If you’ve never heard of Ouray, Colorado, I’m here to inform you that you need to go. Surrounded by peaks in every direction you turn, the small town is nestled in the San Juan mountains and legitimately looks like a post card. There's no wonder why it's called "The Switzerland of America". It’s absolutely unbelievable and doesn’t even look like it should be real! I’ve been a few times in my lifetime but it’s either been in the Summer or Fall and honestly I really didn’t spend much time since I was just driving through. It’s kind of a little gateway if you want to go further south over highway 550 aka “The Million Dollar Highway”, to get to Silverton and Durango, or if you’re coming from there, you drive through Ouray to get to Telluride. You know... that infamous little mountain town that every country music star likes to write about. Anyway...
This time, instead of wildflowers or golden aspens encompassing the scenery, an activity that is a strictly winter oriented sport inspired us to head down and spend a few days exploring Ouray in the dead of Winter. This particular activity was Ice Climbing. While that was the main focus of the trip, there are a bunch of other activities to do in the winter as well! Read along to see why you need to go to this one-of-a-kind mountain town.
Now, I’m one of those people who need to get out of the house and get fresh air or else I’ll go crazy. Not actually... but I definitely feel a thousand times better when I get some Vitamin D. It’s not that easy in the winter though. With a few feet of snow, negative degree weather, and icy trails... there’s many more elements that factor into outdoor recreation than there are in the summer.
While going against my instincts to stay inside and drink a cup of hot cocoa and binge a new TV series... this year I put my snow pants on and explored my Colorado mountains... or a Winter Wonderland as so it seemed.
I hope you’re ready to bundle up because I’m here to share some activities with you that you can partake in during your winter vacation to Ouray, aka “The Switzerland of America”.
I’ve always wanted to go snowshoeing and I finally went during this trip! I’ve heard that snowshoeing has become exceptionally popular this season since people are trying to get outdoors more during the pandemic.
Where to Rent: We got our snowshoes at a place called “Ouray Mountain Sports” located on Main St. It was a great outdoor retail store that offered rentals and actually had and option to “rent to buy” snowshoes! I loved that. While we didn’t purchase any, we were happy with our decision to rent. We only got ours for one day and that was plenty for us.
732 Main St, Ouray, CO 81427
Trails: There were countless amounts of trails and Southern Colorado got absolutely pounded with snow while we were there, so there was no lack of snow to snowshoe on! Our hotel was on the outskirts of town, called the Timber Ridge Lodge. It was a cute little place and the owners were so kind to provide us with many recommendations during our stay. They told us about this little trail along the river right behind the hotel and that’s where we went!
Snowshoeing 1 mile is a bit different than walking 1 mile. It’s a bit more tiring and just downright physically difficult. I’d say we went around 2.5 miles and it was plenty. We had a blast! I suggest trying to run in them. It’ll make for some good laughs, guaranteed.
The photos above are taken from the back of our hotel where there was a small opening in the fence, allowing us direct access to the river walk. There was a few feet of snow and we had SUCH A BLAST!
As you can see, I had a blast during my first time snowshoeing. It's something I wanted to cross off my bucket list for a long time and I finally did it! The river walk was the perfect beginners trail because you didn't need to commit to a long hike.
I think you should definitely go snowshoeing, even if it's just for a short little walk like we did! There is also a great waterfall hike that we kind of wished we had the snowshoes for but we managed with only micro spikes. This waterfall is on my list and it’s called “Cascade Falls”.
2.Hike to Cascade Falls
Specs: Easy; 0.2 miles; 75 ft. Elevation gain.
This hike is basically right in town. The trailhead is about 3 blocks or so off of Main St. Our van unfortunately isn’t 4 wheel drive so we needed to be extra cautious when driving in the snow. Instead of parking at the trail head we parked on Main Street. The side street leading up to the trail head is very steep and we were worried that we’d be a giant sled coming down the road on the way back. We even saw a big truck get stuck on the way up. So with walking from Main St. the hike was around .5 miles. Super duper easy but so fun!
Trail conditions: The hike would’ve been easier if there had not been 3 feet of snow. We didn’t have our snowshoes but if we did, I think I would’ve worn them. We wore our microspikes though and it was completely doable. I’m sure not having any traction would’ve been fine too but I just prefer to err on the safe side of things.
There was so much snow that we genuinely didn't know where the trailhead was at! Nobody had been up before us since the fresh powder and so there were absolutely no footprints! We finally realized we needed to climb over this snowbank.
The falls were to the left but this was also an entry point to the Ouray Perimeter Trail, which essentially goes around the entire town!
*Warning* Use caution when approaching the falls. We saw a ginormous chunk of ice fall from the frozen waterfall and I would’ve been severely injured had I been beneath it. Also, be careful when stepping on snow because your foot could sink in between rocks.*
All in all, a nice little hike! If you’re looking for a short little activity to do during the day, I’d say this is a great option! I definitely want to check this out during the summer too!
