If you’re after an action-packed adventure trip, head to Ouray, Colorado. Sitting at the edge of the Rocky Mountains, it is where the tourist hustle ends and real exploration begins. Be sure to add these top spots to your itinerary!
Ouray is a mountain lover’s paradise. Stationed in a steeply-walled canyon in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado, its natural beauty is only outshined by its potential for adventure.
Like the mountains that surround it, Ouray has many moods. Whether you like your mountains covered in snow and ice, or drenched in sunshine, you’ll find plenty to do here.
In the summer, hikers and 4×4 enthusiasts will have more trails to tackle than you could shake a stick at. And when the cold season rolls around, Ouray becomes a veritable mecca for ice climbing enthusiasts.
If you’re planning a trip to Ouray, we made this travel guide for you. It lays out all the finer points of a successful adventure into The Rockies. And if you’re not planning a trip to Ouray, there’s just one question: why not?
Aesthetically, Ouray is still an 1800s mining town. But today, its identity centers around adventure sports— especially ice climbing. In fact, Ouray probably has the densest, most easily accessible cluster of ice routes on earth.
This is mostly due to the Ouray Ice Park, a two-mile public stretch of Uncompahgre Gorge that fills with ice in the winter, creating hundreds of ice climbing routes. While the underlying features are all natural, the ice is manmade. The city pipes water in from upriver to produce unbelievable icefalls.
If you have even a passing interest in ice climbing or competitive climbing, visiting the Ice Festival as a spectator is well worth it. And if you’re interested in competing, even better! The competition is open to the public and features a cash prize in two categories: elite mixed climbing and speed climbing.
Winter isn’t the only time to visit Ouray, though. During the summer, the Ice Park takes on a totally different look. And luckily for non-ice climbers, it’s much more accessible.
With a little gear and know-how (or a guide), you can explore the Ouray Via Ferrata, one of very few “iron ways” in the US. If you’re unfamiliar, via ferrata is a method of traversing canyons using metal cables and steps for support.
Good To Know: A via ferrata is a climbing route in the mountains that employs steel cables, rungs, or ladders, fixed to the rock to which the climbers affix a harness with two leashes, which allows the climbers to secure themselves to the metal fixture and limit any fall.
This kind of technical canyoneering is very popular in Europe, and it’s easy to see why. Suspended above a raging river, halfway down a maze-like canyon, you’ll get views that would be impossible otherwise.
And it’s not all about the Ice Park, either. During the warm months, a huge contingent of off road enthusiasts and motorheads rolls through Ouray in Jeeps and dirt bikes to take on some of the wildest 4×4 trails in the Rockies.
Because the surrounding National Forest isn’t a wilderness area, motor vehicles are allowed into the high country. And believe me, these trails are high. The highest of the nearby trails tops out over 13,000 feet.
As I mentioned, there are only a handful of places to eat in Ouray. But what it lacks in variety, the town makes up for in quality. There aren’t a lot of bad choices to go around for food.
If you’re on a tight budget and sick of eating hot dogs cooked and eaten on sticks over a campfire, head to The Gold Bar. They have a wide selection of American food and surprisingly cheap pizza (split between two people).
Right across the street, you can find the Timberline Deli. This is a good choice for baked goods (including fresh made donuts), sandwiches, and ice cream.
Artisan Bakery is my favorite spot for a cup of coffee in Ouray. They make a solid cup o’ joe and have great croissants. Right next door, The Yankee Girl has solid menus for breakfast and lunch, and cozy outdoor seating.
If you’re after something more high-end, check out Bon Ton Italian kitchen for authentic old world fare. Outlaw steakhouse is one of the best grills in the San Juans, with steaks and wagyu burgers in an upscale atmosphere.
But when you get to be a bit parched, you’ll inevitably gravitate to Ouray Brewery. The food here (standard pub fare) is good, and moderately priced. But the beer is a cut above. I’m particularly fond of the Honey Rye and Summer Saison.
If the brewery is packed, head next door to the Silver Eagle Saloon, or just a little further down the road to The Gray Tavern.
Where you sleep in Ouray will probably depend on when you go. During the summer, there are a ton of cheap campgrounds nearby. This makes it easy to spend as much time as you like on a budget.
In the winter, however, being in a tiny mountain town works against you. There’s a lot of accommodation in town, even for how small it is, but things can get pricey.
Here are a few recommendations to get you going while you plan.
