Far below the awe-inspiring wilderness of Colorado's famed Rocky Mountain National Park lies this lesser-known mountain range often referred to as "The Switzerland of America." One breathtaking glance at the San Juan Mountains and their snow-covered peaks and you'll see why. They're simply unbelievable.
There's no better way to soak in the views of some of the most mind-blowing mountains in the world than to hop on a trail and walk right into them.
Lucky for you, there are more than 84 marked trails in and around Ouray, Colorado. Here are three hikes you shouldn't miss.
1. Uncompahgre River Walk Trail
Trailhead location: Join the trail anywhere along the river, or do the full two miles starting at Uncompahgre Street, 0.8 mile north of the Hot Springs Park.
Distance: 2.0 miles
Elevation gain: <200 feet
Perhaps the only "flat" trail in Ouray, the Uncompahgre River Walk offers a stroll-worthy, oh-so-scenic experience that's perfect for a morning jaunt or an after-dinner saunter. The Uncompahgre (pronounced "un-kum-POG-ray"), which cascades out of Box Canyon and into town, is a small-but-mighty river that provides a wonderfully roaring backdrop to the soaring mountains above. The path alongside it is well maintained and can be walked in small sections from almost any spot in town.
To sum up: Always take a little stroll along the river walk. Always. It's Ouray soul therapy.
2. Ouray Perimeter Trail
Trailhead location: Across the street from the Ouray Visitor Center (look for the dirt steps that lead up to the switchbacks).
Distance: 6.0-mile loop
Elevation gain: 1,426 feet
Ouray's Perimeter Trail is the must-do trail for first-time visitors because it loops around the entire town and hits all the landmarks. On this hike you see it all: waterfalls, steep-and-impressive drop-offs, Box Canyon Falls, Baby Bathtubs (an incredible rock formation that looks like smooth, mini bathtubs), the stunning Amphitheater, the Ice Park and more. All the way around you'll have picturesque views of Ouray itself, some from high above on narrow ledges, and some from sprawling, wildflower-filled meadows.
Be sure to equip yourself with enough water to last through a decent chunk of time -- if you stop to enjoy the views, landmarks and various trail offshoots, you can spend more than half a day on the Perimeter Trail.
Wear light layers with convertible options, especially if you start in the morning -- the trailhead starts on the west side of town and is shady and cool all the way up the switchbacks.
Once the trail evens out, you'll enjoy a gorgeous view of Ouray all the way along the side of the mountain until you get to Cascade Falls. From there you lose some elevation and swing down into a grassy, piney valley on a soft dirt trail.
Perhaps the most exciting and breathtaking part of the Perimeter Trail is just beyond the halfway point: Box Canyon Falls. The Perimeter Trail swings up and over Box Canyon on a grate bridge (AKA: you can see through it and all the way down into the roaring gorge below!), then leads you through a stooped tunnel.
If you take a slight detour here, you can hop on down to the Falls themselves, where you'll walk along a grate path straight into the canyon and down to the bottom. It'll cost you a few bucks, but it's so worth it!
After Box Canyon, you'll take the Perimeter Trail around the rest of the town, where it meets up with historic Oak street for a pretty little jaunt past some restored Victorian homes. You'll finish up along the Uncompahgre River and end up back at the Visitor's Center, conveniently located right next to the muscle-soothing hot springs pools.
To sum up: I'm so, so glad I did this trail on my first visit to Ouray. I saw everything I needed to see within city limits, I met some great locals and I fell fully and completely in love with this area.
3. Bear Creek Trail
Trailhead location: 2.3 miles south of Ouray on highway 550. There's a parking lot just after the tunnel.
Distance: 4.8 - 14.2 miles round trip, depending on the route
Elevation gain: A LOT. More specifically: up to 4,300 feet
There are several options along Bear Creek Trail in terms of distance -- you can hike to Grizzly Bear Mine (4.8 miles round trip), Yellowjacket mine (8.4 miles round trip), or you can hike all the way up to Engineer Pass, where the trail meets up with Horsetail Trail (that one's 14.2 miles round trip... yipes). Seeing the switchbacks and elevation gain, I opted for the 4.8-mile trip.
The trailhead begins at the tunnel 2.3 miles south of Ouray along highway 550 and instantly starts to climb. The switchbacks are unbelievably steep and coated in large, thin flakes of slate, which make the most satisfying broken-glass crunch underfoot, but leave you with slippery, non-stable footholds all the way up.
Be sure you come prepared with grippy, lugged trail shoes, because one wrong slip and you'll tumble far, far below. I was very pleased with my footwear choice, which featured lugged Vibram® outsoles and a lightweight, flexible-but-supportive design.
Another must-have on this trail is hands-free access to your water. I wore a Camelbak daypack with a hydration bladder. You definitely want your hands ready to support you if you stumble, and available to help you balance.
Once you get off the switchbacks, the trail evens out (sort of) in a dramatic, carved-out-of-a-cliff-face sort of way. Be sure to stop and take some impressive photo ops! You'll meander along the cliffs for a while, until you start another ascent to Grizzly Bear Mine.
My entire hike took about 4.5 hours. I took my time, of course, as a first-timer on such a steep, unknown trail -- a more-experienced hiker could certainly cut that time in half.
To sum up: Do this trail! Do it if you're afraid. Do it if you're a newbie. But prepare yourself. Wear appropriate gear and attire. Come out on the other side like a champ with some amazing pictures and great memories.
Have you ever explored Ouray, Colorado? What would you recommend?