*There's a big parking lot just across the street from it!*
If you didn’t know, Ouray is the “Ice Climbing Capital of the World” and in January, holds the Ice Climbing Competition every year. How cool is that? So every year, hundreds of tourists come through to see the frozen waterfalls with climbers chiseling away with their ice axes.
The falls are man-made and the Ouray Ice Park organization is a non-profit, which is absolutely incredible because climbers are able to come and enjoy the magnificent ice park free of charge. (They do urge you to make a donation so it’s able to stay up and running!) So basically, if you have climbing experience, a partner, and the necessary equipment, you can ice climb at a world renowned place. Pretty cool.
Even if you’re not climbing it’s quite the sight to see. There are these metal walkways that allow you to walk around and see the climbers from across the way.
Guides: There are a couple companies in town that will provide you with a private guide but it’ll cost you a pretty penny. Our friend was supposed to meet us down there and show us the ropes, pun intended, but he had to cancel last minute. Unfortunately, after a bit of inquiring, we couldn’t justify paying the cost of another guide but if you can... absolutely go for it!!!
725 Main Street
970.325.4925 or 800.642.5389
Ouray Ice Park – Full Day (Monday – Friday)
1:1 – $446
2:1 – $312 PP
3:1 – $237 PP
4:1 – $199 PP
Ouray Ice Park – Full Day (Saturday & Sunday)
1:1 – $493
2:1 – $346 PP
3:1 – $263 PP
4:1 – $221 PP
-Guiding and instruction with an AMGA Certified/Trained Guide
-All ice climbing gear (harness, helmet, ice tools, crampons, boots etc.)
-Ouray Ice Park Inc. use fees @ $15 per person
280 7th Avenue
Ouray, CO 81427
Ouray Ice Park Climbing
Rate for Full / Half Days:
1 person: $450 / $325
2 people: $288 / $200 per person
3 people: $225 / $170 per person
4 people: $189 / $145 per person
As I said, we were planning on going for free with a a very experienced friend of ours so we didn’t budget the $400-ish for a private guide. If you’re in Ouray though, I suggest you do it. I totally wanted to go down there and check ice climbing off my bucket list. Hopefully next year!
4.Box Canyon Park
High Bridge Trail + Upper & Lower Falls
Now this was my favorite part of our trip. The views were just downright pristine and since it was the off-season, there were hardly any people. It was so beautiful that I just stood there for a few moments, taking it all in.
During the winter, the parking lot for both upper and lower falls is the same lot for the Ice Park, which again is just a mile or so south of town.
You’re able to park at the lower lot during the summer but because of snow, the road was closed. So park across the street and follow the signs for “Box Canyon Falls”.
Just follow the signs and it'll take you to the little little ranger station that looks like a cabin.
During high season, there’s an entry fee of $5 per person. The entire building was closed for the winter though so I just carried on.
High Bridge Trail:
Specs: 1/2 mile round trip + 200 feet elevation gain (this is if you do it as a out and back. I continued on, making it a loop and longer).
When you approach the trailhead, you'll see an option to turn right and go to Box Canyon Falls or the left to High Bridge Trail.
There were metal staircases with slots in them to prevent ice, which made up most of the incline. However, there were parts without stairs and those had quite an accumulation of snow... so I do recommend bringing microspikes! It can get rather slick out there.
It was a beautiful trail and I had it all to myself. As I continued up, the views kept getting better and better. Finally, I approached an overlook that looked down the canyon! There was a ton of snow, which unfortunately made for poor visibility of what was below.
The metal walkway then turned into a bridge in which you could see down below you! I made sure to hold on tight to my phone and camera when walking over it!
It then led to an exciting little cave that allowed you to go through to the other side of the mountain. Once you come out the other side, there was what looked like a very steep trail going down! Little cables were thoughtfully placed and being used as railings.
It was snow packed and looked like a steep hill but I later realized that beneath the snow, normal stairs exist. If you continue onward like I did, it will eventually connect to the Ouray Perimeter Trail, which goes around the entire outskirts of town... however we were told that hike is dangerous in the winter.
Moving on! As I continued down the trail I came across THE MOST BEAUTIFUL VIEW! It was the most stunning view that I saw the whole time we were there. Between the fresh powder, the sunshine, blue skies, and solitude... I found it to be a very special moment.
Now, I’m not sure if most people just turn back after the stairs but I kept going and it led into a kind of residential area. I ended up somewhere with a street sign by the name of “Mother Lode Ln” (lol). I kept walking and walking, waiting for it to eventually end up back at the trailhead but it never did. I was down the mountain quite a bit... basically all the way down to town. It turned into me walking on a road but thankfully it eventually led me to another trail head.
