Vien R. Guenther
Ouray to Silverton – Colorado, U.S.A.
Updated: May 18, 2021
Historic mining towns are scattered all over Colorado; some are easily accessible and only a short drive from Denver, but others take a few hours of driving. Ouray and Silverton are located in southwestern Colorado, tucked in the San Juan mountains. These towns were built during the mining boom in the 1800’s, which put Colorado on the map. Some mining towns became "ghost towns", but Ouray and Silverton are not among those forgotten towns. This area is a favorite among outdoor enthusiasts – hiking, climbing, biking, fishing, Jeeping and ATVs. A favorite starting point for anyone seeking nature.
We come in Ouray to hike. There are beautiful hiking trails nearby such as Blue Lakes Trail and Portland Creek Trail. There are hot springs as well, a perfect way to ease aching muscles after a day of adventures. If you have time, you might want to explore the Box Canyon Falls.
TO GET HERE
The shortest route to Ouray from Denver is about 5 hour and 30-minute drive, via U.S. Highway 285 going south and U.S. 50 going west. You can also drive via I-70 to Grand Junction, from where you can go south on U.S. 50/550.
HISTORIC DISTRICT OF OURAY
Ouray is nicknamed the “Switzerland of America”, the sign at the viewpoint above town says so itself. It is also called “The Outdoor Recreation Capital of Colorado”. You will understand why once you visit this town.
The Ute Indians once lived and roamed this area, but with the discovery of gold in Colorado their lives were severely changed and they ended up living in Utah. However, the town's name bears that of the Utes' chief. Chief Ouray was the leader of the Tabeguache (Uncompahgre) Ute Indian Tribe. He once lived in a small cabin at the foothills of the Amphitheater, now a landmark. The Portland Creek Trail-Chief Ouray Mine Trail will take you there.
It is said that Chief Ouray was highly regarded for his intelligence and diplomacy. He was a friend of the white man and protector to the Indians.
The Historic District of Ouray is located in a narrow valley surrounded by mountain peaks. The town has one main street and no traffic lights but it’s a vibrant town. As one saying goes, real people live here and their town was not over-developed like other towns.
The town was once a supply center for the nearby mining sites from 1886 to 1915. The buildings here represent various architectural styles with richly decorative details. There are significant numbers of 19th century buildings such as the Beaumont Hotel, Ouray County Historical Society (formerly St. Joseph Hospital which served until 1964), Wright’s Opera House, County Courthouse, the Western Hotel, St. Elmo Hotel and City Hall. There are walking tours of 19th century private homes. A significant number of families with children lived here in the 1890s. The town offers plenty of Jeep rentals for exploring the mountains.
BOX CANYON WATERFALLS & PARK
Box Canyon Falls is located just south of Ouray, at the west end of Third Avenue. There is a fee to visit here. There are three trails that you can follow: the Falls Trail, the Bridge Trail and the Native Plant Loop. The trails are all easy and family friendly. The canyon is recognized by the National Audubon Society as a hot spot for birding. It is home to a significant colony of Black Swifts which migrate to the canyon in early June and then migrate to Brazil in Autumn.
The 285-foot waterfall plummets into a narrow quartzite canyon. It is Ouray’s natural wonder, formed when the limestone of Canyon Creek was eroded by rushing water.
MILLION DOLLAR HIGHWAY
The towns of Ouray and Silverton are only about 24 miles apart and about a 43-minute drive. The only thing is, between these two towns is a stretch of Highway 550 known as the Million Dollar Highway. You probably heard of this famous road. This stretch of road has made the list of the world’s 12 most dangerous roads - alongside the “Highway of Death” in Iraq and the “Death Road” in Bolivia. Locals say its reputation is somewhat overblown, so you just have to drive it yourself to find out.
The section of US 550 stretch over San Juan Mountains. It is one of the roads on the Trails of the Ancients Byway, a New Mexico Scenic Byway, and part of the San Juan Scenic Byway. This stretch of road is one of the nation’s most scenic drives, but at the same time dangerous if you are not careful.
If you haven’t driven in the Colorado Mountains, then driving on this road can be a bit intimidating. For one thing, there is no guardrail and if you don’t pay attention you can drive over the edge and down into the gorge - and to your death. There are hairpin turns, switchbacks and “white knuckle” segments without guardrails. The reason for not having a guardrail is that there is no room for snow removal in winter. The snowplow drivers here are real heroes. The speed limit here is 25 mph and you better heed it, there is a reason for it.
There is an overlook above Bear Creek Falls. If you are squeamish about heights, then you might not want to go out there, the viewing area hangs over the cliff 227 feet above the river below. It can be a vertigo moment for you if you look down. There is a hiking trail nearby for tough hikers.
There are many theories why it was called Million Dollar Highway; if you Google it you will find the answers, though not necessarily the right one. Anyhow, one thing that my husband, Hermann, told me is that a million-dollars worth of silver was mined in that area. That's one theory, the other is that the highway cost one million dollars to build.
RED MOUNTAIN PASS
On this road, you will drive over Red Mountain Pass (11,018 feet), which name is derived from the iron oxide rock you see on the slopes. The pass divides the counties of Ouray and San Juan. It also separates the Uncompahgre and Animas River watersheds, as well as Uncompahgre and San Juan National Forests.
You will find evidence of mining relics here. South of Red Mountain Pass was the site of several mines during the silver boom in 1882 and 1893.
At the end of Million Dollar Highway is the Historic Town of Silverton. The ordeal of driving that road is well worth the sweat and anxiety. But remember, you only drove half of the way, you have to drive back. It's not really that bad. You might even find driving this road exhilarating and fun.
HISTORIC MINING TOWN OF SILVERTON
Silverton is a designated National Historic Landmark District. The town is a former silver mining camp and one of the highest towns in Colorado. As you approach the town, stop at the Christ of the Mines Shrine located on he slopes of Anvil Mountain.
The shrine, with a 16-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ, is a symbol of miracles among the locals. It was created during a depressing time in the 1950's when the mining industry came to a halt. According to the locals, miracles have happened in town after the shrine was erected. Soon after, the most profitable mining period in Silverton happened.
The town looks like a movie set, but actually it is not. These buildings here are authentic and just well-preserved. That is probably due to the towns isolation where, during wintertime, it was cut off for days from the outside world. It was once a thriving mining town with mills, smelters, saloons and brothels of course, as well as a jail, courthouse, miner’s cabins and Victorian houses.
The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway has its northern stop here. We were there in time when it unloaded the tourists. The railroad began in 1887, this is to serve the mines of the Red Mountain Mining District. Otto Mears, the “Pathfinder of the San Juans “, who was also behind the original construction of the Million Dollar Highway, developed a railroad to tap the riches of the mines of northern San Juan County, south of Red Mountain Pass. Today, it serves to tap the pockets of the tourists.
Hermann is a train enthusiast. In fact, he's got a collection of model trains that he plays once in a while. So, it was a thrill for him, and for me, to be able to investigate this train at leisure. We once rode the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad and that was fun; we would love to ride this train as well. The train provides year round service so even in winter you can take a ride.
If you don't want to drive from Durango to Silverton, then this is a great alternative for you. One option is to take the train from Durango to Silverton, and then take a bus back. But the stretch from Silverton to Ouray is only possible via the Million Dollar Highway.
Exploring the town will get you craving for some chow. There are good restaurants in Silverton. We had a great lunch in one of them. Do I have to say more? Just look at the pictures. If that does not make you salivate then......
If you are looking for jewelry, I found the stores here have reasonable prices. Just saying.