Surrounded by snow-capped peaks, and with well-preserved Victorian buildings, Ouray is one of the most picturesque small towns in Colorado. Without ski slopes to make it a renowned ski resort, it kept its old-world charm. This didn’t translate into a lack of tourism, though. Called the Switzerland of America, and the official outdoor recreation capital of Colorado, Ouray is still a popular destination.
Famous for its year-round hot springs and ice climbing in the winter, the town has more to offer. You’ll find hiking trails for all abilities, river walks, mine tours with panning for gold, shopping, and dining opportunities in an old Wild West setting.
Things To Do In Ouray
Take A Walk Down The Historic Main Street
Original Victorian buildings line Ouray’s Main Street, registered as a National Historic District. Housing a few hotels, private residences, the county courthouse, and the city hall, the well-kept street might make you feel like you’ve traveled back to the late 19th century.
Enjoy a leisurely walk surrounded by the gorgeous mountains. Or take a guided walking tour offered by the Ouray County Historical Society. Contact them at the Ouray County Museum, located in a historic building that once housed the Saint Joseph’s Miner’s Hospital. While there, take a tour of the museum for a more in-depth look at the town’s history.
Learn About Ouray’s Mining Background
Ouray was originally a mining town, and if you walk to the Miner’s Heritage Park, you’ll see some old mining equipment displayed outdoors. But for a real understanding of the town’s mining background, take the Bachelor Syracuse Mine Tour of the richest gold mine in the area, in operation from the late 1800s to the 1920s. Besides going underground in a tunnel through Gold Mountain, you can pan for gold in a stream.
Visit The Ouray Alchemist Museum
One of the top attractions in town, the Ouray Alchemist Museum offers a guided tour through the history of pharmacy in the Wild West, including artifacts dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, and some as far back as 350 B.C. You need to book a tour, but the owners will personalize it according to your interests.
The storefront of the museum is also a gift shop offering antiques, jewelry, art, collectibles, T-shirts, and other unique finds -- and, naturally, a pharmacy.
Soak In A Hot Spring
A weekend in Ouray would not be complete without experiencing the famous hot springs. Lacking the powerful sulfur odor you encounter at most hot springs, they are the number-one tourist attraction in town.
The largest and most popular hot springs pool in town, the Ouray Hot Springs, is on Main Street. In operation since 1927, and renovated in recent years, it is open year-round. It features a few adults-only soaking pools with water temperatures ranging from 75 to 106 degrees, waterfalls, lap lanes, and a climbing and diving platform.
Stroll By The River
After a soak in the pool, you can take a walk along the river, with a trail starting at the pool parking lot. The Uncompahgre River Walk Loop is a packed-gravel, wheelchair-accessible 2-mile loop. Besides the river, it also offers views of Gold Hill, with old mine buildings and waterfalls. You’ll also find benches and fitness stations.
Pro Tip: Try this trail first, while you are still getting used to the elevation.
Head Up To Cascade Falls
If you look up the mountain, you can see Cascade Falls, visible from almost any part of town. You can hike up to it on a short but steep trail through a gorgeous wooded area. Just drive up to the end of 8th Avenue, walk up the steps, and follow the trail. Look out through the trees for a picturesque view of the town, and then spend some time at the waterfalls.
Pro Tip: Though short, the trail is steep, and if you are not used to the elevation, you might have trouble with it. Hike this trail after you get acclimated to the elevation, and you’ll find it easier.
Hike The Ouray Perimeter Trail
The 6-mile-long Ouray Perimeter Trail is a must-hike trail. As its name suggests, it circles the town, offering a unique experience through varied terrain and gorgeous scenery.
However, at an altitude of around 8,000 feet, it is steep in some parts and not an easy trail to hike. Take it slow and hike only parts of it at a time.
Since it intersects the Cascades Falls Trail, you can take a brief side trip on it from there. Or take it from the trailhead at the Ouray Visitor Center or from a few other access points around town.
Visit The Box Canyon Falls
You can’t leave Ouray without a visit to the Box Canyon Falls, one of the town’s most famous tourist destinations. A developed attraction, Box Canyon Falls Park showcases an 85-foot-tall waterfall in a narrow canyon, surrounded by towering rocks. You can access the falls both from above and below. Stop at the visitor center to learn about the geology, history, flora, and fauna of the region, and then hike one of the interpretive trails.
