Take a Journey into History, While Experiencing the Majesty of Southwest Colorado on a Jeep Tour!
Have you ever wondered what all of the fuss is about when people talk about four wheeling in the San Juans? Whether it is your first visit, or your hundredth, regardless of your off road experience, taking a ride with one of the knowledgeable guides in Ouray is well worth it.
From the moment we boarded the twelve passenger tour jeep, everyone knew this was going to be a day of fun. Greg, owner of San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours picked us up promptly at 8:30, and immediately set a mood of adventure with his friendly, professional manner.
We jumped on Highway 550, and began our tour with a quick stop at the Bear Creek pull off. This section of the Million Dollar Highway was just recently expanded and offers a spectacular view of the Uncompahgre Gorge. A plaque honoring Otto Mears stands testament to the fact that this section of road was built and maintained by hardworking people. Photos of the highway and toll booth when it was fist built, remind us of how times have changed.
Another quick stop to walk around in the town of Ironton was a fascinating journey into the history of the Uncompahgres. It is hard to believe that once there were over a thousand residents where now there are only a few buildings still standing. You cannot help but marvel at how quickly Mother Nature takes back an entire town.
Just past the Summit of Red Mountain Pass, the real adventure began, as we turned off onto a county road, which would lead us to the Highway to Heaven. San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours is the only tour company with permission to drive this road, so there were no other vehicles as we unlocked the gate and began the ride.
Wildflowers dot the countryside as the road climbs in altitude, past abandoned mines and falling down houses on the deceptively smooth road. Perhaps ten minutes after the gate, the real ride began. Greg stopped and told us some history of the area, then gestured beyond to the beginning of the Highway to Heaven. The grade was daunting, and the tour truck immediately geared into four low as we began the ascent. Looking to the side, there is very little shoulder, and the countryside opens in a breathtaking panorama. Sitting in the far back seat, it was fun to look forward and see nothing but sky past the heads of my co travelers.
As we reached the top of the road, clouds obscured our view for a moment, and we all got out of the vehicle to stand at the edge, where no one questioned whether we truly had risen as far as the name of the tour proclaimed. A light breeze pushed aside the clouds, and we found ourselves gazing down at the Million Dollar Highway from what seemed like a thousand miles above.
Some of us tried to get our picture taken with a finger in the lake below, but our aim was a little off.
The ride back down was amusing. some folks with weak stomachs opted to walk as opposed to riding back down the steepest part of the road. Greg just chuckled when asked if his feelings were hurt. The drivers on these tours have traveled these roads so often, it is old hat to them. We caught up with them quickly enough, and the ride down the hill was not nearly as frightening as everyone thought it would be.
Shortly after, we found ourselves in the tiny town of Silverton. A quick stop at the courthouse to use the restrooms, then we headed to Handlebars for lunch. This little restaurant is a popular spot for lunch, between the atmosphere, friendly service and great food its no wonder!
Heading home, we took Corkscrew Pass. This four wheel drive road is full of twists and turns, but not overly treacherous. It takes you up above timberline again, and we all got out to look across the way at the mountaintop we had just been to.
Once back at the hotel, everyone was truly satisfied, and perhaps a little tired. There is nothing like spending an entire day travelling the back roads around Ouray. It always seems as if there is something more magnificent to see beyond every switchback, and it is hard to leave, but once the day was over, everyone was glad to relax and download all the pictures, or soak in the mineral hot spring tubs.
Let us help you decide on the perfect jeep tour for your visit! At the Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs, our team makes it a point to know what will best suit your party. Whether you are looking for bumpy roads and heart pounding adventure, or a scenic ride to some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, we can help create the perfect adventure for you.
See you Soon!
Jeep Trails are opening up in the high country. Head on up to Ouray today!
Ouray Coun ty has had a beautiful Spring! With the snow almost gone, it is time to head out to the high country and enjoy the amazing scenery of the San Juan Mountain range. Wildflowers are blooming everywhere. It's just a question of where you want to go to see the full effect of blankets of color over green grass.
