The Anti Ski-Town: Why Ouray, Colorado should be considered a skier’s paradise

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.”

Ouray, Colorado has long been known for the Ice Park, but the surrounding mountains also contain world class skiing.

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.

Ryan Riggins and Mark Kogelmann begin their backcountry ski day by meeting at the Guide Garage; a gear room, shop, coffee house, community center.

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.

Night lights in the village of Ouray, Colorado.

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.

The brewery provides a convenient diagram of how to enjoy their beverage if you are too tired from a day in the mountains to figure it out.

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.

Lee’s Ski Hill is one of two tow rope ski hills in the nation that is free to the public.

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.

Brothers Mark and Chip Kogelmann skin through the Red Mountain bc.


Lynsey Dyer goes bowling in the San Jan Mountains.


Ouray resident Averill Doering tours near the Opus Hut.

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.

Chip Kogelmann skis the textured snow in a northern San Juan chute.

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  1. Enough publicity please…, hope to enjoy the relative isolation for another 25 years or so…,

  2. .Just thought i let those seeing this story in the winter of 2017 the ouray hot springs pool is closed for renovations. not sure but i think i read it will open about May

  3. So much for Ouray, where’s the next secret spot?

    • Michael Yampolsky says:

      So true and so sad. The people who write these sort of articles are more attached to their egos than the local vibe. I lived through the loss of Powder Mountain and the surf town Sayulita. What’s left after those who are in it for the money or celebrity are done with the carcass is beyond sad. If you find a great spot cling to it and protect it, and try not to hear the hoofbeats of the herd waiting to descend upon you.

      • So right Michael, and the typically sad part is he didn’t talk to one local, only eastern transplants that have moved to Ouray to destroy it! Seems to be a time of massive egos everywhere with the cry for economy as their sole defense.

        • Actually we spent most our time with Kelly Ryan, daughter of Joe Ryan, whom we spoke to on the phone because he couldn’t make the trip. We also spent time with the curator off the museum, and most of the locals. The author is also an expert climber that has been a regular for the last 20 years. It’s very rare these days to see positive comments from articles like this to yelp review.

          • SHAWN FELTY says:


  4. So can you go skiing here or not? I am confused with this article. I want to take my son skiing. Can you buy skiing passes and rent skiis? or do you have to bring your own? We have only been skiing 1 time before in New Mexico. Please provide me with any info.

  5. Good grief what is the point of this article other than to further ruin what make this place cool, that it is local. as a Colorado native the whole place has been so trashed by curious tourists writing articles like this that draw attention to places that are our homes. I hope you get the instagram followers or whatever it is you are looking for at the expense of trashing peoples homes and cultures with tourism and exploitative business people.

    • dude, nobody goes to ouray, and you’re a tool

      • John Gunning says:

        Looks like a nice place to most places in Colorado though I don’t think most people will work or live there because that combination is not always there.beautiful place though

  6. i suppose the big issue for places like Ouray is whether the locals are going to ruin the place, or preserve it and if so how? The money ball game everywhere in the US that is popular is to develop it until it is virtually eradicated and destroyed.
    This is what happened to every ski resort tow, Aspen, Vail, and other hip spots like Boulder, etc. I enjoyed living in Colorado during 70s but the front range was ruined by over development so I got the heck out. I expect the same rape culture as shown and promoted in this article will kill the last of the genuine towns like Ouray before long.

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