Welcome to the Switzerland of America – Welcome to Ouray, Colorado! We spent the better part of two weeks at this lovely historic mining town. At 7,792 ft (2,375 m) elevation, Ouray is situated in a valley carved by the Uncompahgre River and is surrounded by the jagged cliffs of the San Juan Mountains. This was our second visit to Ouray, having stayed for a few days in 2010.
During our stay we camped at the Ouray KOA, located about five miles outside of town. This KOA was much nicer than many we have stayed at, with great scenery, spacious sites, and conveniently located to serve as base camp as we explored the area around Ouray. Some mornings, we enjoyed a relaxed breakfast at the KOA Creekside Cafe. Another evening, after a long day-trip into the mountains, we enjoyed take-out pizza from the KOA general store. As a bonus, several evenings we were entertained by a couple of musicians camping near us – nice folks and versatile players of guitar, bass, mandolin and banjo instruments – lovely country and bluegrass music played by lantern and campfire light.
Most days we passed through Ouray on the way to a day-trip destination or to pickup mail or groceries. We very much enjoy the charm of this town with its many old historic buildings and interesting businesses. One rainy afternoon, we stopped by the Ouray Brewery for a burger, barbecue sandwich and to sample the local brew – most excellent! Another rainy afternoon made for good conditions to wander around the town, photographing the historic buildings and the tattered storm clouds clinging to the cliffs above.
During our stay, we were struck by how many dead and dieing trees were evident on the slopes around the town, seemingly many more than we recalled from our earlier trip in 2010. Perhaps the trees were victims of drought and beetle infestation in recent years?
Most of our day-trips took us south of Ouray on highway US 550, an amazing, scenic and, at times, hair-raising road to drive. US 550 runs from Ridgeway through Ouray, Silverton, Durango and on to Albuquerque, New Mexico, passing through the majestic alpine vistas of the San Juan Mountains.
From Ouray, US 550 follows the Uncompahgre River gorge, climbing in a series of switchbacks to a valley below Red Mountain Pass, then resuming hairpin curves and switch backs through the pass. For much of the way through the gorge, the road is narrow, clings to the cliff side and has no guard rails or shoulder between the road and a plunge into the river gorge. During our visit, there were several sections of US 550 undergoing road construction where the road was one-lane, with accompanying delays.
The 13 mile section of US 550 between Ouray and Red Mountain Pass is best known as The Million Dollar Highway. Origins of the name are disputed – at times stated as the cost to build at one million dollars per mile in the 1920’s, or at other times, the road has a million dollars in gold ore per mile. The highway is also part of the San Juan Skyway, a series of connecting roads forming a scenic byway through and around the San Juan Mountains.
The geology of the San Juans is fascinating and so much of it is on display for all to see. Massive layers of 1.4 billion year old Pre-Cambrian sedimentary rock, metamorphosed into harder rock forms the basement layers. These deposits were uplifted around 66 million years ago and heavily eroded. Heavy vulcanism about 33 million years ago buried the area in deep deposits of pumice, ash and lava. Wind, rain and periodic glaciation has eroded the mountains to what we see, today.
At one lookout along US 550, prominent ripple marks are exposed in 1.4 billion year old Pre-Cambrian layers, providing a dizzying glimpse back in deep-time, along with the dizzying look into the depths of the river gorge. I wonder, what nameless sea once lapped over these sands, now frozen in rock before us?
For one of our day trips, we took US 550 to the historic mining town of Silverton, had lunch at a nice bar and grill, the Hungry Moose. Silverton was quite crowded with other tourists – this grill was less busy and had a nice patio and allowed pets. Jasmine & Pepper enjoyed hanging out with us for lunch, especially since the occasional fry or tidbit of burger made it their way. On the way back we stopped at a river and let Jasmine & Pepper have a good splash in the stream.
We also stopped at the Red Mountain Pass Mining District overlook and then at the nearby mining ghost town of Ironton. The Red Mountain Pass Mining District was one of the most productive gold and silver mining areas in the San Juans and has many mining ruins and hundreds of old mine shafts and workings. I returned to this area several times over the next few days to photograph the mine ruins by day and by night.
The area around Ouray has wonderful scenic drives, but many of the drives need a vehicle with high clearance, 4WD and are not for the faint-of-heart. If you are visiting Ouray, but do not have a vehicle suitable for such rough roads, Jeep and ATV rentals are available, as well as Jeep tours. If you are at all adventurous, don’t miss out for lack of suitable vehicle!
