Ouray Perimeter Trail Hike
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
After our short hike to Bear Creek Falls and the Jeep adventure on both Black Bear Pass and Imogene Pass yesterday, today was the day we'd planned to tackle a longer hike – Perimeter Trail.
Aptly named, this trail is cool because it follows the perimeter of the quaint town of Ouray, Colorado, but you're up above the town, hiking amongst the trees and mountain ridges, looking down at it like a miniature town model or diorama.
Kind of like the Tahoe Rim Trail (which navigates the perimeter of the lake basin), only different, because there's no lake in Ouray, but it is high alpine like Tahoe!
Ouray is also quite unique in that the town is nestled in a geographic bowl, surrounded by steep, jagged "walls" of 12,000-13,000-foot mountain peaks of the San Juan Mountains.
Since the resort at which we were staying was located near the walking path, River Walk Trail, which can lead us to the Perimeter Trail, we decided to walk directly from the resort, which added less than 1.5 miles to the roundtrip total. This crushed-rock path is flat and quite nice with some pretty scenery as it parallels the Uncompahgre River. Once we reached the Perimeter Trail trailhead, it was an abrupt terrain change to steep and rocky climbing.
Some sections of the trail had steps installed while other sections were au naturel – but let's just say I was glad I had my hiking poles for this one. In the end, the total ascent was over 1,500 ft.
After climbing for a little while, you start to get these incredible overhead views of Ouray.
Then the trail transitions to a bit of a shelf along the side of a massive mountain.
Which eventually leads to the amazing Cascade Falls.
This waterfall was a great stop along the route following a bunch of climbing, but we moved on and started ascending again through a wooded area of the trail that presented a spectacular view of the sheer magnitude of the mountain we just "scaled" to get to Cascade Falls.
Around the next corner of the trail, while we were overlooking Ouray below us, something magical happened! And it happened too quickly for me to capture it on video or in a photo.
First, I heard the crescendoing, rumbling, whooshing sound. Then, I saw. Two fighter jets blasted through the canyon, one chasing the other, both flawlessly maneuvering as they banked around the peaks and disappeared just as quickly. It was an incredible sight from up on the Perimeter Trail. And what luck to be standing there just as they flew by – none of us could even believe what we just saw.
Earlier this year, we stopped at "Star Wars Canyon" in Death Valley, but we weren't lucky enough to see any fighter jets swoop through the famous valley. I imagine what we witnessed in Ouray, however, was nearly as incredible.
A little farther along, we crossed a country road and then hiked past the "baby bathtubs" on the Portland Trail section, which, from what we could tell, is basically a smaller version of the "potholes" near Silver Lake south of Lake Tahoe. The "holes" are created in the boulders over time by water and erosion.
Soon after this rocky stretch, we briefly intersected what amounted to a rocky forest/Jeep road and then we suddenly crossed into small a meadow area that opened up to amazing views at its summit – a spot called High Point Lookout.
We descended and made our way toward the crossing of Million Dollar Highway, which led us down the Ice Park Trail into a fresh, green aspen grove.
Then, something that we've never encountered on a hike before.
I learned from my construction-industry husband that this "pipe" is called a penstock. So, this was my first "penstock crossing" on a hike. There's even a handmade directional sign on it that reads "Ice Park Trail." So, it's an official crossing.
We continued climbing up the dirt trail alongside the Uncompahgre Valley where thrill-seekers can try their hand at via ferrata. The term “via ferrata” is Italian for “iron way,” which makes sense given that it's essentially a designed route on a mountain face equipped with steel cables, ladders, and other fixed anchors, allowing climbers to make their way across, up, and down cliff faces. This activity definitely piqued my interest for a subsequent trip to Ouray.
If you look closely, you can see a cable bridge spanning the canyon near the center of the photo. Climbers cross this bridge to get to the canyon wall on the opposite side to start across the via ferrata course.
Once we got past this river valley, the landscape opened up again to views overlooking Ouray as we approached Box Cañon. The reddish mountains on the right-hand side are what we crossed to get to Cascade Falls, which you can just barely spot in the "v" just a little above the lowest treeline on the far right.
Box Cañon was a sight to behold. Between the awesome High Bridge above the canyon, the massive canyon itself, and the tunnel(!), it was certainly remarkable.
At the end of the bridge is a long, dark tunnel, followed by a whole bunch of steps to descend.
This section of the trail is a little misleading, because your mind kind of shifts to thinking that you'll now be starting the final descent, but nope! After descending those steps, you proceed to a few steep switchbacks that must be climbed!
At the top of this final climb, which felt tougher than usual at this point in the hike, we stopped for a breather and a snack in the welcomed shade and marveled at the views of Ouray once again. This spot also offered a fantastic breeze for four hot hikers.
From here, it was all descending back down to "ground level" in Ouray. And we were treated to one final bridge and small waterfall on the way. We returned to the River Walk Trail and followed it back to our resort as we discussed where we wanted to go for a well-earned lunch. Because you know I was hungry after four hours of hiking.
This was a fantastic hike for so many reasons. Panoramic views of Ouray, spectacular waterfalls and mountainscapes, dramatic canyons, and even a tunnel. The fighter jet fly-by was the unexpected icing on the cake.