A Traveler’s Pot of Gold
By Karen Lee Ensley
You can almost hear the old miner saying, “it’s in them thar hills,” as you travel 1500 feet into Gold Hill. Imagine the miner’s thrilling search for the precious metal in the depths of the mine, then try your hand at gold-panning and dream of finding your own pot of gold. Gold Hill is located in the picturesque town of Ouray, Colorado, where a traveler will find this exciting opportunity to seek gold- and will find so much more. Nicknamed “Switzerland of America,” Ouray is nestled in a box canyon surrounded on three sides by the scenic San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. Designated a National Historic District, Ouray’s downtown features many original exquisite Victorian structures set against an awe-inspiring backdrop of 13,000-foot mountain peaks. When you discover all there is to see and do, you’ll realize that visiting Ouray is like striking it rich. Like a treasure chest waiting to be opened, Ouray is filled with hidden gems.
Volcanic eruptions millions of years ago created deep lava-formed craters; this fiery period was followed by glacial erosion resulting in the spectacular mountains, valleys and high country basins in the Ouray area. The forces created one of the most highly mineralized areas within Colorado, a state that is one of the most highly mineralized in the country.
Centuries before the miners arrived to uncover the precious minerals, a nomadic band of Native Americans, the Tabeguache Ute, discovered a different type of treasure- natural therapeutic hot springs. The Ute considered the sulfur-free mineral springs to be “sacred miracle waters.”
In 1833, a boy was born who grew to be such a great Ute warrior, he became chief of the Uncompahgre Ute Tribe. His name was Chief Ouray. Leading his tribe at a time when white settlers wanted gold, silver and land, Chief Ouray believed peace was the best choice for his people. He met with Native American and white officials in negotiations, yet each treaty cost the Utes more land. Growing resentment caused Ouray’s life to be in danger. Yet, due to his intelligence and diplomacy, he won the respect of the Ute Nation and the U.S. Government. He lived to see the City of Ouray, founded in 1876, and Ouray County to be named in his honor. He died in 1880; the next year, the government moved the Ute tribe to a reservation in eastern Utah, away from their native land and ceremonial “miracle waters.”
One year later, the Yankee Girl Mine near Ouray began producing $8 million in gold and silver. Another mine in the region, the Camp Bird Mine, became one of the richest and most famous mines in the world, producing over $26,000,000 in gold between 1896 and 1910. The Mountain Top Mine located high above Ouray enjoyed celebrity when it was featured on the 1919 cover of Scientific American for having the first underground mining mill in the country.
Ouray appealed to more than miners seeking their fortunes. The town became a popular destination when in 1925, the Cogar Sanitarium opened. Featuring natural hot springs surrounded by gorgeous scenery, the sanitarium attracted visitors who praised the curative powers of the springs. Today, the Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs, situated on the site of the former sanitarium, continues the tradition with four outdoor mineral hot springs tubs built into a terraced deck. A full chemical analysis of the springs proudly demonstrates their health benefits, highlights include: magnesium regulates muscle relaxation; potassium aids circulation; iron aids muscle function; and zinc helps heal wounds. This scientific analysis supports the long-held belief of the healing power of Ouray’s miracle waters.
Things To Do
Start your day at the Roast & Toast where you’ll find everything from house-made granola to a hardy “Hungry Hiker” breakfast. A hidden gem here: plan ahead and the nice folks will pack snacks or a delicious lunch for your day’s adventures.
Take the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine Tour for the journey into Gold Hill and your opportunity to pan for riches. Another awesome way to see the area mines is to take a “jeep” tour. Ouray is known as the “Jeeping Capital of the World,” so rent a jeep in town or opt for a guided tour. Like a golden nugget waiting to be discovered, Alpine Scenic Tours’ Michael Lane is a Colorado native with degrees in History and Communications; he’ll wow you with his knowledgeable tour in a modified Dodge Ram “4 x 4 beast” on amazing road less-travelled tours.