Photographers fantasize about days as full of images as one might see in less than a morning here. With over 500 miles of trails to choose from right outside of town, it is no wonder Ouray, Colorado is nick-named The Jeeping Capital of the World!
Even driving the highway is a pleasure this time of year. Everywhere you look, the new calves and foals are roaming pastureland. Just earlier this week, a guest reported sighting a baby bear as she drove into town!
With the re-opening of three mines on Camp Bird Mine Road, the track is already open to the bathrooms at Yankee Boy! Take advantage of the mild weather and quiet time of year to explore the Uncompahgres!
Four Wheel Drive Road Status as of June 13, 2013:
Alta Lakes - Open
Black Bear Pass - Closed
Blue Lakes Trailhead - Open
Brown Mountain - Open
Cinnamon Pass - Open to Lake City
Clear Lake - Open
County Road 2 to Animas Forks - Open
County Road 9 - Open
Cow Creek - Open
Engineer Pass -Open
Fall Creek Road (to Woods Lake) - Open
Governors Basin - Open
Hastings Mesa - Open
Horsefly - Open
Hurricane/California - Open
Imogene - Open to Richmond basin and Silver Basin on Ouray side - Open to the Summit only on San Miguel side.
Iron Springs (Hwy 145 through to Hwy 62)- Open
Last Dollar Road - Open
Little Cone Road (CR G49) - Open
Maggie/Minnie - Open as far as the Kitty Mack Cut-off
Miniehaha (CR 51) - Open
Old Lime Creek - Open
Ophir - Open - BE ADVISED ICY CONDITIONS
Owl Creek Pass - Open
Picayune - Open
Pittsburgh Mine Road - Closed
Placer - Open
Poughkeepsie - Closed
Red Mountain Town - Open
Shrine Road (CR 6) - Open
Skyline - Open
South Mineral Campground road - County road 7 - Open with hosts on site
Yankee Boy - Open
Stony Pass - Open to Pole Creek *Please use extreme caution crossing Pole Creek in the Spring!
Please remember as always: road conditions in the high country can change in minutes. Please use extreme caution during the early spring month. If in doubt, turn around and take a different trail. Even the low altitude four wheel drive trails can be treacherous as winter melt off erodes paths and causes rock slides. Every trip is an adventure, and once you have spent the day exploring the San Juans, there is no better way to relax than a long soak in our soothing mineral hot spring tubs!
Let the Box Canyon Lodge & Hot Springs help plan your next trip in the high country! We can arrange jeep tours or jeep rentals with the company of your choice. For tours, the driver will come pick you up from our lobby and bring you right back to us at the end of an eventful day.
See You Soon!
Celebrate the Fourth of July surrounded by the majesty of the San Juan Mountains!
So, you may be wondering..."What to do in Colorado on the Fourth what with the fireworks cancelled?" Well, you've come to the right place! Long before fireworks were a prevalent part of the Independence day celebration, Ouray has provided a full day of family fun and entertainment, and this year may well be one of the best yet.....fireworks or not!
Ouray and the surrounding towns in Southwest Colorado provide a truly original experience on the Fourth of July. Virtually unchanged since its birth in the 1800's, this tiny mountain town provides an historic taste of our countries special day. Traditions in Ouray on the fourth have lasted through the years, changing only slightly.
First thing in the morning, join your fellow running enthusiasts at Fellin Park for the Ourayce 10K, part of the Ouray 2012 Race series. The race will finish up just in time to converge on Main Street, which will be closed at 10:00 am for the annual Fourth of July Parade. Cheer for all of the different organizations and individuals marching, or, enter yourself!
After the parade, the fun is just beginning. Family fun and games start at 11:00 am, and are an all day event at Fellin Park. The Ouray Elks, among others will be offering great barbeque options, from burgers and brats to some of the best ribs ever. If you're looking for an escape from the outdoor activities, all of the restaurants and shops will be open and ready to provide you with a great experience of small town hospitality and good cheer.
