36 Hours in Ouray, Colorado: Summer Adventures in the “Switzerland of America”
by Mike Richard | July, 2012
Keep Ouray Weird!
The local tourism board should steal a page from Austin’s playbook as the now famous catchphrase works just as well in this tiny mountain town.
Everywhere we traveled on our month-long drive through the state, local Coloradans invariably asked, “Didja make it to Ouray yet?” Understandably so. It’s weird, beautiful, eclectic and altogether fascinating – a quintessential, western Colorado small town.
Summer or winter, there’s more than enough to keep you busy for two full weeks. Alas, we spent just two days in town. Here, we present a 36-hour guide to summering in Ouray, Colorado.
9a / Take a Stroll Down Main Street
Arrive in town early for a leisurely walk through Ouray’s picturesque “downtown”. The main street – literally Main Street – is a short, several blocks-long stroll and home to dozens of artists, craftsmen, woodworkers, photographers and more. Unlike the me-too tchotchke shops that abound in many tourist destinations, the works here are almost universally locally made and offer a true flavor of Ouray.
12p / Lunch @ O’Briens
It’s official: every town in America, no matter the size, now has an Irish pub. Ouray’s own Celtic watering hole is O’Briens Pub & Grill.
Their staff, much like every person we met in town, is friendly and always willing to stop for a chat.
Pop in for a pint and some lunch – the menu features typical pub fare. If nothing else, I highly recommend the Scotch Eggs: two hard boiled eggs wrapped in country sausage served with a side of curry mayonnaise. Your cardiologist will thank you.
1:30p / Coffee and Sweets @ Mouse’s Chocolate & Coffee
Just a short walk down Main Street, Mouse’s Chocolate & Coffee is a local favorite. Get your afternoon caffeine buzz on with a “Shot in the Dark” – coffee with two shots of espresso.
And if you order one dessert at Mouse’s, it has to be one of their famous scrap cookies. Every night, they gather the leftover “scraps” from the daily chocolate making process (nuts, fudge, etc) and mix them into a secret family cookie recipe. Obviously no two cookies are ever the same and you never even know what your cookie will contain. But I guarantee they’re always delicious!
2p / Jeep Tour Along the Million Dollar Highway
Along with Silverton, Ouray is one of only two gateways to the infamous Million Dollar Highway. This harrowing, 25-mile stretch of Route 550 is often touted as the most scenic drive in the United States. And it doesn’t disappoint.
For tours along the route, we rode with San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours, who’ve been driving the Million Dollar Highway and the entire area since 1946 (!).
Although they offer a variety of scenic Jeep experiences, we opted for the half-day Highway to Heaven Tour. This breathtaking drive takes visitors along much of the paved MDH before diverting sharply onto a dirt road just opposite the (wait for it) “Highway to Helluride”.
This 4×4-only adventure climbs a narrow, dirt and gravel road passing a number of original mine shafts, along with fields of Indian Paintbrush and Blue Columbine (the state flower) before arriving at a peak elevation around 13,000 feet. The view at the top is simply stunning – a 360-degree panorama of more than 40 peaks, old mining towns, shimmering lakes and endless evergreen.
Our guide – owner Gregg Pieper – has worked for San Juan for decades and is extremely passionate about his company. His knowledge of the local area – the Highway’s history, the towns, and people – is encyclopedic. There was no question he couldn’t answer!
7p / Dinner @ The Outlaw
Dating back to 1969, The Outlaw is the oldest operating restaurant in Ouray with quite a history. Its biggest claim to fame: “Legendary Home of John Wayne’s Hat”. Yes, really.
The story goes that The Duke was filming the original True Grit in nearby Ridgeway. His makeup man was drinking at The Outlaw and the film’s production crew could not reach him after repeated calls to the bar. Finally, Mr. Wayne called the bar personally and reached the owner’s wife, Christina. The only words he spoke were, “Hello ma’am, this is John Wayne.” Assuming it was a joke, she laughed and hung up the phone.
A short time later, and much to everyone’s surprise, Mr. Wayne showed up at the bar. He wound up staying for several hours, drinking and dining with the family. Before he left, he gave them his hat which now hangs proudly above the bar. Ask nicely and the staff may even let you wear it for a photo opp.
Fascinating film history aside, the restaurant still serves plenty of local beers and some of the best steaks in town. I highly recommend the Scorpion Steak – a 12oz Angus New York Strip lightly peppered with cognac sauce and served with 3 spicy shrimp.
