Local Secret: The New Canyoning Culture in Ouray

These days, Colorado residents who make the journey to remote Ouray in Southwest Colorado are most likely motivated by one of two things.

The first is ice climbing. Over the last few decades, the Ouray Ice Park has gained notoriety and drawn attention to the town, attracting winter climbers from across the State and beyond.

The second is curiosity. Ouray is a five-to-six hour drive from Denver, and it’s not so easy to do in a weekend. But we’ve all heard stories from people who have been, stories about how different the mountains are, how they hover over the town, how the vibe would never be confused with Breck or Vail or Aspen. This creates an allure of sorts, an enticement the adventurer feels when he knows there’s something way out there, waiting for him. And he has to go and explore it – he has to live it – before it nags him to death.

It was the latter that brought me to Ouray last month. Formerly a resident of Denver, I now live in Palisade, a reasonable drive of two hours. I was struck by the beauty of the small, old mining town – it was never destroyed by fire, like many mining towns were, so it remains original, intact, and, for the most part, authentic.

Then there were the steep, stark slopes of the San Juans that box in the valley, and the waterfalls that come down. The hiking in the area was fantastic, and Red Mountain Pass, which connects Ouray to Silverton, is one of the most beautiful, albeit somewhat terrifying, drives I have done in Colorado (the night before my arrival, a young man perished when he lost control and drove off the cliff).

There are a lot of eye-opening, unique things to be found in Ouray, indeed. If you like beer and dry humor, you’ll have to pay a visit to “Mr. Grumpypants” when you visit, and if you’re fortunate enough to swing through town when there’s a game of bingo going on, don’t miss it.

But “the find” that surprised me most was something that goes beyond simple mountain-town charms, something I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else in Colorado, right there on the main road as you come into town from the north: An adventure company that specializes in “canyoning.”

This caught my eye, because, well, you simply don’t see canyoning companies in Colorado. Ever, really. Hiking, biking, climbing, sure, but canyoning? And wait… isn’t it “canyoneering?” And isn’t that something that’s done next door in Utah?

According to Ira Lewis, a Denver-based recreational canyoner who was involved in writing and editing the Ouray canyoning guide book, my initial reactions were correct. He told me there are about 100 canyons in Colorado, and only a half dozen are located in the Front Range, which is why most people don’t associate “canyoning” with Colorado – there simply aren’t that many opportunities nearby the major population centers (aka, Denver).

But Ouray? That’s a different story.

Lewis said the San Juan mountains offer opportunities you can’t find any place else in the state. Part of the reason the mountains around Ouray feel different from the mountains in Front Range is because they are, geologically speaking. The difference comes from its volcanic past – the region is full of old calderas, produced by eruptions, that offers a different kind of rock than, say, the Front Range, which was formed by continental uplift. This geological difference – which is oversimplified here for the sake of space – is what separates Ouray, and what created its many canyons – more than 40 in the greater region.

Rappelling down a waterfall in Portland Creek in Ouray. Photo by Canyoning Colorado.

One of my first questions when I learned all this was, “Well, okay, if the canyons are so great, and there are so many of them, why does no one know about them?” The answer is complex, but one that an adventurer might be pumped to hear.

First, it’s not that no one knows about them – it’s just that their discovery is relatively recent. Lewis says they were first explored by “guys from Boulder” between 2002-2008, when they mapped out about 10 canyoning routes in Ouray. Lewis showed up on the scene in 2008 and has worked to map, develop, and promote the canyons. In fact, he was instrumental in bringing the International Canyoning Rendezvous to Ouray in 2015, which in turn brought the worldwide canyoning community to Colorado. That, he says, helped to attract the attention of people in the State.

One man who took notice was Andrew Humphreys, and in 2016, he opened Canyoning Colorado in downtown Ouray, the aforementioned shop I came across. A former canyoning guide overseas, he was drawn to Ouray because of its unique “wet” canyons. Today, he operates tours in eight different canyons, all within a 15-minute drive of his shop.

“Ouray is a very special geological phenomena,” Andrew said. “There’s no other place in Colorado that has this many canyons this close together. Almost every creek in Ouray comes through a canyon, and it’s really weird because you go over to Telluride, 17 miles away, and it’s not the same kind of canyons. Ouray is the premier water-base canyoning destination [in the U.S.]. Most canyons in the U.S. are dry, but all the canyons in Ouray have water.”

Rappelling down a waterfall in Ouray. Photo by Canyoning Colorado.

It is this presence of water that has also been a contributing factor in keeping Ouray’s canyons under the radar – turns out, the skillset to navigate a wet canyon is much different than that needed to navigate a dry canyon, and in Colorado, most people aren’t used to dealing with water.

According to Andrew, “canyoneering” is a term that is typically associated with the exploration of dry canyons, such as the ones in Southern Utah. “Canyoning” is technically interchangeable, as “canyoneering” is not usually used outside of the United States, but here at home, “canyoning” is often used to describe the exploration of wet canyons, like the ones in and around Ouray.

“There is a real difference in technique and approach [between wet and dry canyons],” Andrew said. “A lot of the [dry] desert stuff tends to focus more on downclimbing and creative anchor building…. But drowning is the biggest hazard in wet canyons, and when you have that sort of hazard, you have to be ready to deal with that hazard instantaneously.”

Lewis concurred, saying that the water creates a barrier to entry of sorts, and because there aren’t too many canyoning outfitters like Andrew’s, the skills are hard to come by. Most people end up having to hire a private instructor, which can be expensive and/or hard to find, and then having to link up with other locals who explore wet canyons to build team skills. Again, because not many people do it, these communities can be tedious to infiltrate. In Ouray, though, one can now simply arrive at Canyoning Colorado to go on a guided tour, or enroll in courses taught by Andrew himself.

But ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, the recreational canyoning community remains small because of the very thing that prevents people from visiting Ouray in general: Its location. Simply put, it’s far – from everything. Five and a half hours from Denver, six from Salt Lake City, almost nine from Phoenix. For a business owner looking to expand, or a prospective one looking to open shop, this reality poses challenges, and promises to keep the canyoning community small for years to come.

But for the adventurer? Perhaps this is another one of those moments of enticement. Not many people have explored the wet canyons of Colorado. Will you?

Canyoning Colorado
920 Main St, Ouray

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