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Long Weekend: Ice Climbing in Ouray, Colorado

Ouray, like so many mountain towns, started out as a mining town. Though there’s still plenty of mining around, today Ouray is known more for the outdoor recreation it has to offer than the precious metals pulled from beneath. Anyone with a passion for the outdoors, from hiking to skiing, will find something to love about this place. In the winter however, this town is all about two things: ice climbing and soaking in hot springs.

Ouray is home to one of, if not the largest, manmade ice climbing areas in North America. The park is owned and operated jointly by the city of Ouray and a non-profit called the Ouray Ice Park, Inc. The ice park is situated in a gorge just at the end of town, and boasts over 200 climbs of varying difficulty. The ease of access, quality of routes, and easy anchor-setups make it a mecca for ice climbers of all abilities, from novices to seasoned pros.


As for the hot springs, they’ll make the après ski hot tub seem like a splash in a lukewarm kiddie pool. The area is surrounded by hot springs, which bubble up from fissures along the Uncompahgre River and range from 80 to 150 degrees Farenheit. There’s no better way to end a long day on the ice than by soaking in these sulfur-free pools under snowy mountain views.


Day 1: Top Roping in the Schoolroom Area

Hot Springs

Day 2: Guided Climbing in the Alcove Area

How to Get There

What to Bring

Where to Stay

Food & Drink

Quick & Dirty

Day 1: Top Roping in the Schoolroom Area

To get to the ice park in the morning you’ll want to drive “up” through the middle of town. There’s one road through the middle of town, and if you’re not heading downhill, you’re going in the right direction. About a mile or less out of town, past a few turns in the road, you’ll come to a parking lot where the road splits, the right side heading toward the park and the left side toward Silverton, via Red Mountain Pass (more on that later). You’ll want to park in either the first parking lot you come to or, if you got up pretty early that morning, you might be able to snag a spot in the upper lot, closer to the park. From either spot, it’s a short hike up to the entrance area, and there are some picnic tables on which you can sit to put on your crampons. From there, the fun begins.



If you have any interest in ice climbing, or just like to look at crazy-cool ice pillars, your first view of the Ouray Ice Park will be a sight to behold. Our first day was spent almost exclusively in the Schoolroom area. You just walk along the bridge up above the gorge, find some open bolts or a chain and toss your rope over. Make sure your anchor is long enough to ensure your rope isn’t rubbing over the water pipe! Seriously, bring some extra-long slings. It had snowed so much the night before, that when we rapp’ed into the gorge itself, we found ourselves flailing through cascading snowdrifts as we swept off the route in anticipation of the ensuing climb. It was like starting a sluffalanche off each new climb we tried.



Once on the floor of the gorge it was simply a matter of picking which amazing route to try first. My eyes flitted from route to route like a beaver at an antique woodworking convention. So much ice, so little time! We spent our first day in the park giddily racing up and down as many routes as we could, laughing with excitement each time a chunk of ice came raining down (you’ll want to have your belayer stand back, across the river). There’s something about the combination of snow, climbing, and swinging tools resembling medieval weapons that can turn a group of supposedly adult men into rambunctious teenagers all over again.



Hot Springs

After a hard day of climbing and knocking ice on ourselves, we headed back into town for some food and relaxation. There’s no shortage of places to enjoy the local flavor. Ouray Hot Springs Pool is the closest (and most well known) place to enjoy a soak; it features several sections ranging in temperature from 88 to 106 degrees, a lap-swimming pool, a diving board, and a slide, with views of the San Juan Mountains all around.

A group of climbers next to us that day had told me about some other hot springs that we should check out, Orvis Hot Springs, just outside of town, about nine miles back toward Ridgway. These particular hot springs stayed open later than the ones located right in town, and were also clothing-optional. This was ideal, seeing as how I had managed to forget to bring a pair of shorts on this trip.


Another place worth visiting is Wiesbaden’s, which has a natural spring, an underground Vaporcave (think of it as nature’s steam room), an outdoor swimming pool, and a private soaking pool. I highly recommend any hot springs as the best way to relax after a long day of climbing at the ice park.

