In Ayn Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged all of the great inventors, industrialists and venture capitalists in the world make the decision to go on strike and go into hiding in order to rid the world of communism. They choose an idyllic mountain valley surrounded by tall cliffs and protected by machine that cloaks the valley in a mirage that makes it indistinguishable by air from the surrounding mountains. The model for Ayn Rand’s hideaway and the place where she eventually finished the novel was Ouray, Colorado.
Ouray, at 7,792 feet, is almost perfectly surrounded by the cliffs and mountains of the San Juan range. The only easy way in is through a small notch in the mountains to the north cut by the Uncompahgre River. The town is little more than a pear-shaped series of cross streets. Those wishing to leave in a southerly direction must ascend the switch backs of the Million Dollar Highway, the windy and precipitous stretch of road connecting Ouray with Silverton and Durango.
Ouray, like most towns in the Rocky Mountains got its start as a mining community. There were over 30 active mines in the hills around town. The Red Mountain mining district produced ore of such high quality that it was shipped directly to smelters. The difficulty of mining at over 10,000 feet, sulfuric acid in the water table and the silver crash of 1893 shut down these mines one at a time, however. By the mid 20th Century Ouray was reborn as a tourist town. Its 19th Century Queen Anne Victorian houses have been incredibly well preserved. Ouray also enjoys waterfalls and hot springs, which make it a premier resort and spa destination of the San Juans. Unlike Telluride, however, which is only located on the western slope of the nearby mountains about fifteen miles away, Ouray has lost none of its historic beauty or rustic flavor.
Ouray is home to a number of hotels and B&B’s. The Old Western Hotel was built in 1891 and still enjoys most of its original fixtures, including wall paper, claw foot bathtubs and animal skins on the walls. The Old Western’s downstairs saloon is one of the most popular watering holes in town once the sun goes down. The St. Elmo Hotel on Main Street also has managed to keep much of its 19th Century charm, particularly the hotel restaurant. B&B’s like Black Bear Manor on 6th Avenue are relaxing base camps at which to rest and relax after a hard day of hiking or off-roading. On Black Bear’s front deck guests exchange hair-raising tales of driving along cliff ledges or poking around ghost towns over glasses of cabernet.
The Ouray Chamber Resort Association has done much to play up the towns Rocky Mountain Charm. Visitors to most hotels are given free guides on four wheeling, hiking, ghost towns and historic tours that were prepared by the Chamber. The “Walking Tour of Ouray” takes in 24 of the town’s most beautiful and historic structures, including the red brick Elks Lodge, built in 1898 and the regal Beaumont Hotel constructed in 1886. The chamber’s guide to local ghost towns is a treasure map for those interested in history and adventure. The defunct town of Ironton is located less than ten miles south of Ouray and can be reached by a mere hundred meter hike off of route 550. Some of the wooden houses are still in reasonably good condition with 100 year old wall paper still peeling of their interiors.
Ouray is home to a number of expensive to mid-range eateries. One of the priciest but most frequently recommended restaurants is the Outlaw, on Main Street, which is a fine Colorado Steak House. Buen Tiempo offers upscale Mexican fare while the oddly name Billy Goat’s Gruff Beer Garden has cheap but delectable German cuisine.
Ouray offers everything you could want in a Rocky Mountain town and can be enjoyed for a fraction of what you might pay in busier and tackier resort towns elsewhere in the state. After my own recent visit courtesy of a Living Social deal for a night at the Black Bear Manor, I had other tourists jokingly imploring me not to write about Ouray and give away the secret!
Ouray Chamber Resort Association