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Nestled in the quiet serenity of a box canyon so picturesque it’s been dubbed the “Switzerland of America,” the historic town of Ouray is one of Colorado’s most under-the-radar destinations for a winter vacation. What began as a bustling mining camp in the late 1800s has transformed into an outdoor enthusiast’s playground, with an abundance of winter activities, such as ice climbing, backcountry skiing, and snowmobiling. The town’s entire Main Street is registered as a National Historic District, and includes beautifully preserved buildings that have been converted into locally owned retail shops and restaurants. And while its location along the Million Dollar Highway makes Ouray a happening place in the summertime, when the snow starts to fall and the area’s iconic waterfalls turn to ice, this small mountain town is the place to go for a low-key, adventure-filled getaway.
The Odometer: 301 miles (about a 5.5-hour drive from Denver), one-way
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Ouray is the self-proclaimed “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Colorado,” an apt title for a town home to some of the best ice climbing in the world. The main outdoor attraction in winter is the frozen falls of the Ouray Ice Park, which draws thousands of adrenaline junkies to the mile-long, groomed stretch of the Uncompahgre Gorge every year. From mid-December to mid-March, the park is open to the public and free of charge. Experienced ice climbers can explore the park, which is located a short walk from Main Street, on their own (mid-week is a good time for climbing with minimal crowds), or newcomers can hire a permitted guide service to learn the ropes. Chicks Climbing and Skiing is a popular local guide service that hosts women’s-only clinics and classes throughout the season. (Find a complete list of guide services here). The Ouray Ice Park is also home the annual Ouray Ice Festival, which takes place January 18–21. Along with Elite and Speed Climbing competition for the pros, the festival also includes more than 100 interactive and educational clinics for all levels, and nightly events featuring live music, food, and wild dance parties.
Those looking to keep their feet on solid ground should check out the Perimeter Trail—a six-mile loop that circles the whole town. While hikers can hop on and off the trail at various points along the route, take extra care before heading out. Parts of the trail are very narrow and can be treacherous when ice or snow is present. Check conditions or talk with a local guide before venturing out.
If a day shredding powder is what you’re after, it’s hard to beat the conditions in the San Juan Mountains. For resort skiing, head over to the neighboring town of Telluride (about an hour away), where you’ll find 2,000-plus acres of skiable terrain and an average snowfall of 309 inches at Telluride Ski Resort. For backcountry skiers, some of the state’s best terrain is located just a short drive away. Get the scoop on avalanche safety and the most secret stash spots from the knowledgable guides at the San Juan Mountain Guides, located in downtown Ouray.
Eat & Drink
With so much natural beauty to explore, you’ll need to start your day with a hearty meal and a warm cup of coffee, both of which you can find at Backstreet Bistro (located on the north side of Main Street) and Artisan Bakery (located on the south side of Main Street). These spots serve up solid breakfasts and lunches to fuel you up for the day’s adventures.
When it’s time to hang up your boots, grab a barstool at one of the two locally owned breweries. If it’s food and an après handcrafted beverage you’re after, head to the Ouray Brewery, where you’ll find a variety of house-made brews, like the flavorful, yet balanced 550 Red Ale. The two-story restaurant also serves a hearty menu of comfort food, perfect for replacing those calories lost while playing outside all day. And while you won’t find a kitchen at this local gem, be sure to save room for a beer at Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewing—a legendary local’s hangout complete with a wood-burning stove and mellow line-up of easy-drinking brews.
When you’re cleaned up and ready to hit the town for dinner and drinks, reserve a table at Bon Ton—a subterranean Italian restaurant serving an upscale menu stacked with seafood, steaks, and of course, giant plates of pasta. For a nightcap, belly up to the bar at the Outlaw Restaurant—a old-timey joint with an extensive cocktail menu that has been around for so long, it was a favorite haunt of John Wayne’s while the actor was in town filming True Grit in the late 1960s.
For a small town, Ouray boasts plenty of lodging options. The town offers a healthy mix of chains and locally owned hotels, inns, and chalets that all offer cozy, comfortable, and convenient accommodations. For a straight-forward, affordable place to rest your head, book a stay at the Ouray Chalet Inn. For a glimpse back in time, reserve a room a the Beaumont Hotel, a lovely restored property originally built in 1886. Once revered as one of the grandest hotels in Colorado, the Beaumont has a stunning historically preserved lobby anchored by a grand staircase that leads to 12 comfortable guest rooms.
One of the most important attractions for families on vacation with little ones in tow is a solid swimming pool. The town’s famous Ouray Hot Springs Pool includes a hot pool for adults to soak in, a lap pool for fitness fans, an overlook pool with an infinity edge waterfall, and the family-friendly shallow pool perfect for the kiddos—all filled with naturally heated mineral-rich water. In operation since 1927, the historic Ouray Hot Springs Pool is located on the edge of the town and open seven days a week. Daily passes are $18 for adults, and $12 for kids ages 4 to 12. If your little one is an adventure seeker, sign them up for free ice climbing lessons at Ouray Ice Park. The Kid’s Climbing College, managed by San Juan Mountain Guides, is a series of free climbing opportunities for kids ages 8 to 17 on select weekends throughout winter.
One of the best parts of visiting a small town is exploring the locally owned retail shops, and there’s no shortage of stores in Ouray. For a truly unique shopping experience, browse through the odds and ends at the Gator Emporium, where you’re bound to find a funky souvenir. If strolling through antique shops is more your style, check out Art and Antiques, which is filled with treasures from the past at reasonable prices. And for a boutique shopping experience, wander the rows of cute home and garden accessories at Bloom, where you’re bound to find the perfect gift.
If You Do One Thing…
Learn to ice climb! If Ouray’s icy falls are spectacular enough to attract some of the top ice climbers in the world, it’s a pretty excellent place to get an introduction to the fast-growing sport. And with so many free educational and interactive opportunities available for climbers of all levels, you’ll become a pro in no time.