Day 2: Guided Climbing in the Alcove Area

The second day we awoke to even more snow. Though it would have been a stretch to describe any of us as “alert” that morning, we ate breakfast as quickly as we could and hurried over to the office of the San Juan Mountain Guides, who were taking us out for the day. Our fearless leaders for the day were resident ice-badasses Mike Gibbs and Pat Ormond, and after some brief introductions, they passed some forms around on which we could sign away our lives. Pleasantries and legal proceedings finished, it was time to head to the ice park.

Now, I don’t know if it’s some sort of guide inside-joke, or if it was revenge for us showing up late that morning, but those guys put us on the longest, most sustained climbs of the trip as our warm-ups. They ended up being fantastic, but I’m pretty sure Mike and Pat were getting some good laughs from our grunting and cursing as we struggled to rid our limbs of lactic acid and shake off the morning fog. These “warm-up” climbs were in the same area as Pick o’ the Vic, a must-do classic, and are the first ones you can see from the bridge as you walk up.




This area is also where you can find the hut that serves as a sort of headquarters and visitors’ center. This hut is where you can purchase a membership to the park, highly recommended since the park is maintained entirely through memberships and donations. They also have free hot chocolate.

The rest of that day’s climbing was spent on various routes down in the Alcove area, just in between where we’d climbed the day before and where we’d climbed that morning. The climbs in the Alcove were more challenging in general than the Schoolroom area and were a great second-day adventure.



Our ice-climbing adventures over for the day, we headed back down to the hotel to start packing. Our next destination was the town of Silverton, about 24 miles over Red Mountain Pass. We’d been warned in advance that the pass had been getting hit by rockslides, and was only open for two brief periods during the day, once at 6:30 am and then again at 4:30 pm. We got our gear packed away quickly, and once more we were on the road, this time with visions of steep, untracked lines passing before our eyes.

How to Get There

Town of Ouray, CO

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Ouray Ice Park

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Where to Stay

We stayed at the River’s Edge Motel. This hotel was recommended to us by a friend, and he did not steer us wrong. The owner is fantastic, the breakfast in the morning is free and filling, and the hot tubs are open 24 hours! The location is very convenient; it’s right down the street from everything in town, though, to be fair, everything is “right down the street” from everything else in Ouray.


What to Bring


Along with basic clothing for times off the ice, you’ll want to make sure the following are on your checklist. And of course, don’t forget a bathing suit for the hot springs!

Ice tools 
Shell pant or bibs 
Belay device 
Anchor building — You’ll want various slings and locking carabiners. Lots of long runners to ensure your anchor extends far enough.

Read more about essential gear for ice climbing

If you happen to forget something, you can always stop by the local shop in town, Ouray Mountain Sports.

Food and Drink


While not large, the town of Ouray does boast some nice places to eat or to wet your whistle. At the recommendation of a local, we ventured into The Outlaw, the local steakhouse. This ended up being a great decision, as the food was topnotch. For some basic pub fare, burgers and such, try O’Briens Pub which is located, you guessed it, right down the street. That’s also a great place to grab a beer, should you feel so inclined. Just up the street is the Silver Eagle Saloon where the options on tap run from Bud Light all the way to Bud Light. A classier joint I have yet to find.

Quick & Dirty

San Juan Mountain Guides

Hot Springs
Ouray Hot Springs Pool – Several soaking pools, family friendly – Location
Orvis Hot Springs – 9 miles away, clothing optional – Location
Wiesbaden – Check out the Vaporcave under the lodge – Location

Where to Stay
River’s Edge Motel – Owner is awesome, 24-hour hot tub – Location
Wiesbaden Lodging – Soaking facilities on the grounds – Location

Where to Eat
The Outlaw – Location
O’Brien’s Pub – Location


Long Weekend: Skiing Silverton, Colorado

How to Choose Crampons

How to Sharpen Your Ice Tools


Ice Climbing Gear and Equipment