Ouray Perimeter Trail
|Trail Features:||Scenic Views, History|
|Trail Location:||Ouray Visitor Center|
|Roundtrip Length:||4.4 Miles|
|Trailhead Elevation:||7753 Feet|
|Total Elevation Gain:||1150 Feet|
|Avg. Elev Gain / Mile:||523 Feet|
|Highest Elevation:||8557 Feet|
|Trail Difficulty Rating:||6.70 (moderate)|
|Parking Lot Latitude||38.02955|
|Parking Lot Longitude||-107.67270|
As the name would imply, the Ouray Perimeter Trail circumnavigates the small mountain town of Ouray, Colorado. Although there are many spots around town where you can begin this loop hike, the most common starting point begins from the Ouray Visitor's Center, located just north of the main downtown area. Out-of-town visitors will find plenty of parking behind the visitor's center.
Because navigation is much easier, most locals recommend hiking this loop in a clockwise direction. As a result, this hike begins across the road (US 550) from the visitor's center. Once across the road look for a set of railroad-tie steps. Near the steps will be a sign pointing the way along a gravel path, just before the trail begins ascending the hillside along another set of railroad-tie steps.
From the steps the trail begins to climb sharply up the hillside. Soon you'll enjoy outstanding views of Main Street and 11,475-foot Hayden Mountain rising above the south end of town.
After a series of steep climbs the trail begins following along the cliff face. The path itself is fairly narrow along this stretch, and is exposed to some extremely steep drop-offs. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this hike for people with kids, but if you do bring small children, you should definitely keep them close by and keep a sharp eye on them at all times during this segment of the hike.
At roughly two-thirds of a mile hikers will reach a side-view vantage point of Cascade Falls. This waterfall is the lowest in a series of seven waterfalls as Cascade Creek runs down Cascade Mountain. Lower Cascade Falls appears to drop roughly 100 feet or so down the cliff side. Although the volume of water was fairly light during our late summer hike, spring and early summer are normally the best times for viewing the waterfall when water volumes are much higher.
A little further down the trail hikers will arrive at a poorly marked fork in the trail. A turn to the left and a walk of roughly 25 yards, however, will lead you to a frontal view of the waterfall. The Ouray Perimeter Trail continues on the right fork, and heads downhill to cross the footbridge over Cascade Creek. From the footbridge the Perimeter Trail continues steeply up the hillside on the opposite side. Once beyond this short climb the trail becomes less strenuous, and exposure to steep drop-offs is no longer an issue from this point forward.
At roughly 0.95 miles hikers will reach a confusing intersection of trails. Although it may appear that you're supposed to continue straight ahead, look for the Ouray Perimeter Trail sign indicating that you should turn right here.
At 1.3 miles hikers will reach an unmarked intersection with Amphitheater Campground Road. Although there's a trail that continues directly across the road, the Perimeter Trail continues by turning right onto this road. After walking down the road for a short distance, roughly 0.12 miles, turn left onto the Baby Bathtubs Trail to continue on the loop.
After walking a very short distance hikers will arrive at the Baby Bathtubs, a series of several small rock "bathtubs" carved into the streambed. At the Bathtubs you'll likely notice another confusing set of trails. To continue on the loop you should cross over the streambed and proceed along the trail that leads towards the left, which will run parallel to Portland Creek, now on your right.
At almost 1.7 miles hikers will reach the Portland Trail junction. To continue on the loop you should turn right here and proceed for another 100 feet or so until reaching a footbridge. After crossing the footbridge the trail travels another two-tenths of a mile to reach County Road 16. Hikers should proceed roughly 50 yards up the gravel road to continue on the trail, which will fork off on the right side of the road.
Once beyond the gravel road the trail travels through a beautiful grassy field containing a few aspens, and then continues on towards the Million Dollar Highway where you'll have some spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. This section travels over the highest point on the trail, and is arguably the most scenic portion of the entire loop. From this vantage point you'll have commanding views of 12,801-foot Mt. Abram, Hayden Mountain and the Uncompahgre Gorge.
At just over 2.3 miles you'll reach the infamous Million Dollar Highway, the nickname for the 24-mile section of Highway 550 that travels from Silverton to Ouray. Although one of the more scenic roads in America, it's also one of the scariest. This marvel of engineering hugs cliff faces as it passes through the Uncompahgre Gorge and wends its way towards Red Mountain Pass. For flatlanders, inexperienced mountain drivers and passengers alike, the worst parts of the road are the sections that travel within inches of sheer drop-offs - without guard rails!
Once on the other side of the highway hikers will immediately reach a junction. Although the Perimeter Trail continues in either direction, the route to the left is considered to be the main route, and is roughly one-half mile longer than the right fork. The left fork, however, apparently experiences frequent closures, which occurred on the day of our hike. Therefore, the overall mileage for this trail description reflects the route as it heads directly towards Ouray Ice Park.
At 2.75 miles hikers will reach the Ouray Ice Park, a manmade ice climbing venue in the Uncompahgre Gorge that's considered to be one of the premier ice climbing spots in the world. Each January the park holds the Ouray Ice Festival which attracts elite ice climbers from around the world, and is touted as the largest ice festival in North America.
To continue on the loop from Ice Park you'll have to follow the road and cross the auto bridge over the Uncompahgre Gorge. From the bridge travel uphill along the road for a short distance until you see a sign for the Perimeter Trail branching off towards the right, at roughly 2.9 miles.
A little more than tenth-of-a-mile further down the trail you'll reach the side trail that leads down to Box Canon Park. Although this is a worthy side trip, a fee is charged to visit the park which includes Box Canon Falls. To continue on the Perimeter Trail you should stay to the left where you'll immediately cross over the Box Canon High Bridge. This metal bridge spans the spectacular Canon Creek Gorge (see photo below on right), while Box Canon Falls flows roughly 300 feet below.
Immediately after crossing the bridge you'll pass through the old Ouray water tunnel. The trail then immediately begins descending a long series of steep steps that hug the face of the cliff.
At just over 3.4 miles hikers will reach South Pinecrest Drive. As of 2015 this is still the official end point for the Perimeter Trail. Eventually the trail will continue into the Oak Creek Gorge and along the slopes of the mountains that flank the west side of town. Unofficially, hikers can still complete the loop by turning right onto South Pinecrest Drive, then turning right onto Queen Street, and then turning left onto Oak Street to return back to the visitor's center. This portion of the trail offers hikers the chance to see the old Victorian homes along Oak Street.
At just over 4.2 miles, near the Ouray City Shop located just past the RV park, look for a sign indicating that the Perimeter Trail turns right off of Oak Street. From there you'll cross the footbridge over the Uncompahgre River and return back to the visitor's center parking area to complete the loop.
Although there are some steep sections along this route, this is a great hike if you're new to the area and looking to acclimate to the altitude, as the trail doesn't go much above 8500 feet. After spending a day acclimating, there are some absolutely stunning hikes in the San Juan Mountains that I highly recommend for subsequent days of hiking. These include Ice Lakes, Blue Lakes, the Bridge of Heaven and Black Face Mountain. Each of these hikes offer some of the best scenery Colorado has to offer.
Finally, due to the fragmentation of the trails that comprise this loop, you'll definitely want to carry a trail map during your hike. Although the visitor's center has a Perimeter Trail pamphlet that contains a trail map, the larger map contained in the Official Visitor's Guide is much better.