9p / Grab a Nightcap @ Ourayle House
If there’s a more quintessential Ouray experience than grabbing a pint at Ourayle House, we didn’t find it. The building is nothing to look at and the interior was hobbled together in large part from wood and scraps dug out of nearby dumpsters (I’m not kidding).
In lieu of a traditional menu, patrons are welcome to BYOF (bring your own food) and cook on one of the outdoor grills. Or grab a menu from inside and order from any number of local restaurants. They’re happy to deliver to Ourayle.
Inside, you’ll find a random and constantly rotating series of taps. Owner/bartender, Hutch, prides himself on an almost complete lack of service and is locally known as the “grumpy pants” brewer. He’s content to stand behind the bar with a persistent, annoyed look on his face, and serve visitors “if he must”. It’s all a bit of shtick that’s clearly an extension of his real personality. Basically: “Go for the beer and stay for the abuse.” It all works because it’s done in good fun (perhaps the reason it’s ranked the #3 restaurant in Ouray).
Overnight @ Box Canyon Lodge
After a long day of drinking, dining and sightseeing, what’s better than a hot springs hot tub bath? Box Canyon Lodge has you covered.
Tucked into the mountainside just off the edge of town, this charming, picture perfect inn is quintessential Ouray. It would feel right at home at the base of the Swiss Alps. It’s the kind of place that feels as though it’s been here as long as the town itself. And you know some guests have been coming back for decades.
Guests are afforded four hot springs hot tubs on the property – each offering beautiful 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains. As these are naturally fed, a board in the lobby details the temperatures of each of the tubs which change on a daily basis. With a three-tiered setup, the tubs at higher elevation (and therefore closer to the source) are hotter than those below. Just decide how hot you like it and pick your “level” accordingly.
The staff couldn’t have been friendlier. No surprise, given owners Karen and Rich’s passion for their hotel, the town, and the area in general.
Room rates start as low as $89/night (off-peak). Even the lovely Honeymoon Suite in which we stayed starts at only $140. It’s a steal given the private balcony, spacious room, and private whirlpool tub.
Get up early and grab a simple continental breakfast at Box Canyon Lodge. They’ve plenty of coffee, muffins and fruit on offer.
9a / Canyoning
What? You didn’t really plan on sleeping in, did you? C’mon. This is the “Switzerland of America” after all. There are canyon waterfalls to rapel, mountains to climb, and (still more) scenic vistas to photograph.
Book an early morning canyoning experience with San Juan Mountain Guides. As newbies to the sport, Jess and I were a touch apprehensive of what to expect. No worries! If it’s your first time, SJMG caters to all skill levels.
After a 5-minute drive to the edge of town, our first order of business was to practice rappelling a fifty-foot boulder. Which we did repeatedly until our guide, Bill, felt that we were comfortable to tackle the feature of the day – descending an 80-foot waterfall in Portland Creek.
Bounding backwards down a slick rock wall with thousands of cubic feet of icy water slamming into your face is a unique and exhilarating experience definitely not for the faint of heart. It requires a bit of bravery, as well as blind trust in yourself and the person holding your ropes (oh, and a bit of sheer stupidity).
San Juan Mountain Guides offers canyoning tours in a variety of Ouray locations, typically based on the experience level of the group. Just bring a pair of sturdy shoes. They’ll provide wetsuits, harnesses, helmets, and all other required technical equipment.
2p / Relax with Lunch @ Ouray Brewery
After four hours of canyoning, relax with a big meal and a frosty beverage. Ouray Brewery is just the place.
Choose from any number of rotating craft microbrews and grab a pair of their tasty fish tacos with a guacamole side.
This three-level restobar provides a perfect end to your time in town. Head directly to the third floor – the only rooftop patio in Ouray – for a spectacular view of the town and surrounding mountains.
Fresh mountain air, microbrewed beer, great food, stunning vistas and friendly locals: all just another day in Ouray.
Disclosure: Portions of this trip were sponsored by the businesses mentioned in the above post.
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About the Author
Vagabondish founding editor, Mike Richard, is a Rhode Island native, professional web designer and travel junkie with an unhealthy addiction to backpacking, hiking and seeing the world. He enjoys knit hats, small, declarative sentences and speaking in the third person. His professional credits include "Woman's World magazine contributor" and having once been interviewed by Tyra Banks (seriously).