It’s difficult to decide our favorite family memory captured in Ouray, the quaint southwestern Colorado mountain town cradled in a narrow canyon and wrapped by the majestic San Juan Mountains. Was it the morning we experienced the thrill of ice climbing for the first time? Perhaps it was that snowy hike to a partially frozen waterfall we followed with a steamy hot springs soak as flurries fell all around us. Survey the five members of our family and you’ll likely get just as many answers when it comes to everyone’s favorite moment in this mountain-hugged town. Our youngest will tell you all about Olaf, the snowman she and her brothers sculpted out of perfectly packable powder right before an epic snowball battle erupted.
But there’s one thing we can all agree on: We are so glad we spent a couple of days in Ouray (pronounced you-ray) before our Crested Butte ski trip. While Ouray might be small — its year-round population hovers around 1,000 people — it is chock-full of big adventures. Just over two hours from Crested Butte and an hour from Telluride, this tiny town known as the “Switzerland of America” is home to everything from thrilling mountain experiences to rejuvenating natural hot springs. Here are five highlights from our recent two-day stay in Ouray.
Ever wondered what it would be like to climb up a steep, slick vertical wall of ice? We hadn’t until setting foot in Ouray. We aren’t exactly a family of ice climbing experts. Our prior experience consists of scaling children’s climbing walls at local gyms where falls are cushioned by a pit of foam cubes. But whether you’re a seasoned expert or a first-timer, there’s no better place to test the ice than Ouray. Home to Ouray Ice Park, an engineering marvel that utilizes a gravity-fed plumbing system to create awe-inspiring ribbons and curtains of wintry blue ice, this destination is widely considered the ice climbing capital of Colorado and one of the most famous ice climbing venues in the world. This free-to-the-public frozen playground, the world’s first man-made ice climbing park, is just a short walk from downtown and attracts up to 15,000 adventurous climbers from mid-December to mid-March with 3 miles of vertical terrain and more than 100 identified routes inside the Uncompahgre Gorge. Beginners can book guided ice climbing clinics or lessons throughout the season — and kids can learn to climb for free during Kid’s Climbing College on the first Saturdays of January, February and March. We booked a family ice climbing camp at Ouray Ice Park with Peak Mountain Guides, and by 9 a.m. we were secured in harnesses, bellied up to the ice, learning how to swing our ice picks hard and dig our crampons forcefully into the frozen surface to climb our way up. Ice climbing isn’t easy. It requires considerable strength and proved especially challenging for our young boys. But after several attempts, they got the swing of it and they even learned how to safely belay their parents back down.
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Known as one of Colorado’s premier hot springs destinations, Ouray is home to four public and private sulfur-free, odorless natural hot springs that have bubbled up along the Uncompahgre River and from underground fissures for thousands of years. We stayed in a spacious apartment suite at Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs (BoxCanyonOuray.com), conveniently located on Third Avenue just off of Ouray’s quaint Main Street, which has a handful of private hot springs soaking tubs on the property that fluctuate between 105 and 108 degrees, inviting guests to step from their doorsteps to the toasty tubs surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Our kids loved splashing in the steamy, soothing waters of Ouray Hot Springs Pool, an Ouray institution that recently received a multimillion-dollar renovation and now boasts several shallow soaking pools, lap lanes, a climbing wall and swirly water slides. For a more intimate soak, visit the hot springs vapor cave, outdoor swimming pool and secluded soaking pool and waterfall at the Historic Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa and Lodgings.
Hikes and views
With Mother Nature’s hot tubs awaiting our return, we embarked on several snowy hikes in the sunshine. A favorite was Box Canyon Falls, a stunning natural wonder that was created when Canyon Creek’s rushing waters eroded a narrow box canyon through fault-weakened limestone. During the winter months, entry to the park is free and can only be reached by foot — but even with our steps sinking into the snow, it was an easy, short trek doable for kids that rewards you with breathtaking views. We also hiked the Lower Cascade Falls trail, which leads to the sight of a partially frozen waterfall — the last in a series of seven waterfalls that spills snowmelt off the mountains and down the redstone cliffs. Seeking more spectacular sights? In the winter, the San Juan Mountains offer exceptional backcountry and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities. Or take a drive along the Million Dollar Highway, the stunning 25-mile stretch along Highway 550 between Ouray and Silverton, known as one of the most scenic drives in the country.
Eats and drinks
We stopped in Ridgeway for lunch at the True Grit Café, opened in honor of the Academy Award-winning classic filmed in the area more than 50 years ago, to devour cowboy-inspired fare and snap selfies with John Wayne replicas and framed posters. On Main Street, duck into the underground Ouray Wing Co. for a next-level wing experience with crispy battered wings, boneless tenders, eclectic dipping sauces and games to entertain kids. Enjoy upscale dining at Bon Ton Restaurant, one of Western Colorado’s most lauded restaurants featuring Italian dishes like lobster ravioli and house specialties such as a grilled rack of Colorado lamb chops served with jalapeno mint sauce. Pint-size Ouray is also home to a handful of breweries, distilleries, coffee roasters and chocolatiers sprinkled along Main Street, like the award-winning, family-owned Ouray Brewery, where you can sip Colorado craft beers made completely in-house while munching on crispy Korean-style pork belly banh mi sliders. Sample the constantly rotating house-brewed beers at Red Mountain Brewing while enjoying the beer-battered fish and chips or all-natural burgers served on brioche buns. Refuel with coffee and hot cocoa at Mouse’s Chocolates and Coffee — the sweet shop is owned and run by a family of chocolatiers who make truffles, toffees, fudge and scrap cookies completely by hand and roast coffee on-site.
Get a glimpse into Ouray’s fascinating history the Ouray County Historical Museum, housed in the original St. Joseph’s Miners’ Hospital built in the 1880s, where 30 themed rooms display an incredible collection of the town’s mining, ranching, Native American and geological artifacts. It was inside the “Best Little Museum in the West” where we discovered that Ouray was named after the well-respected and highly-regarded Ute Indian Chief Ouray and that mining formed the backbone of Ouray County’s economy for a century with more than 175 mines in operation.
If you go: ouraycolorado.com