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Ouray, Colorado: A Taste of Switzerland in America

Lilli Smith

Texas, USA

Looking to get a taste of Europe this winter but not sure you have the time (or the budget) to make it across the pond? Check out Ouray, Colorado: a small-town gem that’s affectionately known as the “Switzerland of America”. As a sought-after destination for over 100 years, Ouray, Colorado is a beautifully underrated US city that boasts a charm that draw travelers into the box canyon year after year.

Ouray, Colorado
Million Dollar Highway, Ouray, Colorado. melissamn /

This small, unassuming town is nestled in a very narrow canyon in the San Juan Mountains and is surrounded on three sides by 13,000-foot peaks – talk about epic! These snow-capped peaks, combined with the quaint Victorian architecture on Main Street, create a genuine European vibe. It’s easy to see how Ouray, Colorado earned its bragging rights.

But don’t let appearances fool you – this quiet little Swiss-like town is anything but sleepy, especially when winter arrives. The rugged mountains surrounding Ouray are loaded with adventure, so let’s explore this winter playground.

Go Ice Climbing at Ouray Ice Park

Ice climbing at Ouray Ice Park, Ouray, Colorado
Ice climbing at Ouray Ice Park, Ouray, Colorado

While most Colorado towns claim skiing as their official winter sport, Ouray has created its own niche – ice climbing. With the world-class Ouray Ice Park right in its own backyard, athletes and adventurers come from all over the world to test their skills and,seemingly, defy gravity.

The Ouray Ice Park is known as the top ice climbing destination in America – and possibly even the world. The park consists of frozen, man made waterfalls and stretches for more than a mile through the Uncompahgre Gorge. Ice farmers carefully cultivate more than 200 ice climbing routes through these frozen falls – with difficulties ranging from trainee to treacherous.

If you’ve got experience on the ice, you can head out on your own to explore (it’s just a short walk from Main Street). But don’t worry, there are plenty of certified guides to assist newbies who want to try this one-of-a-kind, icy adventure.

If you plan a trip in January, make sure to check out the Ouray Ice Festival, which includes climbing competitions, educational seminars, and lively nighttime events with music and food. The pinnacle of this festival is to watch in awe as the world’s best ice climbing talent picks its way across jagged rock faces and icicles, suspended at crazy, jaw-dropping angles.

Get Off the Beaten Path for Backcountry Skiing

Back country skiing, Colorado
Back country skiing, Colorado

For backcountry skiers, you’re in the heart of some killer terrain. But if you really want an unforgettable experience, get way off the beaten path and head out to OPUS Hut. This European-style lodge is surrounded by ski slopes that are known as some of the best backcountry terrain in the U.S.

I told you Ouray, Colorado had a European flair, and nowhere is this so apparent as at OPUS Hut. Sitting at 11,600 feet, this retreat is hidden away in the mountains and can only be reached via cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Exclusivity at its best!

Once you finish your 3.5 miles ski or hike to arrive at OPUS Hut, you’ll be rewarded with mouth-watering, home-cooked meals, a steamy sauna, and a comfy bed. Need a nightcap? There’s a bar too.

Then, get up early and hit the powder while it’s fresh!

Eat, Drink, & Be Grumpy

The town of Ouray, Colorado
The town of Ouray, Colorado

All those wintry escapades will undoubtedly leave you jonesing for a craft brew. Colorado is home to around 230 craft breweries, but my favorite of them all is located right here in Ouray. Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewing Company (also known as Ourayle House) is an absolute must stop – just make sure to leave your pretentions at the door.

The chief brewer (and heckler) is Mr. Grumpy Pants himself. He’ll pour you a drink – when he gets around to it – and serve it with a frown. And if you ask for the small size, you get it in a baby bottle, you wimp.

Sarcasm runs deep here, so if you’re easily offended, don’t read any of the dozens of handwritten signs Mr. Grumpy has hanging around the bar.

If you’re looking for a place to sit and have a friendly chat with a local brewer, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for a unique, quirky place to grab a beer, get grumpy with it.

Soak Up Steamy Vibes at a Local Hot Spring

Ouray Hot Springs Pool, Ouray, Colorado. Arina P Habich /
Ouray Hot Springs Pool, Ouray, Colorado. Arina P Habich /

After a few drinks, there’s no better way to finish off your day than unwinding in a hot spring, bubbling up extra hot and steamy from under the Rocky Mountains.

The most well-known spot in Ouray is the Ouray Hot Springs Pool, a 750,000 gallon sulfur-free (stink-free) pool. It’s actually more than one pool – there’s a pool for kids, one for swimming laps, and some for just soaking. Different pools also offer different temperatures, with the hottest ones reaching up to 106 degrees.

But as the most popular spot in town, the Ouray Hot Springs Pool can get a little crowded. So if you’re seeking a more laidback, intimate experience, check out one of these two local hot (literally) spots.

The Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa offers two small hot springs pools – and one is underground, creating a vapor cave (think Mother Earth’s all-natural sauna). Wiesbaden prides itself on its all-natural, untreated water that’s packed with rejuvenating therapeutic benefits to release stress and ease aches and pains.

Or if you’re more of a free spirit, check out the clothing optional Orvis Hot Springs. Sink into the hot waters and soak up the majestic snowy mountains surrounding you – unmatched relaxation, with or without clothes.

This winter stay stateside and plan a trip to Ouray. It’s low-key but packed with adventure – a perfect winter playground for any outdoor enthusiast.

Learn more about this hidden gem of Colorado at the official website for Ouray, Colorado.