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Length: Six-and-a-half miles
Why we love it: Dramatic cliffs, waterfalls, and mountain-made bathtubs, plus remarkable views of the town of Ouray
When to go: Summer, when snow melts and thunderstorms aren’t in the forecast
Pre-hike Buzz: Don’t miss the house-made chai at Mouse’s Chocolates and Coffee on Main Street (order it “dirty” for an espresso shot’s added caffeine boost)
Restrooms: In the Ouray Visitor Center, across from the trailhead
Distance from Denver: About six hours (300 miles)
The Perimeter Trail is arguably the best—and certainly the most scenic—way to experience Ouray, the historic Colorado town known as the “Switzerland of America” for its striking placement in the San Juan Mountains. The six-plus-mile trail forms a nearly complete circle along the mountains that surround and tower over the town, and is stunning in its topography. Not only will you pass by waterfalls, old miner caves, and the world-famous Ouray Ice Park (frequented by climbers during the winter months), but you’ll do so on a path that’s, at times, precariously narrow. If the hike itself—rated moderate—doesn’t get your heart thumping, staring down the sheer drops directly below portions of the trail certainly will. Because of the nature of this trail, it’s best to thoroughly research the portions you want to tackle before bringing children along.
The Perimeter Trail can be hiked as a continuous loop or split into smaller sections, as there are multiple access points. The best choice is to start at the Ouray Visitor Center—which houses a museum detailing the town’s 1800s late-Gold Rush roots and is worthy of its own visit.
From the Visitor Center, cross the street and take a right to start the loop going clockwise. The wood-edged path quickly turns into stairs and a series of switchbacks up Cascade Cliff. Within a mile, you’ll reach the 200-foot Cascade Falls, but only after treading carefully across a very narrow trail along the side of the cliff (this portion of the trail is fully exposed and scorching hot in the middle of the day). After enjoying some time at the falls, cross a bridge and continue uphill, where you’ll glimpse Mt. Abrams (12,801 feet) and Hayden Mountain (13,206 feet) directly ahead of you.
Continue ahead and turn right (downhill) once you reach the Amphitheater Campground Road (“Perimeter Trail” signs are plentiful throughout the entire trail). After only 0.1 miles, you’ll reach the Baby Bath Tub Trail on the left. Here, you’ll find a series of shallow rock bathtubs that are perfect for an icy foot bath. Continue uphill alongside the creek, following signs to the Three Pines Day Use Area and cross through (south) to Portland Mine Road. Turn right after 300 feet and enter the “Potato Patch,” where miners actually grew potatoes over a century ago.
After crossing this patch, follow signs and cairns up the rocky trail. Here you’ll hit your highest elevation (8,500 feet) before starting a welcomed descent. Soon, you’ll intersect the Million Dollar Highway. Cross with caution and pass through a green gate before turning left at the Ice Park Trail. Continue down to the gorge, across a river bridge, and uphill again to an old pipeline and metal stile. (In the winter, sprinklers pour water from the pipeline, allowing giant icicles to form down the gorge’s walls, attracting ice climbers from all over the world.) Once you cross the stile, turn right to walk along the Ice Park access road until you reach the Ice Park Reservoir—another great spot to cool off and catch your breath.
From here, the trail crosses County Road 361 and leads to Box Canyon Falls—easily the most incredible scenery along the journey. Cross the suspension bridge (don’t look down!) and marvel once again at the dramatic gorge below. On the other side of the bridge is an old water pipe tunnel. Pass through it, and you’ll be greeted with steep stairs that drop you down the cliff and back to South Pinecrest Street, a gravel road.
This is currently the official end of the Perimeter Trail, according to J. Gary Dunn, a director for the Ouray Trail Group. Eventually, the trail will completely circumnavigate the town, but Dunn says they still have about a quarter of the way to go.
Until then, you have two options: You can walk downhill and turn right on Queen Street and left on Oak Street to get back to town. Or, you can walk uphill and connect to the Twin Peaks trailhead, which takes you into Oak Creek Canyon on the newest portion of the trail, completed in 2015. If you choose the later, you’ll tread along a slim path with a sheer drop on the right. Eventually, you’ll come to the Oak Creek suspension bridge, which was constructed by Canyon Bridge in late 2015. Cross over, and you’ll traverse the opposite side of the canyon—with equally breathtaking views—before intersecting with Queen Street, which carries you back to town—and a well-deserved beer.
Getting there: From Denver, take U.S. Highway 285 South. After roughly 120 miles, head west on U.S. 50, and after another 120 miles or so, go south on U.S. 550. In 35 miles, you’ll reach Ouray, and the Visitor Center (located on the right). Park here to start your hike.