11 Top-Rated Things to Do in Ouray, CO
Colorado's San Juan Mountains are among the most spectacular in the state. These majestic peaks hold the secrets of Colorado's rich mining past. Tucked behind the misty ridges and stony peaks are miles upon miles of forest, clear rivers, and the historic mining towns-turned-21st-century tourist destinations. One of these is the town of Ouray, one of the hidden jewels of the San Juan Mountains, and one of the best places to visit in Colorado.
Ouray sits within a box canyon, surrounded by some of the tallest peaks in the state. In fact, the entire town is affectionately known as the "Switzerland of America." It will be easy to see why once you look up. On all sides of this 19th-century mining town are the sheer rock faces of towering cliffs and snowcapped peaks.
Settlement came to Ouray in the 1870s, when rich deposits of gold were found in the hills. Today Ouray provides a glimpse into the past, as many of the mining sites and relics are still visible. But Ouray is also very much rooted in the present. A quick stroll down Main Street reveals bustling restaurants, galleries, and boutiques.
Adventure enthusiasts love visiting Ouray for its year-round abundance of things to do. Ouray is a short drive to the ski capital Telluride, but it's also a capital on its own for ice climbing and hot springs. In the summer, the hills come alive with hiking trails and meadows carpeted with wildflowers.
One of the best things to do in Ouray is to drive the historic Million Dollar Highway — one of America's most scenic drives — which connects Ouray to nearby Silverton.
No matter the time of year, Ouray has something truly tremendous to experience. Check out our list of the very best things to do in Ouray.
Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.
1. Visit Box Canyon Waterfall & Park
As you climb out of Ouray along the Million Dollar Highway, you can hear the faint sounds of thousands of gallons of gushing water. You're listening to Box Canyon Falls, one of the main things to see when visiting Ouray.
The rushing falls come from the narrowing of Canyon Creek, which spills literally thousands of gallons of water per minute over the falls and down 85 feet into the box canyon, creating a swirling pool in the shadows of the thick, 100-foot rock walls.
The falls are easily walkable and are a quick stroll from the parking lot. A small visitor's center sits at the entrance, while a very quick dirt path leads to the metal stairs that overlook it, and even get right up close to the falls.
The falls sit right at the entrance to the Million Dollar Highway, so you can catch them either on your way in or out of town.
Address: 30 Box Canyon Road, Ouray, Colorado
2. Hike the Trails
True to its nickname as the "Switzerland of America," you can expect to find nothing but epic mountains and wilderness surrounding Ouray. The San Juan Mountains have some of the best hiking in Colorado, and Ouray is a great spot from which to make your home base.
You can start easy, with something as simple as the Box Canyon Falls trail, or you can really push it to the extreme with something like Mt. Sneffels. This 14,158-foot peak features a seven-mile trail that is one of the most challenging in the region due to its steep incline and potential for falling rocks. In fact, it's often suggested that you wear helmets while on this hike. Once you get to the top, however, the views of the Uncompahgre National Forest are simply astounding.
Other trail options include hiking to Lower, Middle, and Upper Blue Lakes, which is a total of nine miles of pure San Juan alpine glory. Think jewel-toned lakes and snowcapped peaks.
A must is the Perimeter Trail, which is a six-mile loop that goes around the entire town.
3. Explore Downtown Ouray
The charm of downtown Ouray is exactly what travelers are looking for when they seek out remote mountain towns in the Colorado Rockies. A historic Main Street lined with Victorian facades cuts through the valley, surrounded on either end by towering peaks.
Ouray dates back to 1876, and today its small downtown is a prime destination for outdoor outfitting, dining, live music, and shopping. Main Street is actually registered as a National Historic District.
Among the many things to see and do in downtown Ouray, the Ouray Alchemist Museum is a top tourist attraction. It features a comprehensive collection of medical and pharmaceutical products that date back to 350 BCE. Step in past the entrance, built to look like a frontier drug store, and discover the bizarre past of alchemy and pharmaceuticals in western Colorado.
4. Drive to Animas Forks
If you feel like a scenic drive, Ouray has many of them. But if you want to take a scenic drive to the next level, then you'll want to set out on the road to visit Animas Forks. This ghost town is located at 11,200 feet in the San Juan Mountains, about two hours from Ouray.
That may seem like a long way to go just to visit a ghost town, but the drive is all part of the adventure. In fact, it's highly recommended to use a high-clearance 4WD vehicle in order to make it all the way to the town.
Animas Forks was founded in 1873 by prospectors. Three years later, it was humming with activity, with 30 cabins, as well as a hotel, post office, a store, and a population of about 450 people.
To get there today, you can access it via the Alpine Loop, which is an unpaved road that runs for 65 miles from Lake City to Ouray and Silverton. The road is better accessed during the summer months, but a four-wheel drive car is strongly recommended year-round. The best part about visiting is that you can step inside the old buildings and truly get a glimpse of what frontier life was like in the unforgiving mountain conditions.
5. Scale the Ouray Ice Park
While Ouray may not be located directly on the ski slopes, it does offer prime real estate for a few other wintry games. The Ouray Ice Park, for example, is one of the most beloved outdoor adventures, and is one of the best things to do in Ouray.