Highway 550 will close down for the second time of the day at 2:00 pm when the annual water fights commence. A tradition started in the late 1800's, with as many rocks as there was water shooting from the fire hoses, these hearty miners stood for up to an hour against each other with no protection but a ladies bathing cap. These days, competitions are timed and teams wear protective gear, limiting the number of injuries but certainly not the amount of fun audiences have watching competitors push their endurance to the limits.
Dinner is a difficult decision in Ouray on the Fourth of July. All of the local restaurants offer a fabulous variety of dining options with the celebratory air of the day. Enjoy margaritas on the deck, or prime rib in an old fashioned saloon.
The Wright Opera House will be offering a free viewing of ET at 4:00 pm, and 6:00 pm, which is a great way to wind down after a day of frivolity and fun.
Of course, the night isn't over yet! Not by a long shot! Also starting at 4:00 pm, Mike Gwinn and the North Fork flyers will begin a free concert in the park! All of the activities and booths open throughout the day will stay open at Fellin Park until the JEEP GLOW PARADE at 9:00 pm. Bring your Jeep to the Ouray “Switzerland of America” Overlook on Hwy 550 at 8:15 to line up for the “glow” parade, starting at 9:00 PM. Glow sticks and decorations provided by the Ouray Chamber Resort Association. Donations accepted.
Whether this is the first or the fiftieth time you experience the Fourth of July in Ouray, it will be a day to remember!
With over 500 miles of accessible 4WD trails at our doorstep, is it any wonder Ouray is know as the Jeeping Capitol of the World?
When driving to Telluride in the winter, or in a sedan, or if you're in a hurry, it is a circular route down Highway 550 to Ridgway, turn on to Highway 62, then a few miles further down the road, turn onto Highway 145 which takes you to a town very similar to Ouray, but a mountain range away. The entire drive is forty-seven miles and takes about an hour.
Of course, thats not the only way to Telluride, just the fastest. Imogene, Black Bear, Ophir and Last Dollar are some other options, but not for the faint of heart (except perhaps for Last Dollar).
Black Bear Pass is the shortest in miles, but takes alot longer than the highway. A short twelve miles of sharp twists and narrow turns, this level five trail is not for the faint of heart. In fact, most rental companies strictly forbid the use of their vehicles on this one. Definately take a tour though!
Imogene is a level four jeep trail traversing 17 miles of spectacular scenery. This is propably the second most popular trail in the area, taking drivers over rough terrain to the summit of 13,100 feet. Both of these typically open around July Fourth so the early opening of these roads is exciting indeed! Perhaps I will let someone drive me over them this year!
Ophir Pass is considered one of the easier four wheel drive roads in the area. Summiting at a little over 11,000 feet, this level three trail travels past waterfalls, and a mountain lake as it eventually drops you into the small town of Ophir, a few miles away from Telluride. As you enter into the 'city limits' of Ophir, you are greeted with a welcome sign which proclaims the population down to house pets. Super cute!
Are you a John Wayne fan? Last Dollar Road takes travellers past the Ross Ranch, one of several film locations from True Grit in and around Ouray County. Accessed about 10 miles outside of Ridgway, at the top of Dallas Divide, this level one trail gives drivers a sense of the majesty of the back country without the extreme switchbacks and sheer drops of some of the more difficult roads.
Do them all, perhaps not in one day, but each road is its own adventure and well worth the drive. After that, no worries! Take a drive to Silverton over Corkscrew or head on over to Lake City on Engineer, or explore some ghost towns in Red Mountain Town.
120 years ago the population of Ouray was at its peak and silver mining supported the town.
Getting the ore down from the mines and supplies back up to the mines was carried out by freighting outfits who employed dozens of men and kept hundreds of horses, mules, burros (donkeys) and wagons. The standard ore wagon had a five-ton capacity and was pulled by six horses or mules (see attached photo).
