On our third morning in Telluride, we planned to explore Ouray on a day trip. Ouray is located 50 miles to the northeast of Telluride, with a circuitous route around Mt. Sneffels. As the crow flies, the distance is somewhere about 7 to 8 miles. But with no direct access, it takes about an hour to get there.
Incorporated in 1876, Ouray played an essential role as “the area’s shipping point and logistics center.” These days, it carries several monikers, including Switzerland of America and the Outdoor recreation capital of Colorado. It’s a launching point for the Million Dollar highway that plies between Ouray and Silverton and played a crucial role in transporting mined ore and mail. It’s also famous for its hot springs, backcountry OHV routes, hiking trails like the famous Perimeter trail, waterfalls, parks, among others. For winter enthusiasts, it has a unique ice climbing park, a small ski hill, and a skating rink.
Our goal that day was to drive the Million Dollar Highway, explore Ouray’s Main Street, visit the Box Canyon and Cascade Falls, enjoy a good lunch at one of the restaurants, eat some scrap cookies and soak away the evening in the hot springs pool.
We read a lot about the thrill and difficulties of driving the Million Dollar Highway. So our first thought was to drive it one way only, from Silverton to Ouray. To reach Silverton from the south takes a lot longer than from the north. There is a mountain pass via Ophir that leads to Silverton, and we tried to access it. At the head of the road was a sign stating that the county road was closed. Little did we know that even had it been open, the drive would have been challenging without a 4*4 vehicle and without a driver that was very knowledgeable about the area. We were left with little choice but to drive the Highway back and forth.
The drive to Ouray from the north was enjoyable. We drove back the way we had first arrived until we got to Ridgway, where we turned south to reach Ouray. Our first stop was at the Hot Springs Pool where the Ouray Visitor Center is located, At the time of our visit, the Center was closed, and the Hot Springs pool wasn’t open yet. Just as well! It was close to 11 am and our first order of the day was to complete the drive on the Million Dollar Highway.
As we drove to the start of the Million Dollar Highway, we saw signs for the Switzerland of America lookout point and stopped there to enjoy the 360-degree views. It was a beautiful sunny morning that made the viewpoint that much more magical. After taking in the vistas, we started back on the Million Dollar Highway. I will publish a separate post on the drive.
If you have ever heard of this highway, you would know the driving challenges that go with it. Having read quite a lot about it, we learned that it was one of the most dangerous roads globally. We were naturally concerned. But Mr. JJ was game enough to drive it. Following all posted signs and the speed limit, we drove close to 30 minutes on the highway before turning back. We had no plans to explore Silverton, so once the most challenging parts of our drive were done, we took a U-turn back and drove back. By then, Mr. JJ had shaken off all his worries about the drive. We realized that we were safe as long as we paid attention and drove at the prescribed speed limit.
Once back on the edge of Ouray, our first stop was at the Box Canon Waterfalls. Located just south of Ouray on CR361, off Highway 550, Box Canon falls is formed by the waters of Canyon Creek narrowing and rushing down a steep 285-foot drop into the canyon. The canyon walls tower a massive hundred feet above the waterfalls.
We were initially confused by a sign that said no parking. We parked across the highway on an open lot and walked to the canyon road. A little further in, there were steps on the right side that led to a bridge from where we could enjoy the Uncompahgre River. Climbing back up, we saw no parking area and no other visitors. Soon, we saw a car drive by towards a turn in the road and realized the waterfalls parking was further ahead. Mr. JJ went back to fetch our car, and we soon drove along Box Canon Road to the parking lot. While the area was busy, it wasn’t overly crowded at any time.
We walked up to the nature center where we got tickets and a map. The lady at the desk explained that we could visit the falls in three ways: the Falls Trail was an easy 500-foot walk into the canyon, the High Bridge trail gained about 200 feet in a half-mile hike (roundtrip). And a short and easy Native plant loop trail with markers identifying native plants. The first two required us to climb steps; the last did not.
We chose to finish the High Bridge Trail first. The first access is via stairs that cover about a third of the trail. The stairs then lead to a shelter with beautiful views of the valley and the surrounding mountains. Further ahead, we slowly gained elevation until we reached the High Bridge. Per the Park handout, this Bridge was built in 1900 to carry a water pipeline between two reservoirs. Directly below were the waterfalls. The Bridge leads to a tunnel built as a passageway for the pipeline and is now abandoned. There was a motion sensor-activated light that came on as we traversed the short, dark tunnel. On the other side were the connection to the Perimeter trail and amazing views of the valley.
Once we’d had our fill of the views, we walked down the trail and onto the Falls Trail. This trail was laid out evenly and provided an accessible walkway into the canyon and to the falls. We admired the falls from the walkway and then walked down the stairs to get closer to the base of the falls. The spraying water and the thundering sounds added a mystical quality to the scene. As we walked back, we noticed signs indicating that the canyon walls were the summer homes of the rare Black Swift birds. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any at the time of our visit.
