Encircled by the majestic San Juan Mountains, Ouray, Colorado, is an alpine delight.
By Mark Quasius, F333630
One of Colorado’s jewels is the town of Ouray (pronounced U-ray). It is nestled in a scenic valley in the heart of the San Juan Mountains, a spot in southwest Colorado often referred to as the Switzerland of America.
The San Juan Mountains are steep, and the heavy winter snowfall provides for some great skiing, with famous slopes such as Telluride in this area. In summer, Ouray is a popular destination for four-wheel enthusiasts, as well as RV owners in general.
Ouray wasn’t always a tourist’s delight. In the late 1800s miners explored the area for silver and gold. The town was named for a well-respected Ute Indian chief and boasted more than 2,500 residents by 1890. Ouray had the usual array of saloons and brothels, but it was also more of a family-oriented town with schools and churches. After the gold played out, instead of becoming a ghost town, Ouray survived as people found other means of income.
Currently, Ouray’s prime source of income is tourism. The many mining trails that originally were designed for mules and supply wagons are not silent. Jeep enthusiasts flock to enjoy numerous off-road trails that crisscross these scenic mountain vistas and have earned Ouray a reputation as the Jeep Capital of the World. These awe-inspiring views draw hikers and four-wheeling enthusiasts from points near and far.
Ouray is located on U.S. 550. Access via Interstate 70 from the north takes drivers through Grand Junction and passes through Montrose via a fairly smooth drive. However, accessing Ouray from the south is an entirely different matter. U.S. 160 is an easy drive to Durango, but once you head north on U.S. 550 toward Silverton and Ouray, things quickly change. The road gains altitude and gives spectacular views of scenic valleys. This section of the road is referred to as the Million Dollar Highway.
The Million Dollar Highway is easily one of the most amazing scenic drives you’ll ever take. As you cross Coal Bank Hill Pass and the Molas Divide, you’ll be looking down at beautiful alpine vistas. This portion of the road twists and climbs and clings to the side of mountains with steep drop-offs into the valley below. It can be navigated by large diesel-pusher motorhomes; in fact, heavy trucks travel it all the time. But it can tax a lesser vehicle’s drivetrain. The never-ending grades can put severe stress on lighter-duty transmissions, and on the downgrades having an engine compression brake can help to prevent brake fade.
Also, even if your motorhome can handle this road, the mental fatigue of driving on a mountain road with steep drop-offs to one side should be taken into consideration. The road is wide enough to handle the coach, but perhaps not your nerves. Some motorhome drivers may prefer to skip this road in the RV.
Once you reach Silverton, you’ll have a chance to take a break, if you need to, before continuing on. After you leave Silverton and cross Red Mountain Pass, you’ll drop down into Ouray and the serious mountain driving finally will be over.
If you want to visit Ouray from the south but prefer to bypass the Million Dollar Highway, take the San Juan Skyway. It leaves Cortez via State Route 145 and travels a more leisurely route around the steepest portion of the mountains as it passes by Telluride on its way to Placerville. At Placerville, State Route 62 takes you on an easy climb over the Dallas Divide and deposits you in Ridgway, which is immediately north of Ouray on the now-tame section of U.S. 550. This route is suitable for any RV or driver. If you have a towed vehicle and don’t want to miss the scenic views of the Million Dollar Highway, especially when the wildflowers are blooming or during fall colors, climb into your towed vehicle and visit Silverton and the Million Dollar Highway that way.
Ouray in itself is an interesting town. Walking down the main street is like traveling back in time, because of the many Victorian-style buildings. St. Joseph Miner’s Hospital, built in 1886, has been transformed into the Ouray County Historical Museum, which showcases items from 1875 to the World War II era. Among them are mining exhibits and Indian artifacts, as well as old-time medical treatments.
Naturally, this being the Jeep Capital of the World, one would expect to see Jeeps and other four-wheeling vehicles all over town. If you didn’t bring your own, a number of places are available where you can rent one; or, for those who would rather ride than drive, Jeep tours are also available. Choose your touring style, from mild to wild. The town has a long-held tradition of holding a Jeep raffle each year, with the vehicle often displayed in prominent locations.
The 250-foot-long Ouray Hot Springs Pool is filled with crystal spring water, free from the strong sulphur smell common to most hot springs, and is popular with residents and visitors alike. During the winter, nationally televised ice-climbing contests take place in Ouray Ice Park. During the summer, you can hike the lower trail in Box Canyon Park and walk on catwalks to see Box Canyon Falls, which is located inside a narrow canyon, or hike the upper trail on the canyon bluffs towering over Canyon Creek. A popular short walk from Main Street takes you to a waterfall where Cascade Creek crashes over the mountainside.
