How to spend a weekend in Ouray, Colorado: The Switzerland of America
Spoiler: it involves eating absolutely nothing healthy, easy hiking, a few naps and soaking in the sulfur-free hot springs while your travel companion ice climbs.
Ouray’s historic downtown quaintness and her surrounding natural beauty instantly won my heart.
Noticing the black rock under my feet as I hiked along the trails in the surrounding forests, it was easy to guess that millions of years ago, volcanic activity, followed by erosive glaciers in the ice age formed this perfect valley surrounded by jagged peaks. Looking at the yellowish color of the water that flows in the Uncompahgre River, you can conclude the water is rich with minerals, which attracted the Ute people to the healing hot springs hundreds of years ago.
Today, Ouray is well known to ice climbers all over the world for their magnificent ice park.
“Ouray has been a special destination of world travelers for more than 100 years. This small intimate community is nestled in some of the most rugged and towering peaks of the Rockies. Set at the narrow head of a valley at 7,792 feet and surrounded on three sides with 13,000 foot snowcapped peaks – Ouray is home to hundreds of miles of historic Jeep roads, sulfur-free hot springs with stunning views and the world-famous Ouray Ice Park.
Remarkably, two-thirds of Ouray’s original Victorian structures, are still occupied, and have been lovingly restored in order to preserve their turn-of-the-century charm.”
The Friday after Thanksgiving, we woke up (one of us with a massive wine hangover), loaded up the Jeep, and hit the road by 9 am to make the drive through the mountains to our charming weekend retreat.
By the time we got to Fairplay, it had started snowing and visibility wasn’t great, but I decided I could probably finally stomach some food, so we stopped at Ellen’s Place for a quick bite. We ordered their cheese curds to start. In the midwest, fried cheesecurds were a staple on every diner/bar menu, but I don’t often find them in Colorado. They were the perfect start to a hungover meal. I ordered the french dip sandwich and Kyle got a pepperoni pizza.
Just down the block was a dog-friendly park to give Freya a chance to stretch her legs and relieve her bladder.
I spent the rest of the car ride drifting in and out of naps while Kyle drove. But once we got our first glimpse of the snowy peaks of the San Juans, I knew we were close. We checked in to our dog-friendly hotel, hauled our luggage up to our room, and relaxed for a while.
We stayed at the Twin Peaks Lodge & Hot Springs. After checkin in at the A-frame office, I noticed it appeared to be an add-on to the back of a rather historic looking house. I later learned that the main building was built as a private residence in 1893 by a miner that luckily found riches in the mines and still stands today.
Then all three of us went for a walk around town (up and down main street) to stretch our legs after the long car ride and to scope out dinner possibilities. Most of Ouray’s buildings are historic Victorian structures. There is informational signage along both sides of Main Street with illustrations and information about the original tenants of the buildings. It was too cold to stand and read them all, but maybe I’ll get the chance on our next visit.
We decided on Red Mountain Brewing. I ordered the Estancia after our server told us it was similar to a hefeweizen. If I had been less hungover, I might have really enjoyed it. For dinner, Kyle got the shrimp mac n cheese and I got a half-order of their jumbo buffalo wings and a side of mashed potatoes. I’m not proud of this order. Or of the fact that I was barely able to finish my beer. But Kyle absolutely loved his dinner and started campaigning to return there the next night.
After a long day on the road feeling like crap, we watched a movie in our room and went to bed early in preparation for the next day’s early alarm.
At 7 am we loaded Kyle’s ice climbing gear into the Jeep and grabbed a quick bite from the hotel breakfast bar before Freya and I dropped him off at the guide office at 7:30. Then I went back to the hotel and crawled into bed for another hour of not-sleep before finally getting ready to take on the day. The weather forecast called for a bunch of snow later in the day so I didn’t want to venture too far away via car in case we had trouble getting back.
So, Freya and I started making our way to the Ouray Ice Park which was walking distance from our hotel. The ice park isn’t open for the climbing season yet, but it was still a magnificent sight to behold. I was enamored by the towering ice flows that covered the steep walls of the river canyon.
From there, we hiked up to see the memorial.
Just down the road from the memorial was an entrance to the Perimeter Trail. There was only one spot that was super icy and I had to put my microspikes on. Otherwise, the trail went from snow-covered to rocky and even muddy in a few places.
When the trail intersected with the Ice Park trail, we turned off so we would end up close to where we started.
We got back to our room around 1:30 pm, ate our lunches, and immediately took naps. When I woke up, the snow storm we were expecting was dumping snow outside. Big, fat, fluffy flakes. And I saw four deer walking around outside our room. They must have felt safe in the storm. I was glad we didn’t go on a bigger adventure that day, and I wondered if Kyle was warm enough with the storm rolling through. I had just enough time to shower and dry my hair before I needed to go collect Kyle from his ice climbing adventure.
We decided on Ouray Brewery for dinner. I may have been overly excited to see swings instead of barstools upon entering the bar. Every bar should have swings instead of barstools.
I had their Juicy Lucy burger with a side salad and Kyle had a pepper jack burger with fries and buffalo wings. We both had their IPA for our first beers but I switched to their chocolate porter for my “dessert” beer.
After dinner, the snow had let up quite a bit, so we returned to the hotel and soaked in one of the outdoor hot spring tubs for a while.
Kyle had a slightly later start on Sunday. He didn’t have to meet the group until 8:00 am so we didn’t hit the breakfast bar until 7:30. After we dropped him off, I went for another hot spring dip with a mug of coffee. Every morning should start with a soak in hot spring water with a mug of coffee.
By the time I got back to the room, it was 9:30 am and checkout was supposed to be 11 am. I called the front desk and asked for a late check-out because I still had to get ready for the day, get some work done and load the car up with everyone’s luggage. They gave me a 1-hour extension, which was perfect.
Even though we were hit with a snowstorm the night before, the day was turning out to be a warm sunny day. Around noon, with the Jeep loaded, Freya and I drove to the other end of town to grab lunch on a dog-friendly patio. I ordered a beer and pizza and we sat and soaked in the sunshine and lovely mountain views.
From there, we drove a few blocks to the Cascade Falls trailhead. After a very short and easy hike in, we found the falls with no problem. I could tell Freya was excited to do some more exploring after being cooped up all morning. Since the hike in was ridiculously short and we had some time to kill, we jumped on the perimeter trail where it met the falls trail. We didn’t make it to this part of the Perimeter trail the day before, so we had some fresh views. After a number of switchbacks, the trail started hugging a steep slope. We got an amazing view of the town nestled in the valley with larger peaks peeking out from the background.
Knowing that we would be spending several hours on the road later that day, I wanted to give Freya the opportunity to run around as much as possible. I took her to the Ouray Dog Park and we played approximately 87 rounds of fetch with a stick before she finally started to get bored in the late afternoon.
Luckily, right about that time, Kyle called me to tell me they were back so we could start the journey home. But first, I wanted to stop at Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee and get some lattes and a sweet treat. Someone recommended I get the scrap cookie. They take all their scraps from making their gourmet chocolate, caramel and toffee candies and bake them into cookies. I’m glad I didn’t know about the scrap cookie until I was literally on my way out of town or I would have been eating them all weekend. Not that I necessarily ate anything healthy all weekend, anyway….
This trip was the perfect little getaway and I can’t wait to explore more the next time we visit.