We took one such non-technical drive through the Ophir Pass from US 550 to the historic town of Ophir. The road through the pass is steep, winding, rocky and one-lane with occasional turnouts, but not too difficult. The road is well maintained, but does need high clearance in places. A 4WD vehicle with good clearance is recommended. The road is very scenic with stunning alpine vistas. We met quite a few vehicles during our trip through the pass – many jeeps, 4WD SUVs and ATVs. Fortunately, folks were courteous and mindful of approaching vehicles and used turnouts where possible – as did we.
Another day trip, we took Camp Bird Road, Ouray County Road 26, from US 550 just outside of Ouray, up to Yankee Boy Basin and then to Governor Basin. This county road is well maintained gravel and dirt up to the turnoff to the basin. In places, there are wash-boarding and potholes to watch out for. Most of the road is wide enough for two vehicles, but there are places where the road is one-lane running along a cliff side.
We didn’t get too far into the Yankee Boy Basin before encountering increasingly difficult washed out stream crossings. We stopped awhile, admired the scenery and several nearby waterfalls, before retracing our route and driving up to Governor Basin.
The road up to Governor Basin was rather hair-raising – narrow, rocky and quite steep – winding high up the mountain side to the basin. The view from several overlooks along the way, as well as from the basin made all the effort worthwhile. We also enjoyed the sight of late-blooming wildflowers in Governor Basin – we had hope to see the same in Yankee Boy Basin, but we were perhaps too late in the season at the lower altitude for many blooms.
Yankee Boy and Governor Basins are glacier-carved cirques. The valleys below were also carved by the flowing rivers of ice in recent glaciations. Quite stunning land-form and scenery!
Another day trip, we drove the Cimarron Road from Ridgeway through Owl Creek Pass, as far as Silver Jack Reservoir before returning. This is another reasonably well maintained gravel and dirt road, but has some rough areas of washboarding and potholes. The road passes through extensive stands of Aspen which would be stunning in the fall time. Unfortunately, we were too early for any fall color – the stands were still wearing their summertime greens.
The road runs through an area of volcanic formations north of the San Juans, called the Cimarron. Sights include jagged ridges of eroded pumice and a prominent formation called Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain or Peak.
The air was quite hazy the day we took our drive, but I returned another afternoon after a thunderstorm when conditions were much more photogenic – Chimney Rock and Courthouse Peak were partially shrouded in tattered remnants of cloud and there was a wonderful interplay of light and shadow on the rock formations.
One of our last day trips was to the mining ghost town of Animas Forks. This ghost town is along one of the mountain roads comprising the Alpine Loop. The Alpine Loop runs from Silverton to Lake City and includes the Engineer and Cinnamon Passes. The first section of road from Silverton to the historic mining town of Eureka is very well maintained. Unfortunately, the 4 mile section of road from Eureka to Animas Forks is much rougher – steep, narrow, and extremely rocky – this section of road could more accurately be called a “ball-buster” or “tire-shredder”.
The Animas Forks town-site does not disappoint, though, containing many well-preserved historic buildings and mining ruins.
About another mile further up the road to California Gulch, there are the very impressive ruins of the Frisco Mill. This mill was a “kit mill”, built somewhere out east, disassembled and parts all labelled, then shipped out west and reassembled as a kit. Look closely at the timbers and beams of the mill and you can still see the letter & number labels.
I returned to Animas Forks the next afternoon to photograph the Frisco Mill and Animas Forks ruins at sunset and at night. The night photo session was quite short as the moon set behind the mountains about two or three hours after sunset. Driving back down canyon and back to Ouray was a slow process – I had to carefully navigate the road back to Eureka and had to take US 550 slowly with constant lookout for deer and elk (and the occasional porcupine). By the time I was back to camp, I was thoroughly sick of nasty, rocky, windy mountain roads!
Before leaving Ouray, I took one last night photo outing to the mine ruins in the Red Mountain Mining District. The night was quite beautiful – plenty of moonlight, fast-moving clouds, and lightning flashes from distant thunderstorms behind the mountains. The night was still, except for the bugling of bull elk in the distant, the whisper of a breeze in the aspen stands, the occasional creak and groan of the old buildings, or the rush of wings from a startled owl from a mine head frame. Here are the night photos – I’ve included some images from our earlier trip in 2010.
Overall, we had a wonderful time here at Ouray and can’t wait for another visit, sometime in the future.