The thing to do in Ouray, it seems, is to turn a slow circle. The view in this direction? A gorgeous mountain vista. The view in that direction? The pristine, snow-capped San Juans in breathtaking panorama.
Visitors come for the mountain vistas, yes, but stay for the hot springs, hiking, concerts and cuisine. “I think it’s got a good, small-town friendly feeling, and it’s an absolutely gorgeous place,” said Ouray Mayor Pam Larson. “There’s also a lot to do. We’ve got hot springs pool and Box Caon Falls and the perimeter trail, and I do think a lot of people come because it’s really just paradise.”
Named for Ute Chief Ouray, the site of modern-day town of Ouray and the Uncompahgre Valley were home to Ute tribes since about 1300. When white miners and prospectors began arriving in the area, Chief Ouray saw the importance of negotiating treaties rather than going to war.
And the settlers did arrive in earnest, first coming to the area in the early 1860s, then in a big gold and silver rush in 1875. Once the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad built a Ouray branch in 1886, the prosperity of the mines above town only grew. By 1890, Ouray’s population had grown to 2,500.
The crash of silver prices in 1893 was devastating to Ouray, but soon visitors with different dreams began arriving. They looked to the mountains and valleys and saw places to explore and enjoy, places to relax and have grand holiday adventures.
Now, with a population of about 1,000 and a Colorado-proud altitude of 7,792 feet, Ouray is a vacation destination for anyone with a yen to explore and enjoy some of the most spectacular mountains on Earth, as well as appreciate the living history in town itself.
Ouray is a wonder of preserved Victorian architecture and, in fact, its downtown is a National Historic District. Visitors can stroll along Main Street and appreciate not only the architecture, but stop for a gourmet meal or an ice cream on a sunny summer day, head off on a Jeep tour or enjoy the art in a number of galleries.
“It’s great because you can walk everywhere in town,” Larson said. “Almost any of the motels you stay in, you can walk to restaurants, to gift shops, to galleries. It’s really accessible that way. And I think, too, whether you’re single or whether you’re a family, it works. We have things for families to do, we have things that single people also like to do.”
In fact, the “Switzerland of America” has an identity all its own, built on a Ute heritage, sustained by the rough-and-tumble mining history and emerging as a hub of wonderful things to do and see in the mountains.
M U S T - D O ’ S
Use your feet: The hills and mountains around Ouray were made for hiking and boast trails of all skill levels, whether you want an activity for an hour or an all-day hike that climbs thousands of feet into the San Juan Mountains. Check out the Perimeter, Weehawken and Alpine Mine trails, but be sure to check difficulty level and weather before you get going. (ouraytrails.org)
Beware of ghosts: Part of Ouray’s mining lore includes the towns abandoned when it seems the lodes were done yielding. So, call them ghost towns or a walk back in time, but area visitors can see what used to be and decide for themselves if these places are haunted. Among these are:
. Camp Bird Mine, south of Ouray on the wellmaintained, dirt Ouray County Road 361.
. Red Mountain Town off U.S. Highway 550 near the summit of Red Mountain Pass.
. Irontown Townsite, located in the Red Mountain Mining District off U.S. Highway 550.
(ouraycolorado.com/ouray-activities/) Enjoy culture: The Wright Opera House, 472 Main St., a Ouray landmark not just of location and architecture but of culture and civic spirit, hosts concerts, movies and theater throughout the year. (970-325-4399, thewrightoperahouse.
Mine for it: The foundation of Ouray’s history is mining, the ores in the mountains and valleys having drawn miners and prospectors beginning in the mid-19th century. Visitors can tour the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine (970-325-0220, bachelorsyracusemine.com) and the One Hundred Gold Mine, open 10:00 a.m. to 4 p.m.
May 15 to Sept. 30 (970-387-5444, minetour.
“Fall” in love: Among Ouray’s many scenic attractions, Box Caon Falls Park is one of the most visited and enjoyed. Featuring hiking trails, visitor center and vistas galore, Box Caon Falls is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from Mother’s Day weekend through the end of October. The falls are located on U.S. Highway 550, .2 miles south of Ouray. (970-325-7080, cityofouray/ boxcanonfalls)