Colorado: Beyond Skiing Resort towns mix old-time heritage with modern sport
While vacationers migrate to the scenic mountains of Colorado for winter ski trips, Ouray and Durango remain popular destinations for those looking for something different.
Located in a narrow valley of the San Juan Mountain Range, Ouray (pronounced you-ray) is rich in old-west history, and nicknamed the “Switzerland of America” for its world-famous ice climbing venues. Arriving in Ouray, you feel as though you are stepping back into an 1890s mining town; most of the original Victorian structures are still standing. Beautifully restored homes and commercial buildings such as the Beaumont Hotel helped Ouray earn the honor of being named a National Historic District, by both the Colorado State and National Historic Authorities in 1983.
After settling at the Ouray Chalet Inn, conveniently located within walking distance of most of the shops and restaurants, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll through town. The friendliness and hospitality of Ouray people made us feel as if we truly belonged there.
Our appetite began to grow as we breathed the fresh, clean mountain air. The Bon Ton Restaurant, located in the beautifully restored Victorian St. Elmo Hotel, offers fine dining with an Italian flair. Their menu features specialties such as prawns sautéed with fresh basil, shallots and garlic in a creamy sherry sauce served on fettuccine with fresh garden vegetables.
After enjoying the short stroll back to the Ouray Chalet Inn, it was time to settle in for a peaceful night of sleep to prepare for what the morning had in store.
Always up for a new challenge, we were excited to experience ice climbing. Ice climbers come from all over the world to hone their craft for free at the Ouray Ice Park located in the Uncompahge Gorge. The park was developed by a group of dedicated volunteers and opened in 1995. We relied on the skilled instructors of San Juan Mountain Guides to safely assist us in this adventure. The guides helped us to relax and feel secure and confident in the climb. The empowering experience gave us an exhilirating sense of accomplishment.
We followed our excursion with a relaxing dip in the Ouray Hot Springs Pool, once called the “sacred mineral waters” by the Ute Indians. The snow-covered mountains provided a gorgeous backdrop as the therapeutic waters cleansed away the day’s trials.
We completed the day by dining on delicious Rocky Mountain trout sautéed with lemon, butter and white wine in a charming rustic atmosphere at The Outlaw, Ouray’s oldest operating restaurant. Be sure to check out John Wayne’s hat hanging behind the bar!
A trip to Ouray is not complete without a visit to the Ouray County Historical Museum, housed in what was originally the St. Joseph’s Miner’s Hospital. Built in 1886, the facility was intended for miners injured while working in the treacherous landscape. The Sisters of Mercy and doctors ran the hospital and provided care for the miners and townspeople. The hospital closed in 1964 and reopened as the museum. The museum is rich in history and showcases a replica of a late 1800s mine, along with an impressive mineral collection, Victorian-era displays, Ute Indian artifacts, railroading and ranching exhibits. One exhibit depicts an operating room as it existed in that era.
Next, it was off to Durango.
On the way to Durango, enjoy the breathtaking beauty of Red Mountain Pass. We stopped for a two-hour snowmobiling adventure with Red Mountain Silverton Molas Tours. The expert guides led us through winding trails, eventually climbing to a high elevation above the tree line. The view on top was magnificent and we felt as if we were on top of the world.
Durango, while larger than Ouray, is very charming. Several of the buildings, such as the Strater Hotel, were built in the late 1800s. The hotel was built in 1887 by Henry Strater who dreamed of building the grandest hotel in the West. The hotel houses the world’s largest collection of authentic American Victorian walnut antiques.
Dining at Seasons Rotisserie and Grill was an amazing ending to this day. Diners should not expect to find their favorite entrée on the menu every time they visit. The menu changes with the seasons. Seasons is located in the heart of downtown Durango within walking distance of The Strater Hotel. Don’t retire for the night until you stop in the Diamond Belle Saloon, located in the Strater Hotel. Taking a step in the Diamond Belle feels as if you have stepped back in time.
The next day, we visited The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which has been in operation for 125 years. The historic steam-powered locomotive cuts through mountains following the Animas River. At times, the train seems to hang on the sides of sheer cliffs overlooking the river below. The surrounding territory is pristine as only the train tracks cut through the San Juan National Forest; there are no roads or highways in the back country. Enjoy the stop at Cascade Falls where you can play in the snow, build snowmen or make snow angels.
Although most vacationers think of skiing in Colorado, the Durango Mountain Resort offers snowshoe hiking. Your guides will take you up the mountain on the ski lifts and once you have reached the top, you will follow the peaceful trails down the mountain.
Afterwards, rest your weary muscles at Trimble Spa &Natural Hot Springs. You can enjoy a massage or a soak in the healing waters. The springs are located below cliffs that were home to the Anasazi Indians and the ruins remain but are inaccessible.
Durango offers many diverse dining choices including Steamworks Brewing Co., where beer is brewed on site.
A stroll down Main Street is a must before leaving Durango, as there are many stores, coffee shops, restaurants and bars to enjoy.
While ski resorts are most popular in the winter and early spring months, it’s not hard to find something different. When looking off the beaten path, you can find wonderful treasures like Ouray and Durango. The beautiful mountain terrain and historic landmarks provide an abundance of activities — even off the slopes.