Back in town, we first stopped to enjoy a good lunch. A friend had recommended Thai Chili restaurant. We found a parking spot just across from the restaurant and walked over to check the menu. While we were among the first to show up for lunch, the restaurant had a steady stream of customers and was nearly full by the time we left. We had noodles, Panang curry, and fried rice. All the dishes were flavorful, and portions were good sized.
Next, we strolled along Main Street to walk off our good lunch. The street was less active than in Telluride, and we enjoyed the peace and freedom from crowds. Our next destination was Mouse’s chocolates and coffee. While they are famous for their chocolates, we were there to try their renowned scrap cookies. Per their website, the scrap cookies are made from “buttery sugar cookie dough mixed with scraps from our chocolate making. Bits of chocolates, toffee, nuts, and random goodness. Then baked to perfection”.
We bought an assortment of chocolates and some scrap cookies for later use, settled down to enjoy coffee (for us), and an Oreo Monster shake for Sonny JJ. The laid-back atmosphere just soaked into our bones as we chatted away a while. After a time, we walked back to the car and checked our map to access Cascade Falls, located on the east side of town.
The Cascade Falls trailhead is easily accessible from the parking lot at the end of 8th Avenue. There is a quarter-mile hike to the waterfalls, and it’s “moderately steep and rugged,” as the sign at the entrance states. But very doable. There is a small shelter en route to the falls. Much like the Box Canon trail, the Cascade Falls trails also meets the Perimeter Trail for those who want to hike it.
Cascade Falls is the lowest in a series of seven falls Cascade Creek creates on its way down from Cascade Mountain. Watching the Falls from close-up was wonderful as it fell from its great height, and the spray flew over the surrounding rocks. Most visitors ventured closer to the falls, climbing onto the large rocks near its base to get photos. Others climbed the rocky incline to the side of the falls, which looked like an area leftover from the mining days. We were content to sit and watch the water plunge down the rocks. While visiting new places, our days can become hectic. But quiet moments like these make the experience more meaningful and embed many beautiful memories in our brains. Sometimes during a busy workday, these memories come out, bringing a ray of cheerfulness and a secret smile! It’s one of the many ways travel transforms us!
For a final couple of hours, we drove back to where we started our Ouray visit, the Hot Springs Pool. Owned and operated by the City of Ouray, the pool is fed by geothermally heated mineral water whose temperature is maintained around 104F. One water source for the pool is located close to the Box Canon waterfall and emerges at a whopping 150F. A second source emanates closer to the pool, and that water is around 120F. Coldwater for the lap lanes and activity pool comes from the local Weehawken Spring.
Operational since 1927 and open all year long, the Hot Springs Pool holds 750,000 gallons of mineral water. The pool is divided into several sections, including the adult-only soaking section, family soaking section, activity pool, workout pool, and water slides. What is even more fantastic is the view around the pools. Surrounded by tall mountains, come rain or shine, there is a calming quality to the area.
Once we bought the tickets at the reception, we split up to use the locker rooms provided. The ladies’ section was clean and sufficiently large, with a bank of lockers along one wall. I did not have any change on me, and so I didn’t use them. There were several stalls for changing scattered around the periphery of the room. Further inwards was a set of shower stalls and restrooms. The changing area was empty when I visited.
After changing, I walked to the pool where the boys were waiting, and we walked to the adults-only soaking area. Leaving our belonging on the benches nearby, we eagerly lowered our aching bodies into the hot water. Ah, it felt so wonderfully good! There were massaging jets located along the pool walls, and we took advantage of them. The Pool authorities recommend moving from the hot water to the cooler pools after about 15 minutes to avoid overheating. But we were there for over an hour and spent most of the time in the hot pool. What helped were intermittent episodes of drizzling rain and a drop in the ambient temperature. Neither of which fazed us!
There were children of all ages scattered around the various pools. Lifeguards were on duty and watching. From college kids to seniors swimming laps, adults of all age groups joined us in the pool that day. As the day drew to a close, we reluctantly left the pool to shower, change and head back to our lodge.
While we covered all of what we wanted to see and do in Ouray, our one regret was not hiking the 6.5-mile Perimeter trail that rings the city. We saw portions of it at different locations. It starts and ends at the Visitor’s Center but has other egress points to join/ leave the trail. Had we stayed in Ouray, this would have been on our “attempt list,” but it was not feasible with only a day to spend.
Our day trip to Ouray was a mishmash of everything a travel day should bring. A thrilling drive, heartwarming nature, thundering falls, short hikes, good food, lots of history, and a relaxing hot springs pool to end the day! I couldn’t have asked for more!!