Camping Near Ouray
Ouray has some of the most convenient camping options of any adventure town I’ve ever been to. There are campgrounds within five minutes of Main Street. You could probably even walk to town from your tent.
The most convenient of these is Amphitheater Campground. The drive up is paved, and it has both first come first served and reservation sites in the high season.
It’s situated right above town, and there are a few trailheads within walking distance. Amphitheater is also both the busiest and most expensive of the options around town. Sites go for around $30 per night.
If Amphitheater is busy (or you just want some more privacy), head up the Camp Bird Road (FR 361). There are two campgrounds this way: Angel Creek and Thistledown.
Both options are first come, first served, with sites for $10/night. Overall, I think Angel Creek is the winner. It’s still a very pretty place to camp, and you’ve got a solid chance of actually getting a spot in the summer.
View more options for roughing it around Moab on The Dyrt PRO. The Dyrt PRO – The Largest campground search platform with the most campground reviews and tips written. Now accessible offline for finding camping on the road.
Best Accommodations in Ouray
Most Vrbos in Ouray range from $200-$400 in the summer. Prices jump significantly in the winter though — to the $350-$550 range.
Hotels in the Ouray area are slightly cheaper on average, starting around $200 per night, up to over $300.
Timber Ridge Lodge is normally on the affordable side. It offers your standard spread of amenities on the north side of town.
The Twin Peaks Lodge and Hot Springs has a rustic charm, plus (you guessed it) a hot spring for guests to use. The location is also fantastic, the hotel sits right below the Ouray Ice Park.
Here are a few of our favorites.
On the lower end of the price scale, you’ll start with studio suites. This is a solid option if you’re a couple and will be staying for more than a night or two. Here’s one example of a historic studio suite with a fabulous Main Street location.
As you move into the more spendy options, you’ll see a lot of very nice homes and cabins. If you like spending your travel time in luxury, it’s hard to beat having an entire lodge to yourself. A lot of the options you’ll see have hot tubs and other bonuses.
Plus, it almost goes without saying that the views will be spectacular. Take a break from the city and stay at this up-to-date mountain retreat featuring three bedrooms, a bar, garage, and an opulent outdoor patio for just $400 per night.
On the high end of the scale, here’s cabin in the center of the San Juan Mountains for about $900 per night.
Red Mountain Alpine Lodge
The Red Mountain Alpine Lodge is a brand new, beautiful custom timber frame lodge located at 11,000′ on Red Mountain Pass. Red Mountain Pass is at the San Juan Mountains’ center – Colorado’s most inspiring and diverse mountain range. From one-of-a-kind alpenglow sunsets and alpine wildflowers to the unmatched fall colors and exclusive access to unmatched terrain, red mountain alpine lodge is the ideal all-season escape.
Tucked away in the forest, this European-style lodge offers memory foam mattresses and a talented live-in chef. “His lasagna is incredible,” says Andrea Vaughan Iuppenlatz, one of the owners.
Aside from the three private rooms, an upstairs loft boasts sleeping accommodations for up to 11 individuals. The living room is situated downstairs and utilizes glass windows to create a spacious ambience that feels like you are outdoors. Additionally, there’s a generous 500-square-foot deck with a custom-built fire pit where you can enjoy après-ski meals of charcuterie and fondue in a warm, cozy atmosphere. As Iuppenlatz explains, “You can gaze upwards and see the ski tracks you made during the day.”
Now, let’s get to the meat of it. People don’t come to Ouray for the outstanding food or to stay in lavish hotels. They come here to get dirty.
Drive the Million Dollar Highway
US Highway 550, or the Million Dollar Highway, is a winding stretch of road that runs from New Mexico to Colorado. It was created in the late 1880s and specially included in the San Juan Skyway, one of the most picturesque drives in the US. This section passes through small towns and abandoned Victorian age mining towns between Ouray and Silverton and often reaches heights of two miles above sea level. Many people consider the Million Dollar Highway to be the crown jewel of the San Juan Skyway, since it runs through some of the country’s oldest gold-mining sites.
Ouray is the biggest ice climbing destination in the United States, without question. In fact, it’s probably the biggest single ice climbing destination in the world. The density of routes, the ease of access, and the spectacular quality of the ice all make it a bucket list item for ice climbers.
And there’s no shortage of good rock around, either. In short, if you climb both rock and ice, there is no bad time to visit Ouray.