Horseback riding is available at local stables for those who prefer to leave their wheels behind and hoof it. Other fun things to do include hot-air ballooning, whitewater rafting on the Uncompahgre River, or trying out one of the excellent golf courses located nearby.
No visit to Ouray would be complete without at least one trip on an off-road trail to visit a ghost town. In fact, a few ghost towns can be reached using a passenger car, if the conditions are right. From Ouray go south on U.S. 550 to visit Ironton and, eventually, to Red Mountain Town. South of Telluride on State Route 62 is Alta; popular Animas Forks is north of Silverton. Many of these ghost towns can be reached in vehicles that do not have four-wheel drive, although in some areas it may be bumpy and potholed if recent rains have impacted the dirt roads.
During the peak of wildflower season, Yankee Boy basin is a popular destination. The drive to the trailhead passes through what’s left of old Sneffels Township and passes the Camp Bird mine on the way to a basin filled with color.
If you want to see famous Telluride, you can get there in a regular car via a two-lane blacktop road, which leads to Ridgway and then into Telluride’s downtown area. By Jeep, take Last Dollar Road, passable by two-wheel-drive vehicles with high ground clearance. The views are magnificent.
Another popular Jeep trail is Ophir Pass, which leaves U.S. 550 south of Ouray close to the Mineral Creek camping area; crosses the mountains; and ends up just south of Telluride after passing through the Ophir town site. For the more adventuresome, Imogene Pass leaves Camp Bird Road and climbs the peaks with an amazing view from the crest before descending down into Telluride’s downtown district. Once in Telluride, you can take the free gondola to Mountain Village.
Other popular Jeep trails include Engineer Pass, Corkscrew Gulch, California Gulch, and Black Bear Pass. The latter is Ouray’s extreme trail, reserved for only the most hard-core Jeepers.
If you are in Silverton around lunchtime, you’ll typically be greeted by an arrival of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The railroad operates seven different steam-powered locomotives, which date from 1923 and 1925, to handle its busy year-round schedule. Passengers ride from Durango to Silverton and back through the scenic canyons and mountainsides of the San Juan Mountains. It’s always a welcome scene when the train roars into town, its steam whistle echoing throughout the surrounding mountain peaks. The railway has two museums, one in Durango and one in Silverton; an 1887 steam locomotive is displayed in Silverton.
If you have a smaller motorhome and want to stay in Silverton, a city-run park at Molas Lake, just south of town, may be of interest. It has no hookups, sits at an altitude of 10,515 feet, and is not very big-rig friendly. But the scenic beauty is unparalleled. Call (970) 759-2218 for more information.
After a nice lunch in Silverton, an afternoon trip to Animas Forks will let you explore one of the better-kept ghost towns in the area. Along the way you’ll see the remains of the Empire Chief Mine stamp mill. Across the road, a number of places have been carved out for RV camping.
The town of Animas Forks served a number of mines in the area, but it was not destined to last. It’s located in a valley surrounded by mountains so snowy that it experienced blockages, and even damage to structures, from frequent avalanches. The town was abandoned when the mines stopped producing.
The San Juan Mountains are a great place to kick back and relax amid the beautiful scenery, or go four-wheeling as much as you like. Choose your pace and enjoy.
Ouray Chamber Resort Association
1230 Main St.
P.O. Box 145
Ouray, CO 81427
Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad
479 Main St.
Durango, CO 81301
Following is only a sampling of the many campgrounds available in this area. If visiting during the busy summer season, reservations are advised. Check the RV Marketplace online at FMCA.com or in the June and January issues of FMC for additional listings.
A&B RV Park
1445 Mineral St.
Silverton, CO 81433
U.S. 550 – C.R. 23
P.O. Box J
Ouray, CO 81427
Ouray RV Park and Cabins
1700 N. Main St.
Ouray, CO 81427
Red Mountain Motel and RV Park
664 Greene St.
P.O. Box 346
Silverton, CO 81433
Ridgway State Park
28555 U.S. 550
Ridgway, CO 81432
(800) 678-2267 (reservations)
Silver Summit RV Park & Jeep Rentals
640 Mineral St.
Silverton, CO 81433
Westerly RV Park, C12089 *
6440 C.R. 203
Durango, CO 81301
*FMCA Commercial Member