The residential area I walked through. There was so much snow!
Finally, I saw a sign that said “BOX CANYON FALLS. WELCOME TO WALKERS ONLY”, so that’s where I walked. In all honesty I felt a bit lost but I just rolled with it. It seemed like this was maybe the trail that residents from town could walk to instead of driving all the way up to the other lot where we parked at. I’m not really sure to be completely honest... I’m just telling you my experience because it ended up working out just swell.
After I read the information on the sign I realized there was a gate blocking off vehicles on the road but there was foot traffic going around it so I followed.
I walked up the trail a bit and there were more footprints that went over to a little gazebo. It looked down the canyon at the ice climbers! It was also a very cute picnic area but I, myself, am not a fan of picnicking in the dead of winter. But that’s just me.
There were some bolts into the wall from previous climbers too!
As I continued on down the snowy road, I eventually made it back to the parking area and pay station where I began! Since we're back where we started, this is the same place where the Box Canyon Falls hike begins!
Box Canyon Falls:
So, assuming that you're back at the ranger cabin... this time you cut right at the sign and follow a slight downhill trail along a fence for about 250 feet. This is essentially the base of upper box canyon falls, so I'd say all skill levels are capable (but use your judgement). Once you've reached the end of the upper falls walkway is when the trail turns into another metal grate that you walk across. Follow the grate around a curve and you will be blessed with beautiful views of the slot canyon and the falls below.
As I was walking some snow actually collapsed on the other side and for a split second it looked like a huge snow waterfall!
Once you are at the upper falls you have the option to go down about 5-7 flights of stairs (as pictured above). Bear in mind that this will be a bit more strenuous than the first section, since there's quite a few steps. Once you reach the bottom of the stairs there is a little cave that you can walk in to and it has beautiful surrounding views. You can also walk right up to the water. Experienced trail runners or hikers say "water = lava", meaning you should only step on rocks because snow could be hollow, therefore causing harm to yourself if you were to sink below. So just be careful!
Once you’ve enjoyed the falls, head back up to the stairs and you'll find yourself at the trailhead once more. You can enjoy your walk back to the car and admire the ice climbers along the way! Please do these hikes, you'll love them!
5.Ouray Hot Springs
1220 Main St PO Box 468
Ouray, CO 81427
If there’s an activity that involves the words “hot” and “springs” in the same sentence, I can almost guarantee that I’m interested.
Ouray Hot Springs is on the outskirts of town, just off the side of the road. Although it really doesn’t have a natural vibe to it whatsoever, it’s still hot water in the middle of a giant snow globe so I count that as a win. They said there was a 50 person capacity due to COVID-19 so we called ahead and asked if there was a wait. There wasn’t, so we walked from our hotel! It was a 10-ish minute walk.
Children under 4: Free
Youth 4-17: $12
Adults 18-61: $18
Senior 62-74: $14
Senior 75+: Free
Monday thru Friday: 12:00pm to 8pm
Saturday and Sunday: 11:00am to 8pm
We went around 4:00 PM and were there for a couple of hours. It was the perfect amount of time for us.
More to know:
Unfortunately we’re living in the midst of a pandemic so there are safety measures in place everywhere you go these days, which is by no means a bad thing! Safety is the priority. Some things that were affected because of the pandemic include:
-There are normally multiple pools but there were only 2 open at the time we were there. I’m assuming it was because of COVID-19.
-There’s a water slide, which unfortunately was also closed.
-Towel rentals were suspended
-Only two showers open in the locker room.
-Masks must be worn at all times except when in the water.
-Maintain 6 feet social distancing.
We brought some snacks and our water bottles too. Even though only two of the pools were open it seemed to be plenty for me. Also, the lifeguards were so kind and shared some local hidden gems around the area!
All in all, go to the hot springs! It’s so fun and soaking always makes for a relaxing activity. There isn't re-entry so be sure to get your fix while you're in there!
6. “Switzerland of America” Sign
Finally, the “Switzerland of America” sign! Did you even go to Ouray if you didn't get your photo taken by this sign? It’s about a mile and a half or so south from town and you absolutely need to take your photo by it. Ouray is one of the most beautiful mountain towns I’ve ever seen and it truly does seem like a little pocket of Switzerland. There are also some amazing views of town as well.
Be weary thought because this road closes at times depending on how much snow there is! Always drive with caution. We actually went up around sunrise one morning and we beat the snow plow. We ended up being in the way and the guy needed to go around us, lol. I was embarrassed.
I'll just put a few more photos taken of the pristine views up here!
I hope some of these activities urge you to go to Ouray Colorado and I also hope you found some of this information useful. It’s a charming small town with charming people all around. Please let me know about your experience in Ouray!