With its rugged surroundings in a canyon at the base of the San Juan Mountains, Ouray is called “the Switzerland of America.” The town has had the nickname since the late 1800s. Its downtown has been designated as a National Historical District. It’s where natural wonders like sulfur-free hot springs blend with the historic mining days of the Old West. Ouray is a Colorado town I’ve been wanting to spend more time in and when friends from Texas planned a road trip there, I decided to do one from Denver to meet them. I had only been in Ouray once before when I explored the Box Cañon Falls Park and its thunderous 85-foot waterfall several years ago. It was time to go back, and time for me to stay in my first hotel since early March.
After my six-hour drive from Denver, I checked into Ouray Chalet Inn. Here’s why I decided to stay there: affordable, 1960s motel-like with outside entry to all rooms, and location in the heart of downtown. Plus, it’s a family-owned-and-operated motel. I quickly got settled and headed off to walk to Goldbelt Bar and Grill to meet my friends for dinner out on the patio. I was so excited to see my friends and so hungry I completely spaced on taking a picture of my veggie pizza. It was delicious! I did swing by the next morning to snap a pic of the patio though.
I got up early to take an exploratory walk up and down the historic streets
admiring the beautifully preserved Victorian-era architecture as the morning sunlight was beginning to spread over the canyon. When I checked into Ouray Chalet Inn, I grabbed the Historic Ouray Walking Tour pamphlet and let that be my guide for my walk. Many of the buildings date back to the early 1900s and even the late 1800s. The Ouray County Courthouse was built in 1888. The Elk Roaming House (Elk Lodge) dates back to 1904. Wrights Hall/Wright Opera House dates back to 1886 and the Beaumont Hotel dates back to 1886. Those are just a few of the historic buildings in Ouray.
A neat thing Ouray has done is put signs in the middle of the historic blocks of Main Street. Each shows what it looked like across the street around 1886 and 1906. It’s interesting to see how the town changed during the mining and railroad days.
During my walk I noticed a cute coffee shop on one of the side streets. I may my way back to Mojo’s Coffee. Right after I ordered from the Dutch door because of COVID-19, I noticed the building dates back to 1882. As I waited for my almond milk latte, I chatted with the owner and found out she had just opened in January. The service is great, and my latte was wonderful. Only wish I would have had time to sit in the red rocking chair or at the yellow bistro seat and relax. Instead, I sipped my latte walking back to my hotel to quickly pack up for the day.
I met my friends at San Juan Mountain Guides at 8:30 a.m. Sarah and Chris are climbers, so are their two daughters, 13-year-old Aria and 10-year-old Caroline. I was the only one who needed to rent gear. San Juan Mountain Guides offers guided tours of the Ouray Via Ferrata with standard departure times of 7:30, 8:30 and 10:00 a.m. You don’t need rock climbing shoes, but good grippy hiking shoes or trail running shoes are beneficial to have. You do need a via ferrata climbing set of helmet, harness and lanyard. I don’t have any of that, so I rented a set for $35 from San Juan Mountain Guides. I also bought a pair of climbing gloves for $3. They were worth every cent! With Sarah and Chris being experienced climbers and since the four of them had done the via ferrata earlier in the week, we went unguided. There is no fee to do the Ouray Via Ferrata.
I have a huge fear of heights, but I try to challenge my fear in hopes one day I’ll get over it. With the Thomas family rooting…and egging….me on, I geared up and off we went on the approximately 1.25km route. It takes about 2.5-3 hours to do it, including the short hike to the start. I only had one giant meltdown on the course. The funny part was that it wasn’t even in one of the hardest sections. My favorite parts of the via ferrata were the tight rope across the river and the Skyladder near the end. It’s 300 meters of up and down climbing on steel rungs, foot pedals or natural rock holds along with traverse the canyon holding on to cables either walking, scrambling or climbing along the course. There is a bail-out point about 60% or 70% of the way through the route. I actually thought the emergency exit looked harder than what I could see on the course. Plus, I was determined to climb the suspension ladder over the river.
To get me through the last tough stretch of the Ouray Via Ferrata, Carolina enticed me with lemonade and ice cream to celebrate conquering my fears. The scoops of huckleberry and peanut butter cup ice cream with a lemonade at Mouse’s Chocolates and Coffee was the perfect celebratory lunch for finishing the Ouray Via Ferrata. Yes, I was the only one to get a cup instead of cone! Before hitting the road for our next adventure in Telluride, we got to check out one more of the historic signs and imagine what life was like in Ouray in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I left Ouray with a giant sweet smile on my face and already looking forward to my next visit to this unique small town in southwest Colorado to hike the Perimeter Trail, go 4-wheeling on Black Bear Pass, soak in the hot springs and explore the ghost towns in the area.
Author Jennifer Broome has traveled extensively across Colorado filming for her series “Explore Colorado” and writing for AAA Colorado EnCompass. She loves exploring the small towns in the state. Check out the Explore Colorado section for more ideas of what to do in Colorado.