing into a creek that continues into the valley.
Or, take the High Bridge Trail, which climbs 200 feet over the course of a quarter of a mile to the top of the falls. From here, you can run into a cave that links up to the Ouray Perimeter Trail. This circles around the entire town on an elevated mountain trail and eventually connects to the Cascade Falls.
If, on the other hand, you aren’t in for a longer hike, you can drive to the trailhead and be at the base of the falls after a 5-minute hike.
Hot Springs, Too
Ouray is a hot bed for natural hot springs, with several options in town. And they are all sulfur free, which means no funky odors.
The Ouray Hot Springs Springs Pool opened in 1927 and is still one of the most visited in town. There are different soaking sections, all framed by the San Juan Mountains, that range in temperature from 80 to 106 degrees.
There's also a lap swimming section if you're looking to mix more fitness into the trip.
Another option is the Orvis Hot Springs about nine miles north outside of town towards Ridgway. Here, there are eight different soaking areas that have more of a spa feel, with tubs that feature flagstone landscaping. For piping hot temps of 114 degrees, check out the lobster pot.
Other areas include the Island Waterfall tub and the Pond, which are the area's largest. There are also two private tubs inside if you want to escape crowds all together.