Camping is great, but not in the winter. Staying in a hotel doesn’t make you any less outdoorsy, and you can keep enjoying Colorado year-round if you take advantage of the great indoors during the colder months. I spent a long weekend in Ouray, and this southwest Colorado town is the perfect winter getaway.
When to go
I went to Ouray specifically for the annual Ice Festival, which was an really cool (and free!) event. It takes place every January and is fun to check out even if you aren’t part of the ice climbing world (which, let’s face it, the majority of us aren’t…that’s what makes it so interesting). The ice park itself is completely unique – it was the first of its kind and remains one of the biggest (and best) in the world.
In between checking out competitive ice climbing and chugging hot chocolate, you can try ice climbing yourself. For free. With no experience. Or gear. I did it, and it was a bucket-list-worthy experience. Even if you don’t visit Ouray during the ice festival, you can check out the ice park anytime between December and March. It’s free to just walk around, and there are always people climbing!
Where to stay
Fair warning: Ouray isn’t the most budget-conscious of places. But that does mean you can stay in a sweet bed and breakfast for the same price (or cheaper) as the Comfort Inn. We were the first guests at the AlpLily Inn, and if I hadn’t already made reservations via work at the aforementioned Comfort Inn, we never would have left.
The AlpLily is owned by Jen and Mike, who spent the last few years renovating this insanely beautiful Victorian home. Our room was spacious and beautifully decorated, WiFi was fast, and breakfast was to die for. Jen made us a quiche with a lattice of bacon on top. A LATTICE OF BACON. Jen is also a full-time teacher, so in 2019 they had to cut back on their breakfast offerings – call ahead of time to make sure you can still eat there!
Jen and Mike were super generous hosts, even offering us towels for the hot springs after we checked out. We were so sad to leave the AlpLily, and will definitely be staying there next time we’re in Ouray.
What to do
Try ice climbing
Even during the winter, Ouray has a ton of outdoor activities. If you want to try ice climbing and aren’t in town for the festival, you can sign up with a local guide group like Chicks With Picks or San Juan Mountain Guides. The ice festival itself also offers clinics for under $100 for any skill level (you can borrow gear from the festival sponsors).
Soak in the hot springs
Beyond the ice park, the Ouray Hot Springs is another must-do. Go at night for some excellent stargazing. If you’re really lucky, you can go while it snows. We did, and it was like sitting in a hot tub snow globe.
The hot springs are really well laid out, so even though it was busy when we went we never felt like we were crowded. Our entry was half off thanks to all the snow making the pool “too cold.” It was still 102 degrees, so we certainly weren’t complaining.
If you forget your swimsuit, it’s only $2 to rent one. The Walmart in Montrose (the closest large town) didn’t have swimsuits in the winter, so we took our chances with the rentals. I was desperate enough that I was okay with borrowing a swimsuit, and they did seem really clean. Obviously not ideal, so just remember yours and avoid this situation altogether!
Enjoy a winter hike
Like neighboring Telluride, Ouray has a great trail system that leaves right from town. The Perimeter Trail can be picked up from Oak Street, by the Ouray Visitor Center, or by Cascade Falls (among other spots). It’s initially steep, but otherwise a pretty easy hike, and you definitely don’t have to go the entire 4.2 miles around Ouray.
This trail is so popular that even in the winter, the snow stays packed down and it stays hikeable. I was planning on running it….until we got 18 inches of snow. In that case, you can make a nice loop around town that still has beautiful views (and plenty of hills…so expect to walk more than you run).
Explore Ouray history
One last thing. This obviously isn’t an outdoors activity, but you should also try to do the guided tour at the Ouray Alchemist. We couldn’t fit this in with my work schedule and were so bummed. It’s a really cool historical Wild West tour (think actual snake oil dealers) that had rave reviews online. Just make sure to call ahead to schedule your tour.
Where to eat
Brick House is really popular but pricey, so if you’re looking for a nice dinner date look no further. The menu changes regularly, but I had elk ravioli and it was delish. The wine and desserts are also to die for!
Mouse’s Coffee and Chocolates – The name gives you all the information you need. This is your go-to coffee spot. If you can’t decide on chocolates, get a scrap cookie instead. It’s all the chocolate scraps mixed into a family cookie dough recipe. They are addicting. Pair that with a Shot in the Dark (coffee + espresso) and you have a perfect morning pick-me-up.
Ouray Brewery – Their beer is awesome and they have great burgers and BBQ in a really cool setting (sit in the swings at the bar on the main floor!). Red Mountain Brewery is also in town, but we didn’t make it there. If you want to do a brewery crawl, end at Red Mountain since it’s closer to AlpLily.
Backstreet Bistro + Thai Chili + Maggie’s Kitchen – All excellent lunch options. Backstreet’s chili is husband-approved (he had it two days in a row!) and their sandwiches are also delicious. Thai Chili had slow service, but fantastic pad thai. Maggie’s had one of the best burgers and fries I’ve ever had.
Bon Ton – An Italian place on the fancier side. I was really excited about going here but then realized upon reading their menu that they put mushrooms in almost everything – lasagna, chicken parm, literally all the things. I hate mushrooms, so this was a real buzzkill for me. But if you like shrooms, rock on.
The only place I would recommend not going is Buen Tiempo. I normally don’t single out businesses like this, but the food was really not good. I don’t want you to go through the same trauma of craving some good Mexican food, and then suffering through theirs.
Buen Tiempo aside, you’ll love everything about Ouray. It’s totally worth the six-hour drive from Denver for all of its mountain town charm and activities. Don’t let the cold temperatures intimidate you – there’s plenty of outdoor fun to be had in Ouray all winter long!