The wagons of course could only be used on roads, but many of the mines were located on narrow trails. Long teams of mules or burros could be seen every day on the streets of Ouray preparing to head to the mines. Horses were too skittish for hauling to the mines on narrow trails and mules were much more sure-footed. A mule could carry 200-400 pounds of material while a burro could carry 75-150 pounds. Burros have the advantage that they would feed themselves by eating natural vegetation while mules needed to have food provided. Some of the items freighted to the mines included food, coal, machinery, rail, lumber, explosives and tools. Lumber was hauled up to the mines tied at one end to a burro and dragging on the other end. It would be ordered six inches longer than needed so the damaged end could be cut off.
Dave Wood’s Magnolia Line was the most important of the early San Juan freighting businesses. He followed the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s railhead and provided freight service from there to towns further west. In 1884 Wood built his own road, still known today as the Dave Wood Road, from Montrose to Telluride. He served towns until the railroad arrived: Ouray in 1886 and Telluride in 1892. At one point he had over 500 head of horses, mules and oxen at work. When a newcomer to Colorado asked him how long he had lived in these mountains, Wood replied, ”Madam, I hauled these mountains in here.” In spite of his great success he went bankrupt during the Silver Panic of 1893.
Even after the railroad arrived in Ouray in 1886 freighting was still needed to get materials to the mines. The largest freighting company to serve Ouray’s mines was owned by John Ashenfelter. His company served Ouray from 1882 until his death in 1910 and was the exclusive freighter for the Camp Bird and Revenue Mines. Ashenfelter’s business occupied both sides of 8th Avenue in the block west of Main Street. He had two large barns, wagon and grain warehouses, three livery stables, corrals as well as blacksmith and carpentry shops. At the height of his business he had 24 six-horse teams, many dozen pack mules and a herd of 80 burros. Ashenfelter also ran a daily four-horse stage up the Camp Bird Road. In 1899 his stage was the scene of the only reported stagecoach robbery in Ouray County.
Ouray was also served by many smaller livery stables. They did a brisk business in renting buggies, wagons and horses. It was common practice for miners at the Camp Bird and Revenue Mines to walk into Ouray on a Saturday and then hire a horse on Sunday to ride back to the mine. The horse would then return riderless to the livery stable.
John Donald came to Ouray in 1886 and started a packing business with a string of burros. He did most of the ore packing for the mines on Gold Hill north of Ouray. He eventually bought what remained of the Ashenfelter stables in 1920. The Fellin brothers established a freighting business in 1911. They did most of the hauling for the Atlas and Mountain Top Mines. The Fellin brothers purchased John Donald’s business after his death in 1933. Fellin trucks continued to haul the Camp Bird ore to the railroad until the 1960s.
Other livery stables included Union Livery Company which was located on Main Street and had wagons and carriages on the first floor and stables in the basement with large corrals in the back. A. A. Moore established the Free Coinage livery in 1898 at the corner of 9th Ave and Main Street. Today’s Ouray Livery Barn traces its history back to 1883 when the O. K. Stables were established. In 1893 Charles Rowley, who had married John Ashenfelter’s sister, purchased the O. K. Stables and operated it until his death in 1930.
About the Author: Don Paulson is the curator at the Ouray County Historical Society and Ouray County Museum. He is also a retired Professor of Chemistry where he specialized in organic chemistry. Don is an active member of the Ridgway Railroad Museum, and an avid hiker, 4WD (jeep) enthusiast, and photographer in addition to his duties as curator for the museum.
About 50 Miles South of Ouray, the Old Lime Creek Road Provides an Easy Forray into Backcountry Driving (4WD)
Drive the original US 550 through beautiful coniferous and aspen forests. In the fall, this road is a great fall foliage scenic drive and Colorado Color tour through shimmering aspen tree forests. Most of the road is quite easy, but, a high clearance vehicle is essential in some rocky sections.
