Ouray: Mountains, valleys, hotsprings and chocolate, this mountain town is quintessential Colorado

Looking south at 12,801-foot Mt. Abrams from the Ouray Perimeter Trail. The Ouray Hotsprings, lower right, are the perfect aprés trail activity.Brandon Mathis

Photos by Brandon Mathis

The gateway to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, Ouray is a mining town turned slice of paradise. Crested with a ring of jagged peaks and nestled in the first relatively flat ground north of the San Juans, it sits on the rim of the Uncompahgre Gorge. Guarded by Red Mountain Pass to the south,  it is perhaps on of the most scenic cities in America, and also one of the most rugged.

Red Mountain Pass, Ouray, Colorado.
In Ouray, the roads are as winding as the trails are. Red Mountain Pass.Brandon Mathis

“It’s right in the heart of the mountains,”  said Bill Leo, owner of Ouray Mountain Sports. “They call it “Switzerland of America” for a reason. The hiking is world class, the climbing is world class, and in terms of in-your-face beauty, it’s paradise.”

While Ouray is world renowned for its ice climbing, after 22 years of running the town’s only outdoor gear shop, Leo has seen a interest grow in other outdoor pursuits. And it’s all about the trails.

In recent years Ouray has seen an influx of  hikers and trail runners, especially with the development of trails like the 5-mile Perimeter Trail built by the Ouray Trail Group that circumnavigates town.  Leo said with popularity of off-road events like the Imogene Pass Run and the Ouray Mountain Trail Run, plus an endless selection of backcountry trails easily accessible from town that lead into the alpine, it’s safe to officially call Ouray a trail destination.

“The terrain is super steep round here. ” Leo said.  “It’s a good place to train. That’s drawn a lot of people. You can get to a whole lot of trail heads without even having to drive anywhere, and a lot is accessed off of the Perimeter Trail.

Just one look in any direction into the mountains jutting from the streets of this postcard town and it’s easy to imagine trails meandering their way up and into the wild. And they do, everywhere you look. And if you’re short on time, the Perimeter Trail is an incredible dose of what this town has to offer.

Ouray under the skyline of the gray Amphitheater Wall, a 3,000-foot vertical face that stands watch over town.Brandon Mathis

The Perimeter Trail:

Park at the Visitors Center on the North Side of Ouray (same location as the Ouray Hot Springs) cross the highway heading east and follow the easy to spot signs for the Perimeter Trail.

Ouray’s Perimeter Trail is an engaging afternoon hike or short and punchy trail run with 1,600 feet of elevation gain.  At five miles in length, there are plans to complete the full loop for a final length of six miles. Despite is short and in-town nature, there are numerous climbs, descents and creek crossings, and many sections have exciting exposure.

Crossing the footbridge at Box Can Canyon Falls on the Ouray Perimeter Trail.Brandon Mathis

The trail takes users up and into the hills and along cliff edges surrounding town, with close encounters with towering Cascade Falls and the Baby Bathtubs of Portland creek: (a series of  small natural swimming holes.) You’ll get views of Mt Abrams, U.S. Mountain, Whitehouse Mountain and Twin Peaks along the way before it dives back across the highway into a forest, then gaining the rim of the Ouray Ice Park. Eventually the trail leads across a stunning and high footbridge and through a mining tunnel at Box Canyon Falls where a detour could be in order ( $5 to get access to Box Canyon and well worth the trip) . The trail continues  to wind up and down through steep terrain, slowly descending back into residential Ouray at Oak Street. Wander through town and get a scrap Cookie at Mouse’s Chocolate.

Steps like these built by the Ouray Trail Group help not only with sure footing in steep terrain but with erosion and sustainability.Brandon Mathis