When the ice is in, you’ve got some of the best ice on earth at your disposal. And every other time of the year, the sport crags of the San Juans provide. Different conditions, kinds of rock, and grades (up to .13d) serve up different experiences for climbers of all tastes.
The Ouray Ice Park is a man-made ice climbing park created near the City of Ouray, and is free to the public. It spans over two miles along the Uncompahgre Gorge, and hosts more than one hundred and fifty different named climbs for both ice and mixed purposes. This remarkable area can be visited by foot from the city.
In The Ice Park
So what’s the deal with this ice park, anyway?
The Ouray Ice Park pumps liquid water around the upper perimeter of a narrow river canyon to produce huge ice that isn’t dependent on flow. Is it a little less rugged than hunting ephemeral water ice in the alpine? Yes. Is it the most dependable way to practice the craft of ice climbing in a gorgeous environment? Even more so, yes.
Before hopping on Mountain Project to hunt routes, it’s helpful to see the overview map of where the walls sit. As you can see, the area isn’t huge, but it contains hundreds of routes, with even more variations.
It would be impossible to cover every route, or even every wall within the park. What I’ll do, instead, is talk about how to access the routes, and highlight a few local favorites.
Both the upper and lower trails up the gorge can be accessed from the park entrance at the corner of 3rd Ave and Oak Street in Ouray. If you’re headed to the School Room, New Funtier, or South Park areas, you can also park along Box Canyon Road and hike southeast up the trail from there.
The lower trail runs as far as Scottish Gullies, and then peters out. The upper walls all have walk-down trails with handlines, but to get there, you’ll need to walk the upper Ice Park Trail.
Now, as far as where to begin. If you’re a newcomer to the area and looking for something less intense, check out South Park and New Funtier. Both these walls have a ton of ice routes of low to moderate difficulty, as well as some mixed routes.
If you’re a newcomer to ice climbing in general, though, you’ll probably start in the aptly-named Schoolroom. A lot of guides and teachers show newbies the basics here.
Pic of the Vic and The Alcoves are both full of water ice routes around 100’ or so with sustained vertical. There are a lot of popular routes here, including Pic o’ the Vic, a solid 150’ WI4. It will make you wish you were watching from the upper bridge.
Further down the river, Scottish Gullies and Five Fingers are both full of intermediate and advanced climbs. The routes on Scottish Gullies are shorter and less steep. Those on Five Fingers regularly range over 100’ and range from WI3-6. There are also some mixed routes in between the water ice here.
As you might imagine, the locals don’t usually climb in the ice park. If you’re after something more “natural,” (read as “taller, more adventurous, and harder to get to”), the Camp Bird Road is your bag.
Routes in this area are much, much bigger. Some of the routes in the Ribbon Area and Sneffels Canyon approach 1,000’ in total. There is also a lot more mixed climbing here. Be prepared with a full rack to protect whatever comes at you. In comparison to the Camp Bird Road, the Ice Park is just a training gym.
As I mentioned, there is a ton of sport climbing in the Ouray area. There are five or six sport crags within ten minutes of town, and even more up HWY 550.
The Alcove and Pool Wall are both very busy, attracting a lot of families and large groups. That said, they’re easily accessible and usually have a good vibe going. Overlook Cliff and Jimmy Cliff are both harder to get to, with a steep approach that keeps less adventurous types away.
In general, the rock is of variable quality, although the climbing is always interesting. Most of the cliffs near Ouray are either sandstone or limestone. The difficulty averages around 5.11, with some spicier and more “palatable” routes here and there.
One of the coolest things about Ouray is the network of trails that surrounds it. Getting to the main attractions around the city is a breeze, and you can even walk to a lot of major attractions.
The Ouray Perimeter Trail links the rest of them together. A lot of the other hikes in the area link up with the Perimeter for short sections. The trail is well-marked, with lots of signs and maps at the junctions with other trails.
If you have 20 minutes to kill, don’t miss Lower Cascade Falls. The waterfall, which you can see from everywhere around Ouray, is spectacular up close.
Another short but sweet no-brainer is Lower and Upper Box Canyon Falls. This trail runs along a steel walkway through a deep, dark, winding slot canyon. Below you, the river rages over, through, around, and over smooth slabs of rock. There are tunnels and sections where the walkway overhangs the river.
Even if it doesn’t involve a massive hike in, it feels like a proper adventure. The only downside is that this trail is private, and there is an admission fee. Adults are $7.