Take US Forest Service Road 591 approximately three miles north of Purgatory Ski Area. This scenic drive in Southwest Colorado takes adventurers to Scout Lake, approximately 3 miles from this intersection. Scout Lake provides an incredible landscape for Plein Aire painters all summer long. The lake is full of blooming lilly pads in July and August and home to numerous ducks, geese and other water fowl. Past Scout Lake, the road becomes a wide shelf road, overlooking the beautiful Lime Creek Valley below. In sections, you will see remnants of the original US 550 through this area; notice the intracate rock and brick guard rails that were built in the 1930s through the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The Lime Creek Road lies on the edge of old Ute land, running along Lime Creek from the Upper Animas River Basin to the Silverton area. It was first used as a hunting trail by the Utes. Captain Charles Baker was one of the earliest prospectors to use the trail in 1860, prior to mineral prospecting rush of that decade. The trail was converted into a formal road in the late 1800s. It was used heavily by prospectors carrying gold and silver as well as early pioneers trying to access Silverton’s extremely profitable mining country. Even though this road may seem primitive and a bit treacherous by todays standards, it was still the easiest route to reach the Animas Valley. The other alternatives meant trekking the steep slopes of the Molas Divide or attempting the Animas Canyon. Imagine what it would have been like to ride the road in a horse drawn wagon!
This road rejoins the current US 550 12 miles later, about 11 miles south of Silverton on the slopes of Coal Bank Pass.
Off the Beaten Path 4WD and Motorcycle Roads in Ouray County Colorado for Wildflower Viewing and Fall Foliage
Ouray County Roads 2 and 4 are often overlooked by visitors who want to climb to dizzying heights in the San Juan mountains. Now don’t get me wrong, because I love doing the same thing. But close to home are two readily-accessible roads that offer access to Billy Creek State Wildlife Area, along with spectacular views and wildflowers. The roads, shown in the GPS track below, are easily reached from US Hwy 550, just north of the Pa-Co-Chu-Puk Campground at Ridgway State Park. This post tells you how to find these great roads and gives you a sample of the views and wildflowers I captured on camera on a mid June afternoon.
Let’s suppose you’re renting a Jeep, but that’s tomorrow. What to do today? If you have a conventional 2-wheel-drive sedan, you can easily travel up County Road 2 and also up to the top of the ridge on County Road 4B, enjoy the incredible views, then turn around and retrace your steps. The road is a bit rutted, but time will knock the ruts down even more. Now, let’s suppose that while you’re waiting for that Jeep you have your SUV or pickup truck. You can easily add County Road 4 to your itinerary and see even more. Pay attention to where there are some rocks embedded in the road surface and you’ll be fine—I don’t recommend it for low-clearance highway vehicles like our Prius. If you take your dual-sport or dirt motorcycle, note that there is some scree. Also note that parts of CR 4 border private property, so please obey the “no trespassing” signs and stay on the road. Also please note that vehicles going uphill have the right of way (but use common sense).
From Ouray, drive north to Ridgway. Keep on going, about nine miles. You’ll pass the Pa-Co-Chu-Puk campground—in another half mile you’ll find the turn onto County Road 4. If you’d prefer the tamer County Road 2, travel a couple miles further north on US Hwy 550 and you’ll see this sign on the east side of the road near a small collection of homes and the big metal maintenance building for Billy Creek.
Before looking at the wildflowers, let’s take a look at the GPS track below that highlights both roads. You may want to print this map and take it with you.
Note there are primitive campsites near the intersection of CR 2 and CR 4A. Observe the signs. If you’re bringing ATVs along, this is where you’ll want to park and unload.
Above: The view from the parking area at the easternmost end of CR 2. In the fall this field is dotted with hay rolls and is gorgeous. It's quiet here and there's plenty of room to park, plus a trail to go further into Billy Creek on foot or horseback.
When I was up there yesterday evening, I found wildflowers everywhere, especially up toward the intersection of CR 4A and CR 4. I stopped to take a picture of one and ended up spending quite a bit of time capturing pictures of others.
