Hiking Ouray’s Perimeter Trail
Since its founding in 1876, the City of Ouray has had a number of superlatives bestowed upon it including Gem of the Rockies, the Switzerland of America, and the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Colorado, and nothing reflects the latter designation better than the Ouray Perimeter Trail
Developed by the Ouray Trail Group over the course of 15 years, the moderately difficult Perimeter Trail winds its way around the entirety of Ouray while never taking intrepid explorers more than 500 feet vertically or half a mile horizontally from the city limits.
Whether you’re a hiker, climber, photographer, artist, geologist, botanist, ornithologist, historian or troll hunter, the Perimeter Trail has something for you. Among the attractions are two beautiful waterfalls, incredible views of the town and the ruggedly beautiful 11,000 to 13,000 foot peaks that surround it, and, if done at the right time, views of the city’s amphitheater to the east bathed in soothing crimson and terracotta alpenglow.
While there are a number of spots along the trail to start or stop your hike, most start their adventure at the Ouray Visitor Center located on Main Street just north of the Ouray Hot Springs Pool (which coincidentally is the perfect spot to soothe aching muscles). Hiking the trail in a clockwise manner, the first segment is steep, but well worth the effort with your reward coming in the form of tilt-shift-type views of the city and surrounding peaks before descending to Lower Cascade Falls, the last in a series of seven waterfalls that make up the entirety of Cascade Falls.
From there, the trail ascends again and heads south through woodland below the amphitheater campground and past features like the Baby Bathtubs (small rock basins that look like bathtubs that are fun for kids to play in), the Potato Patch where miners actually used to grow their potatoes, rocky knolls that serve as hosts to cactus and wildflowers in the spring and summer, and great views of the Uncompahgre Gorge and the aforementioned surrounding mountains.
After crossing Hwy 550, the trail continues past Ouray’s via ferratas, which offer a unique climbing experience, Ouray Ice Park, and the old city reservoir.
A slight detour off the trail takes you to Box Cañon Falls and Park where the Uncompahgre Gorge narrows to create a spectacular waterfall. The canyon is also home to the black swift, a rare migratory bird that builds its nests on the damp rock walls, and three interpretive trails including the Native Plant Loop, a short walk with information signs that identify local flora. The canyon also provides an opportunity to see an example of the Great Unconformity, a gap in geological strata that represents periods of geologic time sufficiently long to raise mountains and then erode them away.
Getting back on the Perimeter Trail involves a climb with a view of the falls from above, while the remainder of the trail back to town offers more great views of the city, as well as the amphitheater, Chief Ouray mine and the Blowout, a golden-hued geologic feature to the northeast. Along this segment, keep an eye out for the local troll who likes to hang out under one of the bridges.
BOX OUT: The 6.5-mile round trip generally takes 4-5 hours to complete at a reasonable pace. Starting at an elevation of 7,700 feet, you will climb to a maximum of 8,500. Good hiking shoes and suitable clothing will make the hike much more enjoyable. Plenty of water is a must.
Hikers are asked to respect the environment by practicing the principles of Stay the Trails, Leave No Trace and Care for Colorado. Maps and more information on the Ouray Perimeter Trail and other area trails can be found at the Ouray Trail Group website (ouraytrails.org), the official Ouray tourism website (VisitOuray.com), and at the Ouray Visitor Center.