I can’t think of a more beautiful area to stop and smell the wildflowers than Ouray County. At every turn you stumble across quite possibly the most picturesque spot you’ve ever seen in your life. Then, a little farther down the road, you again stumble across quite possibly the most picturesque spot you’ve ever seen in your life. Generally there’s a postcard-worthy stream nearby. And wildflowers. A big blue sky over red canyon walls. And it just goes on and on.
For a great adventure, try to picnic in one of the following gorgeous meadows at the base of incredible mountains.
Box Factory Park
Head toward Ridgway and then travel west toward Telluride on Highway 62. Look for County Road 9 as it exits the highway on your left. There is also be a sign that says West Dallas Creek. When you start out on CR9, you will go through the private property of designer Ralph Lauren’s Ranch. The Double RL Ranch is approximately 22,000 acres of perfect views. This dirt road winds up and splits at a fork and you’ll want to stay to the right as it turns into CR9A. You’ll drive along a mesa above Stough Draw, pass through old-growth aspen groves, and enjoy gambel oak as you get closer and closer to Mount Sneffels. The road gets narrower toward the end, crosses some small streams, and can get marshy after a rain, but the payoff is worth it. You’ll know the picnic spot when you see it…the road ends in a magnificent field called Box Factory Park with one of the most amazing views of Mount Sneffels I’ve ever seen. The mountain is perfectly framed by a grove of aspen that you will enjoy walking through. Peaceful, off the grid, and a beautiful spot to enjoy your lunch.
Head toward Ridgway on Highway 550 and after you go through town, be on the lookout for CR10 and the sign for Owl Creek Pass, which will turn off the highway on your right. Follow the signs and be sure you take the right fork in the road on CR8 – right will take you up Owl Creek Pass and left will take you back out to the highway.
Courthouse Mountain and Chimney Peak will dominate the view in your windshield, as will all of the Cimarron Mountain Range. When Chimney Rock fills up your view and you feel close enough to touch it, you’re almost at the summit. Deb’s Meadow is just below the summit, so if you reach the top of the pass, you’ve gone too far. You can’t miss it though…it’s the only open field you’ll pass on the entire journey. The meadow is on the left and there’s a circle “drive” you can take to park. This is your picnicking destination for the day, complete with a gurgling brook -- Cow Creek. Aspens line the corn lily-covered field and the view of Chimney Rock is astounding. Walk to the middle of the field – watch your step, it can be marshy in spots - and roll out your blanket. And if this spot looks familiar, you may recognize it from the famous shootout scene at the end of “True Grit,” where John Wayne charged across on his horse, guns in both hands, reins in his teeth. It’s a picturesque little spot and you’ll enjoy imagining the Duke was there in 1968 filming the only movie that won him the Academy Award.
If you enjoy history and want to eat your lunch in a real ghost town, travel out of Ouray on the Million Dollar Highway toward Silverton and spend the afternoon in Ironton. Ironton is located in a huge valley called Ironton Park, and was a natural shipping point for the mines in the Red Mountain Mining District, just up the highway. Established in 1883, it thrived for many years before fading away, like most mining towns do. The former townsite is very easy to find. On the north side of Red Mountain Pass, just after you descend the switchbacks, you will find a large clearing to your left. The town was located just to the east of U.S. Highway 550, with the old main street running parallel to the present road. There are a few houses still standing, some with aspen trees growing out of their living rooms. Follow the dirt road that runs parallel to the highway (you’ll only be 200 yards or so away from the Million Dollar Highway) and you’ll continue to find more homesteads and structures. A picnic table is among them. Enjoy your lunch and walk around the ruins set against a beautiful mountain backdrop. A creek runs behind the homes. As you explore, imagine life in the 1800s and the families that once called these crumbling remains “home.” Be sure to listen to the wind. It has stories to tell.
About the author: Marion Zachary is a website designer, photographer, videographer and four-wheel drive enthusiast who attempts to spend every spare moment in the San Juan Mountains. Her website featuring her Colorado adventures with her Australian Shepherd, Rio, is filled with incredible information on jeeping roads and 4WD trails near Ouray.