Looking for more adventures? Try rock-climbing. Ouray offers a variety of rock types with climbs for different skill levels. Or how about canyoning? If you enjoy hiking, there is a plethora of trails from short family-friendly ones on the edge of town to steep ventures with postcard-worthy views. There is even a nearly completed five-mile perimeter trail filled with scenic views overlooking Ouray.
Visit Box Canyon Park and listen to the thunderous Box Canyon Falls, hike the park’s High Bridge Trail for a gorgeous panoramic view of Ouray and the Falls Trail for an up-close view of the waterfall. For bird-watchers, the park is the summer home of the rare Black Swift.
When you’re looking for more leisurely activities, don’t miss the town’s historic walking tour. You’ll see architectural beauties built beginning in the late 1870’s including the Greek Revival and Romanesque Wright’s Opera House and the Second Empire style Beaumont Hotel. As you stroll downtown, notice the markers comparing the original buildings and current day structures. See how many originals are still in use and you’ll understand why the town exudes such a wonderful old-fashioned feel. Hollywood noticed it too. Ouray’s historic courthouse was featured in the original “True Grit” starring John Wayne.
Be sure to tour the Ouray County Historical Museum named “best little museum in the west” by Smithsonian. Here you’ll see a wide-ranging collection housed in the town’s original Miner’s Hospital. Some of the museum’s treasures include a room dedicated to locally mined gems and an ultra-violet display of vibrantly glowing minerals. The museum features a sparkling replica of the Hope Diamond because one of the last private owners of the famous gem was the daughter of Thomas Walsh, wealthy owner of the Camp Bird Mine.
Travel to Ouray in autumn, and you’ll be treated to a different type of gold- the brilliant gold of the aspen trees, or arrive in winter for fun in the snow, Colorado’s white gold. Ouray offers snowshoeing, back-country skiing, snowmobiling, in-town skiing and sledding plus a free world-class ice park. Located inside city limits, Ouray Ice Park attracts ice-climbers from novice to world-class athletes. The park’s annual ice festival has been recognized as a premier international event for ice climbing enthusiasts.
Complete your day with a dip in a hot spring. Choose from the town’s nearly million gallon hot spring pool or one of the properties with rights to the natural spring waters: Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa and Lodgings, Twin Peaks Lodge and Hot Springs and the adjacent Box Canyon Lodge and Hot Springs where you’ll also enjoy geothermal heating in your room. Reflect upon the treasures you found in Ouray as you slide into the soothing water of the hot spring. Feel the warmth enveloping your body. Relax and let your body heal with the sacred miracle water and you’ll know you struck it rich in Ouray.
Illustrating the desirable location, Ouray’s 2013 population of 1,013 represents an increase of 24.6% since 2000. The median resident age in 2013 was 49.2 years with 56% of the population male and 44% female. The estimated median house value increased substantially from $211,800 in 2000 to $387,936 in 2013; estimated median household income also rose from $36,094 to $64,175.
Ouray is located on U.S. Highway 550, known as “The Million Dollar Highway;” take this spectacularly scenic route on your way to Durango, Colorado just 71 miles south. Grand Junction, Colorado is an easy 98 miles to the northwest of Ouray, while Denver, Colorado is 342 miles to the northeast. Four Corners, the only place in the United States where four states intersect at one point, (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah), is located 155 miles from Ouray along an outstanding combination of mountain and desert drives.
The typical 285 sunny days per year will give you plenty of opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities in Ouray year-round. Daytime summer temperatures reach into the 70’s and 80’s with comfortable nighttime temperatures in the 50’s. When you’re ready for winter adventures, expect daytime temperatures in the teens to 40’s with chilly nights in the 0 to 20’s range. Ouray is situated in the valley at the base of the San Juan Mountains, which contain the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in the state. Looking up at the towering peaks, remember Ouray has a high elevation of 7,792 feet above sea level. Be certain to acclimate your body to the elevation before attempting strenuous activity.
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