Ouray, located on U.S.Hwy 550 in southwesten Colorado, started life as a mining town. Miners moved into the area in 1875
prospecting for gold and silver and established the town, erecting the first cabin in October of 1875.
By early 1876 numerous businesses had started including hotels, stores, a blacksmith, and several saloons.
After a few name changes, the town was incorporated as Ouray on October 2, 1876, named after
Chief Ouray of the Utes, and became the county seat of Ouray County on March 8, 1877.
The rush to Ouray was really on after discovery of rich silver deposits at Red Mountain, and the town
became a premier supply town and shipping point for the mines of the Red Mountain Mining District.
Ouray hit hard times after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 and the resultant crash of the silver market. Ouray survived this crisis largely due to the discovery of rich gold mines northeast of town in an area known as the “Gold Belt”. However mining continued to decline through the early decades of the 20th century and by 1930 the population of Ouray was down to 700 from its high of 2500 in 1890.
Ouray is nestled in a deep valley surrounded by spectacular cliffs and mountains on three sides. There is a large glacial cirque (the amphitheatre) on the east side of town and a fantastic view of Mt. Abrams to the South. At 7792 ft (or 7810 ft depending on which reference you choose) the town definitely has an alpine quality to it and has earned the nickname, "Switzerland of America". Early attempts were made to lure tourists to this "gem of the rockies" with its magnificent setting, numerous hot springs, and tours of the mines. Several elegant buildings were constructed to accomodate visitors, including the Beaumont, Western, and Ouray Hotels, and the Wright Opera House. Tourism is the primary revenue generator in Ouray today. Attractions include the Ouray Hot Springs, Ouray Ice Park, and Box Cañon Falls. There are lots of hiking, biking, horseback, and jeep trails. Cross-country skiing and ice climbing are big winter activities.
Ouray avoided the fires and avalanches that devasted many other mining towns, so several buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries have survived intact. The area containing these historic buildings is registered as a National Historic District. The Ouray County Courthouse, St. Elmo Hotel, St. Joseph's Miners' Hospital (currently the Ouray County Historical Society and Museum), Western Hotel, and Wright's Opera House are included in the district. The Beaumont Hotel and Ouray City Hall/Walsh Library are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
I used to live about 2 hours south and now live about an hour and a half north of Ouray. Needless to say I've been to Ouray several times. I always enjoy my trips there because it still has the feel of an old wild west town, unpretentious and slightly gritty, unlike Aspen and Telluride that have been upscaled to the nth degree.
Click here to view lots of historical buildings and businesses as a slideshow. May take several seconds to load and run.
U.S. highway 550 runs through the center of Ouray and becomes Main Street within the city limits. Exiting the south side of Ouray, U.S. 550 assumes the nickname "MIllion Dollar Highway" as it heads toward Silverton. Several of Ouray's historic buildings line Main Street, and the street is the nexus for commerce and tourism in the town. Main Street was originally Third Street, and many maps will label the street both as Main and Third. The photos in this section travel from south to north along Main Street. Even street numbers are on the west side and odd numbers on the east side of Main Street. The businesses in the photos below were all still in operation as of June 2021, but businesses come and go on a regular basis.
Last count there were four breweries in Ouray, Red Mountain Brewing, Colorado Boy Southwest Pub, Ouray Brewery, and Ourayle House Brewery (Mr. Grumpy Pants). They all serve good food and beer, but I'll confess to spending most of my time at Ouray Brewery.
Off Main Street
The Ouray National Historic District includes several blocks of southeast Ouray, in addition to most of Main Street. Many examples of late 19th and early 20th century residential architectural styles, in addition to some historic public buildings, are located in this area. The Ouray Historical Society sponsors a walking tour of the National Historic District. (FYI the first 2 photos below are NOT in the historic district).
Ouray Hot Springs Park
As mining decreased in the early 20th century, the folks of Ouray started casting about for other sources of income. Of course tourism was a no-brainer given the alpine grandeur of the area. In 1927, the town built a 750,000 gallon municipal pool filled by hot springs. The pool with its hot springs proved to be very popular and has been in continuous operation to this day. Ouray Hot Springs Park is located at the north end of town at 1200 Main Street. It contains five sulfur-free geothermally heated mineral pools ranging from 75 to 104° F. In addition, there are activity pools, 8 lap lanes, and 2 water slides. Spring water is used for the activity pools and lap lanes. The Ouray Visitor Center is located next to the municipal pool. Be sure to check out the fish pond (hundreds of goldfish) and the San Juan Miner's Memorial when you're there.
Box Cañon Park
To get to Box Cañon Park take U.S. 550 south out of Ouray for about 1/2 mile, turn onto CR 361, veer right onto Box Canyon Road, and follow the crowd. First stop is the Visitor/Nature center for tickets, info, and possibly a quick trip to the bathroom and/or gift shop. The park has three trails. The shortest trail, Falls Trail, is a 500 ft jog up and down concrete and metal stairs into the canyon to the base of the falls. The most strenuous trail is High Bridge Trail, a moderately difficult 0.3 mile out and back trail that climbs 200 ft to a bridge over Canyon Creek at the top of the falls. Lots of interesting stuff to see along this trail, and the view at the top is special. The third trail is the Nature Plant Loop (flat) that splits off Falls Trail and ends back at the visitor center. Box Cañon Falls plunges 285 feet into steep, narrow Box Canyon - very impressive and very noisy. A visit to Box Cañon Falls is mandatory if you go to Ouray.
Box Cañon Falls
Background info obtained from the City of Ouray, Ouray Historical Society, National Register of Historic Places, Legends of America, and Wikipedia.
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