To get there, follow the road out of town for half a mile, and then turn onto Box Canyon Road. You’ll reach the visitor center in about half a mile. You can also access it from town, from the west end of 3rd Street.
Drive The Million Dollar Highway
Ouray marks the starting (or ending) point of the dramatic Million Dollar Highway through the San Juan Mountains. This stretch of road is especially beautiful in the fall, with the surrounding mountaintops showcasing their brightest colors.
Just out of town, stop at Bear Creek Falls for a stunning view of the falls rushing under the highway.
If you’re visiting in autumn, stop in Ironton and take a walk through a dense aspen colony with gorgeous golden hues.
On your way to Durango, visit Silverton and enjoy a break at another quaint historic mining town.
Best Restaurants In Ouray
For such a small town, Ouray has a wide variety of restaurant choices. From informal get-a-meal-and-go places to gourmet restaurants, you’ll find something local here. No matter your taste and budget, you won’t go hungry.
Stop at the Artisan Bakery for breakfast and enjoy their fresh-baked croissants, bread varieties, or full sandwiches.
For an informal lunch, you can’t go wrong with the Goldbelt Bar and Grill. Try a slice of their homemade pizza with the topping of your choice, or their famous burger or pulled-pork sandwiches. They also have vegetarian and gluten-free choices.
If you only have time for one dinner in town, try Brickhouse 737, a contemporary restaurant focused on sustainability that uses local, farm-fresh ingredients for all dishes. You’ll find unique, creative starters and main dishes like wild mushroom bisque and miso-glazed Japanese eggplant, but there’s also traditional fare like steak and fries. Brickhouse also supports the local art scene, showcasing local artwork for sale.
If you prefer traditional American pub food, dine at the Ouray Brewery and pair your meal with one of the award-winning craft beers while enjoying the scenery on the rooftop.
Where To Shop In Ouray
Ouray is home to artists and artisans, craftsmen, photographers, silversmiths, and woodworkers, all creating works of art inspired by the gorgeous surroundings.
Wildflower Boutique/Made in Colorado offers unique clothing, accessories, bath and body products, candles, soaps, and other locally made gifts.
A rustic Southwestern retail store, the Rockin P Ranch offers unique gift items from clothing and jewelry to furniture.
If you are anything like me, you’ll look for a bookstore in every town you visit. You don’t need to go far to find one here. The Ouray Bookshop welcomes visitors on Main Street.
You can’t leave Ouray without some handmade chocolate and freshly roasted coffee. You’ll find decadent chocolate products -- from truffles to clusters, barks, and fudge -- at Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee. Or stop by for a taste of coffee, hot chocolate, a smoothie, or ice cream.
Best Places To Stay In Ouray
Ouray has become very popular in the past few years, and, although it has no shortage of lodging opportunities, they might all fill up, especially during the summer months, so try to book at least a few weeks ahead. You’ll find a wide range of possibilities, from resorts featuring hot springs, hotels, and budget motels to bed-and-breakfast accommodations, cabins, condos, and rental homes. Campgrounds and RV parks are also available.
For a luxury stay and access to mineral hot springs, try the Box Canyon Lodge. Their outdoor hot springs are only available to guests and offer gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.
Book a unit at the historic St. Elmo Hotel, established in 1898, if you want to feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The luxury rooms might look like they belong in Victorian times, with their antique furniture and decorations, but they offer all the modern amenities of the 21st century.
Choose Hotel Ouray for a budget-friendly option in a restored historic hotel. It’s located on the second story of a historic building, so you’ll need to walk up a flight of stairs to get to your room.
If you prefer your own place, rent an apartment in the historic district, along the river, or on the outskirts of town through Airbnb.
Pro Tip: Even though it’s in a valley, Ouray is at an elevation of almost 8,000 feet, and you might experience altitude sickness, especially if you try to take a strenuous hike in the surrounding mountains. If you are prone to altitude sickness, take it slow and give yourself time to adjust to the environment before hitting the trail.