There’s something about Colorado. It’s the jagged, snowy peaks, the little mountain towns, the outdoor sports and adventures, the high-elevation pine forests, it’s… everything. With each short visit to Colorado, it has felt like a place I could call home, and John Denver’s lyrics from Rocky Mountain High: “…coming home to a place I’ve never been before…”, rings entirely true.
Ouray, Colorado (pronounced you-ray, we learned, after referring to it as ooo-ray the whole time we were there) was the final destination of our Baja-bound adventure. We chose it because we had driven through the town in 2019 and fell in love with it through the windshield. I had said that “next time we were in Colorado, we’re stopping here!”, and the next time had arrived.
Ouray is a tiny, historic, victorian-era mining town of 1,000 inhabitants, nestled in the San Juan mountains. It can be reached from the south via the Million Dollar highway, one of the most beautifully scenic but dangerous roads in the US. Often referred to as the Switzerland of America, Ouray draws comparisons with the quaint ski villages in the swiss alps because of the jagged peaks that surround the hilly little town. It’s also the self-proclaimed “Outdoor Recreation Capitol of Colorado” – a boastful proclamation but with endless hiking trails, epic ice-climbing, all types of skiing, camping, ATVing, and natural hot springs, it has merit.
We had just 48 hours to spend in Ouray and we loved every minute of it. In this post, we share our recommendations for a perfect vanlife adventure in this quaint mountain town.
Camp in the National Forest – Angel Creek Campground
There are lots of camping options in Ouray; everything from sneaky boondocking spots to expensive, full-service RV parks, right downtown. We found an idyllic campsite at Angel Creek Campground in the Uncompahgre National Forest. It had beautifully scenic, private sites for only $10 USD/night, and it was just minutes from town. It was perfect and at over 8,000 feet of elevation, the mornings were delightfully cool and crispy in late May, exactly what we needed after so many months of hot, Mexican weather. If we had more time in Ouray, we would have spent at least one full day just hanging out at our campsite.
Hike the Perimeter Trail
If you have time for only one trail while in Ouray, hike the Perimeter Trail. It’s a 6.5-mile loop that circles the town along the mountain ledges that surround it. Immediately from the trailhead, we were climbing steep grades up into the mountains from town, hearts pounding and blood pumping. It wasn’t an easy hike but it was absolutely worth the effort. We experienced lush pine forests, passed several waterfalls, and enjoyed spectacular views of the town and surrounding snow-capped peaks throughout the hike. We also passed the new Via Ferrata route, which looked awesome. More about that at the end of the post.
Stroll Through Town & Stop at the Ouray Brewery
Ouray has everything we look for in a town – heritage architecture, lots of locally owned boutiques, restaurants and cafes, a trail along the aqua-coloured river, friendly locals, and stunning views in every direction. The entire town is a historic district with many buildings dating back to the 1800s. We loved the colourful facades and old brick buildings.
We spent hours strolling through the town and peaking into the shops. I purchased three Ouray stickers at the tourist store… a sure sign that I was impressed with the place. Our favourite stop was the Ouray Brewery, where we treated ourselves to burgers and pints. We found it to be a bit pricey but everything was delicious; it was a perfect end to the day after completing the Perimeter hike. We enjoyed the beer so much that we purchased some to-go… turns out they have only one size for takeout – BIG (quart size or nothing)!
Soak in the Hot Springs (or Just Use their Showers)
Ouray’s historic hot springs have bubbled up along the Uncompahgre River for thousands of years. They were first enjoyed by the Ute Indians who settled the area and considered the hot springs to be sacred and healing. Unfortunately, as happened all too often historically, the Utes were removed from the area by the Federal government in 1881.
The first formal pool and bathhouse were constructed in the late 1800s, offering hot baths to miners and plunge parties (… whatever that is!) to the ladies. The bathhouse and large outdoor pools that exist today were redeveloped in 2016. Full disclosure, we didn’t take time to dip in the hot springs. We would’ve loved to (and highly recommend it based on how inviting it looked), but our time was limited and with Walter in tow, we would have had to take turns. However, we did take advantage of the bathhouse’s shower facilities. For $4, they allow access to their super well-maintained showers and washrooms. A perfect vanlife score!
Climb Along the Via Ferrata
Ouray boasts the first public Via Ferrata in the US (brand new as of 2020). What is a ‘Via Ferrata’ you ask? In Italian, ‘via ferrata‘ means ‘iron path‘. It describes a climbing route that’s built into rock with steel cables, metal steps, bridges, and, ladders, that allows non-expert climbers to safely explore the mountains.
Via Ferratas have been popular in Europe for a long time but they’re relatively new to North America. Ouray’s Via Ferrata is particularly special for a couple of reasons: it’s one of only a small number of routes in North America; and (best of all), it’s public and free to use! Most Via Ferratas in North America are privately owned and to use them, you have to pay for a guided trip.
When we discovered that the Ouray Via Ferrata was free, we were so stoked. We had climbing equipment with us so we didn’t need to rent any gear. We planned to take turns doing the Via Ferrata on our last day in the area, however, after hiking the long Perimeter trail and drinking perhaps one too many big beers at the Ouray Brewery the day before, we just couldn’t muster the energy. Instead, we enjoyed a slow morning before turning Sally north, toward home. I truly regret not climbing the Via Ferrata. If I could go back in time, I would kick my butt out of bed and get out on the course. Don’t make the same mistake we did – do the Via Ferrata!
For those of you who have been following our Baja Bound adventure, this is the final post (better late than never)! From Colorado, we travelled slowly but surely home, spending hours behind the wheel every day.
Subscribe to our blog and stay tuned for our future adventures. After the infamous transmission failure ordeal, will we be back on the road with Sally next winter? Will our Crew trust her to take us to the epic, far-flung destinations we love? Will Mexico let us back into their country even though we never officially stamped out (that’s another story)?
Time will tell.
2 thoughts on “Hooray for Ouray – Vanlife Adventures in Colorado”
Yes, I agree, a very nice town. We also fell in love with it when we did the Million dollar highway in early April. We enjoyed the box canyon hike a d hot spring also. Went we passed, there were still ice walls to climb. Did you know it is the world’s capital of ice climbing? The city creates 40 or 50 ice walls near the Box canyon. Theses are free to use if you have the equipment or you can rent.
We also want to return.
It would be really cool to see Ouray in late winter or spring when the ice climbing is going on. By the time we arrived, all the ice and snow were gone. I’m definitely not brave enough to try ice climbing! How were the road conditions when you guys were there in April? Any ice and snow? I can’t imagine driving the Million Dollar highway in the winter.