Perfect Powder: Ice Climbing at Ouray Ice Park

by Chris on March 22, 2011

A day spent ice climbing at Ouray Ice Park, in the town where the original True Grit was filmed. Plus stops at Ouray hot springs, the Ouray Brewery, the Ourayle House and the Outlaw Restaurant.

Ice climbing, Ouray Ice Park

By Brad Wright, Contributing Writer

My feelings about ice climbing had always been mixed.  I imaged a constant set of pull ups, while perched precariously on a slippery slab of frozen waterfall. And that’s just about right, except that it’s also a lot of fun.

Ice climbing, Ouray Ice Park

Colorado’s ice climbing center is located about an hour outside of Telluride in Ouray. Ouray is another mountain town that was founded on mining, but now owes its existence to outdoor tourism. It’s also home to the Ouray Ice Park, which encompasses the Uncompagre Gorge.

Ouray where True Grit was filmed

While Ouray calls itself the Switzerland of America, its actual resemblance to Switzerland is tenuous.   Heidi wouldn’t feel at home in Ouray, but John Wayne apparently did. The 1968 version of True Grit was filmed here and stories of the Duke are still told at his favorite watering hole, the Outlaw.

Ouray where True Grit was filmed

The Outlaw menu, circa 1970. The prices have changed.

The Outlaw is one of those themed restaurants that would seem cheesy in another town. Not so much here. While it’s decorated in Wild West regalia, the earnestness of the owner and the actual history of the place give it cred. They’ve even got The Duke’s hat.

Ouray, where True Grit was filmed

While the hat might be interesting, their steak was all I really cared about. What is it about Colorado and meat? Whatever the ranchers are doing, they’ve figured it out.

Ourayle House

Eat at the Outlaw, then end the evening at the Ourayle House to sample some of “Hutch” Hutchinson’s (aka Mr. Grumpy Pants) latest brews. The non-descript metal-sided Ourayle House looks a little like garage from the outside. Inside is a cozy little bar with room for about 20 people, a wood-burning stove, and a television that silently played an endless series of white water rafting blooper videos.

Ourayle House

The beer at Ourayle House is brewed one barrel at a time and continuously varies. Sometimes they only have two beers available, other times five or more. The night I visited they had five. I enjoyed them all.

Ice climbing, Ouray Ice Park

Built in 1995, and developed further since then, the Ouray Ice Park bills itself as the world’s first park devoted to ice climbing. It’s free to all, and is developed and maintained with donations and volunteer labor.

Ice climbing, Ouray Ice Park

This is not a bear trap

San Juan Mountain Guides provided us with everything we needed for a half-day climb in the park. An ice package that includes boots, crampons and tools costs $70 per day.

Ice climbing, Ouray Ice Park

Ice climbing isn’t physically easy. But I found that climbing a frozen waterfall is more about picking a route through a series of crags and weaknesses in the ice, than it is about strength.

Ice climbing, Ouray Ice Park

As our guide Clint Cook from San Juan Mountain Guides explained, when you’re climbing properly, your legs do much of the work and there’s lots of time to rest along your way.

Ice climbing, Ouray Ice Park

It doesn’t look like it, but it’s about 100’ to the top of the canyon. Everyone in our group tried a bit of ice climbing, but only three of us made it to the top (yes, I was one of them).

Ice climbing, Ouray Ice Park

Insert “Don’t eat yellow snow joke here.” The Ouray Ice Park is fed by redirected water from a dam upstream. Some of the old pipes are corroded and the rusty water stains some of the ice unappetizing colors.

Ouray hot springs

Besides the ice park and its beer, Ouray is known for its hot springs – and after a few hours of climbing ice, nothing beats a dip in 107 degree mineral pool. There are a few different hot springs in Ouray to enjoy; we chose to check out the Wiesbaden because of their “vapor cave.” The owners of the Wiesbaden dug a cave into the hillside to create a dimly-lit, steam-filled grotto and naturally heated pool. If you aren’t staying at the hotel, it costs $15 for three hours to use the pools and vapor cave.

Ouray Brewery

Wash, rinse, repeat. After an hour or so of soaking in the spring, I was recharged, warm, and ready to wrap up my stay in Ouray over lunch and more local beer at the Ouray Brewery.

Thanks to the Colorado Tourism Office, Telluride Ski Resort and Telluride Tourism Board for sponsoring this trip.



| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole March 24, 2011 at 7:48 am

I’m from Colorado and have been to Ouray a few times, even been to The Outlaw. Ha! But never in winter and I didn’t know about ice climbing there. Congratulations for making it to the top! Also, fun to tour a mine there. 🙂


Jessica @ YouDidWhatWithYourWeiner March 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm

I don’t ice climb but I am an avid outdoor enthusiast who can appreciate the sport. I went to Ouray on a college road trip (from Seattle) and I found the ice falls amazing and beautiful. The trip was expecially memorable because it started to snow when I was there. Being naive and not used to Colorado snow, I headed to Silverton and beyond with a foot of snow on the road (in my 4runner). I managed to slip off the deserted road in a blizzard. Lucky a nice plow driver pulled my car back on the road about an hour later. It was scary.


Chris March 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm

@Jessica – I grew up in Minnesota but I still hate driving in snowy conditions because of the situation you mentioned. Glad someone came by quickly to get you out!


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