Photos and words by Louis Arevalo.
For more than 15 winters I’ve traveled to Ouray, Colorado, nestled in the state’s southwestern corner, where I’ve shivered at belays in the world-class, frozen waterfalls of the Ouray Ice Park. And with water streaming down on my face, I’ve stared into shadowy canyons and up at the northern San Juan Mountains’ snowy peaks, open bowls, couloirs and glades, thinking to myself, “Next time I’ll bring my skis.”
When you think of quintessential ski towns—Park City, Jackson Hole, Sun Valley or Steamboat Springs—each comes with a certain amount of predictability. You can drop into Jackson’s Corbet’s Couloir, lap Park City’s Jupiter Bowl or twirl fondue at Sun Valley’s Roundhouse for the typical resort experience, and the only thing more consistent than their deep snow is the happening après scene. But what I found in Ouray was something apart: with no lifts, groomed runs, traditional ski lodges or even direct flights, it is a ski town born from stoke rather than infrastructure.
Ouray, home to little more than 1,000 residents, can trace its roots to the mining rushes of the late 1800s. This town—dubbed the Switzerland of America due to its towering, amphitheater-like valley walls—is home to a large percentage of original Victorian structures, now mostly independently owned and operated restaurants, shops, hotels and private residences that complement its mountain charm and contribute to a timeless atmosphere. More recently, Ouray has become a destination for the outdoor minded, who flock to climb at the renowned ice park in the winter and jeep on the mining roads during summer.
When I finally returned to Ouray in 2016 to explore the San Juans on skis, I set my sights on experiencing its culture before I made my way into the mountains. For six days I ate, drank and made friends in this beautiful corner of Colorado. Breakfast at the European-style Provisions Café, with locally sourced food and bullet coffee, fueled days in the mountains. I found lunches and after-ski pints on the rooftop patio of family-owned Ouray Brewery.
At Lee’s Ski Hill, the town rope tow—one of two free ski hills in the nation—I tried to keep up with kids bombing the 75-vertical-foot slope in a single breath. And when the sun went down, soaking in the 1,000,000-gallon, sulphur-free mineral pool at the public Ouray Hot Springs gave tried muscles and bones a needed reprieve.
The primary reason for my trip, however, was not to simply partake in the Ouray après scene, but to explore the backcountry above Red Mountain Pass. We started at the Last Dollar Hut—one shelter along a five-hut route that’s operated by San Juan Huts. While there, we experienced 100-mph winds that made turns a bit challenging. But the tides and wind patterns changed with an impromptu visit to Ophir Pass’s Opus Hut, where we took a rest day and night.
To best reach Ouray’s skiing, head south out of town on Highway 550—locally dubbed the “Million Dollar Highway.” The road, stretching over Red Mountain Pass between Ouray and Silverton, is famous for its narrow, winding lanes and was even listed as one of the world’s most dangerous roads by USA Today. I inched along route, simultaneously gripped and awestruck by the lack of guardrails and the abundance of severe cliffs and stunning vistas in every direction.
And that is what Ouray is: a town on the edge. Ski town? Not exactly. But ski destination? Without a doubt.
See more of Louis’ work at Louisarevalo.com.