It’s that time of year again when the climbing shoes and chalk bag find their place in the gear closet while the crampons and ice tools screech with the sound of a file sharpening their steel points. Yes, winter is finally here and in full glory with plenty of snow and cold temperatures, turning the most glorious of waterfalls into true sculptures of ice that are waiting to be ascended.
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Every year, the Ouray Ice Park allures climbers from all over the world, as well as those who live just hours away, to climb the hundreds of natural and man-made ice routes within the Uncompahgre Gorge that is located at the south end of town.
Ouray is located in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado along Highway 550, approximately thirty-five miles south of Montrose and seventy miles north of Durango. Ouray has commonly been referred to as the “Switzerland of America” because of its proximity to the steep mountains that literally rise from the ends of the streets. One glance at a photo and you will soon realize how this comparison was derived, and you will gain a feeling of urgency to experience this amazing place.
The advantage to visiting Ouray during the winter is not only the world class ice climbing to be had but also the fact that winter is actually the off-season for this small town. Reasons for this include the overwhelming number of tourists who visit this area in the summer looking for mountain meadows filled with wildflowers and excellent camping, fishing, hiking, biking, and Jeepin’ on some of the most exciting and dangerous trails in the country. Since the winter is the off-season, lodging accommodations are reasonably priced and discounts are offered if you are an ice climber. You see, the Ouray Ice Park is owned and operated by the locals and the
way they keep the park open and maintained is by selling memberships to the park which in turn get you discounted rates for lodging, restaurants, and entrance to the hot springs. Oh, I almost forgot to mention that you can’t have ice climbing without natural hot springs.
Ouray is also known for one of the largest natural hot spring pools in the state which offers a warm retreat after a long day of being surrounded by frozen water. Many hotels and lodges in Ouray offer package deals that include overnight accommodations, access to the hot springs and even discounted lift tickets to the Telluride Ski Area which is only an hour away. For those who have burned their forearms from climbing, this is a great option to give their legs a chance to suffer in the fun.
So Many Activities, So Little Time
Now you’re probably starting to wonder, with so many attractions, how can it all be done with limited time? Well, for the past five years my wife, several friends, and I have made it a tradition to visit Ouray for a long weekend trip. From our home in Colorado Springs, it’s about a five hour drive across the Sawatch Range and the trip usually involves climbing, snowshoeing, and enjoying ourselves in the mountains. Ouray is surrounded by national forest and the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness Area, named for the 14,000’ peak Mt. Sneffels which derived its name from the Nordic word meaning “snowfield”. Mt. Sneffels is located just south of town and is accessed via the Camp Bird Road which offers many miles of snowshoeing and cross country skiing in addition to beautiful winter scenery.