Surrounded by snow-capped peaks and well-preserved Victorian buildings, Ouray, Colorado, is one of the most picturesque small towns in the state. Without ski slopes to make it a renowned ski resort, it maintains its old-world charm. This doesn’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 a Wild West setting.
Things To Do In Ouray
1. Take A Walk Down The Historic Main Street
Original Victorian buildings line Ouray’s Main Street, registered as a National Historic District. Home to 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Stroll By The River
After a soak in the Ouray Hot Springs 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. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. Visit Box Cañon Falls
You can’t leave Ouray without a visit to Box Cañon Falls, one of the town’s most famous tourist destinations. A developed attraction, the 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.
9. Drive The Million Dollar Highway
Nestled in southwest Colorado, 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.
10. Watch Ice Climbers At The Annual Ouray Ice Festival
Each January, Ouray hosts the Ouray Ice Festival at Ouray Ice Park. Featuring exhibition climbing, free clinics, and gear demos, this weekend-long ice climbing extravaganza is one of the mountain town’s most popular winter events.
Located within walking distance of downtown Ouray, the expansive, man-made ice climbing park features over 100 ice climbs that attract climbers from around the world. The winter park is free to use and open to the public from mid-December to late March for icy climbing and snowy views. Want to learn how to ice climb? Several local guide services offer lessons and gear rental.
11. Go Off-Roading On The Alpine Loop
Home to the Alpine Loop 4×4 trail, Ouray also attracts Jeepers and ATV enthusiasts. This moderately challenging route is popular for off-roading and scenic driving. According to The Colorado Directory, Inc., “The four-wheeling roads often follow sheer drops and cut into cliffs, and the scenery is some of the best. The Alpine Loop covers 65 miles of roads between the towns of Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton. Depending on winter snows, the Loop opens in late May or early June and closes in late October.”
It takes a day or two to cover all the byway has to offer on either an ATV or four-wheel drive vehicle. If you don’t want to spend that much time or don’t want to do any backcountry driving yourself, private Jeep tours are available.
12. Mountain Biking
Bikers of all levels can find a fun and challenging single-track mountain biking trail within the Ridgway Area Trail system, which offers easy access from Ouray and nearby Ridgway. In addition to biking, Ridgway is rife with recreational opportunities such as hiking, four-wheeling, boating, fishing, swimming, rafting, cross-country skiing, and hot air balloon rides.
13. Nordic Skiing
Cross-country skiers should check out Ironton Park Cross-Country Ski Area, just 7 miles south of Ouray. Ski 1 mile to check out the abandoned ghost town of Ironton, then head east toward Red Mountain.
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 tasty and 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.
Goldbelt Bar and Grill
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 sandwich. 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 on Main Street. Pair your meal with one of the award-winning craft beers while enjoying the scenery on the rooftop. Located just a couple of blocks down the road, Red Mountain Brewing is another local favorite.
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.
1. Ouray Bookshop
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.
2. Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee
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 hot springs resorts, hotels, and budget motels to bed-and-breakfast accommodations, cabins, condos, and rental homes. Campgrounds and RV parks are also available.
1. Box Canyon Lodge
For a luxury stay and access to mineral hot springs, try the Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs. Their outdoor hot springs are only available to guests and offer gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.
2. St. Elmo Hotel
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.
3. Hotel Ouray
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 Vrbo.