This man made ice climbing park runs out of the plunging Uncompahgre Gorge just on the outskirts of downtown. Entry to the park is entirely free, and climbers have access to more than 100 different climbs.
Every November, a team of "Ice Farmers" inundate the canyon walls with water, which creates spectacular ice structures that are different every year. The entire park is about a mile, and features 11 different climbing areas and three miles of vertical terrain.
Address: 280 Co Road 361, Ouray, Colorado
Official site: https://ourayicepark.com/
6. Dip in the Hot Springs
Like any good Colorado mountain town, Ouray has mountains, waterfalls, ice parks, and hiking trails. But the historic village takes it one step further with natural mineral hot springs. The natural mineral pools bubble up from the Box Canyon along the Uncompahgre River and range in temperature from 80 to 150 degrees, making them a welcome treat in the frosty winter season.
The native Ute tribe believed the waters to be healing, calling them “Miracle Waters.” Today that tradition continues with an indoor swimming pool and bathhouse on the outskirts of town. The pool and hot springs underwent many versions and iterations over the decades, but today the Ouray Hot Springs Pool remains one of the most popular tourist attractions, and a great place for a soak after a day on the slopes or up on the trails.
Official site: https://ourayhotsprings.com/
7. Take a Mine Tour
The rich gold deposits that are embedded within the San Juan Mountains helped put Ouray on the map. Remnants of the booming mining industry that thrived out of Ouray and other nearby towns can be found scattered all over the mountains and canyons.
One of the best ways to get in touch with this history is to embark on a mine tour. The Bachelor Syracuse Mine Tour, which operates out of Ouray, takes visitors into the depths of an old mine. Much more than a guided history lesson, the mine tour even lets visitors pan for their own gold. And if you find any, it is yours to keep.
For a century, Bachelor Syracuse Mine was one of the most profitable mines in the region, earning its three owners $250,000 each in the first few years. In today's currency that would be more than $4 million per person. As part of the tour, visitors explore the tunnel that was created in the 1920s to access the mine from below. It is called the Syracuse Tunnel, and this is the portion of the mine that is open to the public.
Address: 95 Gold Mountain Trail, Ouray, Colorado
8. Head to Yankee Boy Basin
Tucked in the shadow of the San Juan Mountains within the Uncompahgre National Forest is Yankee Boy Basin. It will be difficult to find a spot more beautiful in the summer in Ouray than the basin, which is carpeted in green and bursting with wildflowers.
In addition to the explosion of color, the basin is also home to plunging waterfalls, alpine scenery, and remnants of the area's mining past, all surrounded by the sheer walls of a steep canyon.
Bear in mind that Yankee Boy Basin is above the timberline, and that the road needed to get here cannot be accessed by low clearance vehicles. This is one of the wilder, more remote sections of mountain that is still accessible by road. This is also where you'll go to reach Mt. Sneffels trailhead to scale the 14,000-foot peak.
Still, for those who are equipped to make the trek, they are rewarded with one of the crown jewels of Ouray.
9. Stop by Telluride
The star of the San Juan Mountains is, without a doubt, the ski town of Telluride. While you may be in the area specifically to visit Ouray, it is absolutely worth the hour-long drive to Telluride to do some sightseeing and see what the fuss is all about.
This world-famous ski town was also once a former mining town, and is surrounded on all sides by towering peaks, and webbed with scenic drives and hiking trails. The best skiing in Colorado can be found on the slopes of Telluride, as well as a plethora of campgrounds and hiking trails for the summer season.
Telluride hosts spectacular annual events, as well, like the Telluride Film Festival. The park in the center of town is known for its live music and festivals, and the historic streets are always brimming with people hopping from restaurant to restaurant, gallery to boutique, and in and out of the charming historic hotels.
10. Brave Black Bear Pass
Colorado was built for adrenaline junkies, but there is adventure, and then there is Black Bear Pass. One of the most challenging drives in the country, Black Bear Pass is a jeep trail that starts at 11,018 feet, at the summit of Red Mountain Pass near Ouray, peaking at nearly 13,000 feet over Telluride.
Not for the faint of heart, and only for experienced drivers with an appropriate 4WD vehicle, the notorious pass descends into a series of hairpin switchbacks, leading past the famous Bridal Veil Falls, which is the highest waterfall in Colorado.
Truth be told, the majority of the road is relatively moderate. But for a mile-long stretch above the falls, the ride is one of the slowest going because of how treacherous it is. Still, it offers some of the most breathtaking and rarely seen scenery in this part of the state and will be one of the more memorable things you do in Ouray.
11. Drive the Million Dollar Highway
For 25 glorious miles, the Million Dollar Highway rises out of Ouray and cuts across treacherous mountain roads to reach the town of Silverton. While it may be one of the most challenging drives in the country, it is certainly one of the most beautiful, as well.
The Million Dollar Highway was built in the 1880s and is today part of the San Juan Skyway, which connects Durango to Ridgway. The section between Silverton and Ouray is called the Million Dollar Highway, climbing up and over Red Mountain Pass.
Keep in mind that summer is the best time to drive the road, when weather is hardly a concern. During colder months, the road can be unpredictable and quite treacherous. But for summer drivers, the rewards far outweigh the risks, especially with unparalleled views of the San Juan Mountains in every direction.