So, there you go! A low key, straightforward ride through some beautiful areas with gorgeous views. This is one of my favorite rides!
Below: Pinion Pines Biome on County Road 4.
About the Author: Dave Casler is an avid motorcycle rider (both dirt and street) and lives in Ouray County. He has the very best website documenting the roads of Ouray County for motor enthusiasts. He also has information on routes in Montrose County as well as San Juan County (Silverton), Hinsdale (Lake City) and San Miguel County (Telluride). All 4WD enthusiasts will appreciate his GPS maps and documentation of routes although he specializes in motorcycles.
Current Status: October 18, 2011
Due to the recent snowfall in the upper country, all four wheel drive trails above 10,000 feet are snow packed and icy. Fall colors are still in bloom in much of the lower country although many of the aspen have begun to shed their leaves in preparation for winter. Trails like Last Dollar are especially beautiful this time of year, however please remember to use caution, as muddy trails can be quite hazardous.
For information on Fall Color, look at these other articles:
Yankee Boy - Open to the restrooms only
Gladstone - Open
Last Dollar Road - Open Fall colors are still fantastic in this area!
Old Lime Creek - Open
Imogene - CLOSED
Governors Basin - CLOSED
Clear Lake - CLOSED
Alta Lakes - Open
Hurricane/California - CLOSED
Maggie/Minnie - CLOSED
Stony Pass - CLOSED
Black Bear Pass - CLOSED
Engineer Pass -CLOSED
Picayune - CLOSED
Placer - CLOSED
Ophir - CLOSED
Skyline - CLOSED
Although most passes are now closed, there is much to see from the lower altitude trails. As always, use caution on all trails this time of year, and dont forget your camera!
Ouray enjoys a bountiful snowfall in most years and the high alpine terrain around Ouray Colorado gets even more. To ensure a longer lasting and great 4WD season, Ouray and the surrounding counties call on their road and bridge department personnel to clear the roads. In early May (weather depending of course), Ouray County starts the plowing efforts. Typically, Camp Bird Road (Ouray County 361) gets the first days of plowing. The bulldozer driver and a volunteer head up the way, slowly moving snow from the road to the side. This road is plowed past Twin Falls and up to the location of the bathrooms. The remainder of the basin remains unplowed for the time being.
Then, the crew moves to the roads of Red Mountain and then onto Corkscrew Pass. Meanwhile, San Juan County (Silverton) and San Miguel County (Telluride) crews are also working on their roads. Each county plugs away on their territory and the glorious sun does its work too (and hopefully, temperatures cooperate) and melts much of the snow away. By the time the counties hit the high alpine passes in mid to late June, the job is still daunting, but the task is just about complete. Road crews meet at the top and then residents and visitors alike can enjoy the spectacular San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado.
The process of clearing snow on the large north facing snowfield in Imogene Basin and then up on the pass is very dangerous. Since the road is not visible, the dozer driver must be meticulous and accurate with ample experience to know where to plow next. As you see from the photograph, the road is not very obvious so experience in the terrain is a must. Imogene Pass is typically the last area cleared and the goal is that it is complete by July 4th weekend but never guaranteed. With its high elevation, warm days are not the norm. Enjoyable temperatures remain in the fifties and sixties at the pass itself, even on the hottest days in Ouray.
If you are thinking of a scenic jeep tour in the Ouray area or you would like to rent your own jeep and drive the 4WD roads, the season typically begins in mid-May and lasts until the roads close again in the fall, typically by the end of October.
At our Ouray hotel, we are delighted to make reservations for your scenic tour. Typically, one day notice is all that is required to get you on a tour, but, if you have a particular desire, it is best to let us reserve your trip with more advance notice. The Box Canyon Lodge also offers a Stay and Play package that includes a jeep tour for two. Our natural, odor free Colorado hot springs feel very good after a long day in the high country!
Latest Status: As of May 22, 2011, Ouray Road and Bridge are still working in Yankee Boy Basin. Follow us on Facebook and we will keep people updated.