Just a little longer, but still very rewarding is the Ice Park Perimeter Loop trail. Along the way, there are several overlooks and spots to clamber down to the creek.
For many, though, the main event is Imogene Pass. Done in a day, this beastly trek covers 17.5 miles and 4,700 feet of elevation, topping out around 13,190’.
The route links Ouray to Telluride via a high pass, so be prepared to shuttle or stay in Telluride if you start in Ouray. If you’re fond of high points, both Chicago Peak and Telluride Peak are a short distance from the high point at the pass.
If you’re heading out for some hiking in the nearby San Juan Mountains, see our guide to the best trails in Colorado for a few of our favorites, including Ice Lake Basin, Columbine Lake, Engineer Mountain, Courthouse Mountain, and Uncompahgre Peak. Coloradans often wax poetic about the San Juan Mountains and it’s easy to see why.
Ouray Via Ferrata
Not quite hiking, not quite canyoneering, not quite climbing, the hands-on adventure of exploring a via ferrata (“iron path”) is unique. If you’re unfamiliar with how it works, the basic idea is this. You’re suspended from a metal cable, walking along rebar steps, hundreds of feet up a vertical cliff.
Via ferratas are most popular in the Alps. The stout protection provided by the cables and steps opens up technical terrain to people without the skills to get there with traditional climbing gear. You don’t commonly see via ferratas in the US, and Ouray is a rare exception.
The Ouray Via Ferrata zigzags across the east side of the Ouray Ice Park. If you’ve never had the chance to get deep into the mountains or go mountaineering, I highly recommend it.
There are several guiding services in Ouray that will rent you gear, teach you the basics, and lead you through the stone labyrinth.
Ouray also has some pretty spectacular multi-day hikes in the area. In most cases, water is plentiful and the trails, though steep, are well worth the effort. Most of the Forest Service land in the area isn’t wilderness, so dispersed camping is allowed. Just don’t create any new fire rings and pack your trash/waste out.
For starters, you might consider doing Imogene Pass as an overnight. It’s long enough and covers enough vertical that many hikers will want to split it into two days.
Another overnight option is to head up Engineer Pass to the summit of Engineer Mountain. The upper basin is idyllic and mostly private, and the mileage isn’t too daunting.
If you wanted to tack on more time, you could follow the Corkscrew Gulch/California Gulch OHV Trail, which starts on US 550 and ends in Silverton. This variation is just over 24 miles and gains around 4,500 ft of vertical in total.
Offroading, 4×4, and OHV Trails
The hills surrounding Ouray are full of challenging, scenic, and very, very high off road trails. In town, you’ll see everything from lifted Jeeps and Land Cruisers to dirt bikes to OHVs. Many people will rent while in town, others bring their rigs from far and wide to take on the Rockies. The first thing you’ll need for planning your trip is a map of the area.
For beginners, I recommend doing something like Last Dollar Road or Ophir Pass. Ophir Pass is especially scenic, taking you through an old mining town and a lot of high country.
Intermediates looking to gain some skills with technical offroading could look at linking the beginning of Engineer Pass to Silverton, taking a right before Mineral Point and Poughkeepsie Gulch. Another option would be to head up Corkscrew Gulch from US 550 and stay right, heading down to Silverton.
Experts have the lion’s share of options, though. Most 4×4 enthusiasts come to Ouray to explore the Mt. Sneffels area, including Imogene Pass, Governor Basin, and Yankee Boy Basin. These trails are all both difficult and demanding for your vehicle. High clearance alone will not cut it.
If you want a longer day, you could also head up Engineer Pass to Mineral Point and continue on to Lake City. This route passes through a lot of old mining towns and spectacular mountain country. The same trail can be linked to Silverton by heading south, cutting down on your overall drive time.
In stark contrast to many other mountain towns in the US, Ouray is not a bought-and-sold property of the Vail Corporation. There is no major ski resort in the area (excluding Telluride.
But if you show up in the winter and happen to have your skis, and just need to get some turns in, there are still options. Ouray holds one of the country’s only free rope tows: Lee’s Ski Hill. The hill is right in town and covers a modest little hill that’s sufficient for a few turns.
If you want to go big, though, you’ll need to head into the backcountry. The safest way to do this, as a first-timer in the area, is to head up with a guide. And for seasoned veterans, here are a few ideas to get you planning a backcountry mission.