Ouray Canyons

In early July I headed to Silverton, an hour north of Durango, for a month. Did some biking and other assorted activities up here, but my focus until early August was on the canyons around Ouray, an amazing town another 40 minutes to the north. The town occupies a small flat spot in the Uncompahgre river gorge, and is surrounded by towering mountains in all directions. Lots of hiking and climbing in the area, but the mountains also hold many small streams feeding into the Uncompahgre, and descending these is a huge amount of fun.

All the canyons I had done in the spring back in Zion and the Escalante were dry or had only pools of standing water — south Utah didn’t get much snow over the winter and by April it had melted out. The Ouray canyons flow whenever they’re not frozen, from snowmelt and springs (aka time-delayed snowmelt.) In most years flows are too high for safe descents until August, and with snows starting in September and the monsoon season throughout this makes for difficult trip planning and management. This year the San Juans had an extremely low snowpack which pretty much all melted by early July, allowing for descents much earlier than usual. I took advantage of this and spent a total of 10 days in various canyons around town.

Descending a flowing canyon is dramatically different from descending a drier canyon. All the drops become waterfalls, which many times need to be rappelled straight through, negotiating carefully to manage your footing and pick your way down while being pelted by the falling water. Additionally, the canyon floors are often all wet and slick with algae, making downclimbing and even walking treacherous. A far more dynamic and engaging experience than most dry canyons I’ve done.

Of the canyons I did, my favorite was Cascade Creek. Starting on the east side of town, an approach trail hike of four miles or so gains over 2000′ in altitude before crossing the creek. Descending loses all that altitude in less than a mile, with a ton of downclimbing and ten or so rappels. The last rappel is magnificent, 300′ down a waterfall right to the edge of town, at one of the most popular tourist spots in town. Two other big rappels, of 150′ and 200′ or so, round things out; a long, challenging canyon. The second big rappel, and some of the downclimbs in the canyon’s narrows:

I did Cascade Creek twice: first solo, lugging 700′ or so of rope and cords up the approach, then with a group of three I’d met online, visiting the area for the weekend from central Colorado, Iowa and Georgia. After descending Cascade, the next day we all went down Bear Creek, another favorite canyon in the area. The flow in Bear Creek was substantially larger than in Cascade, the most of any canyon I did around Ouray, but the downclimbing is not so difficult and none of the rappels are terribly long. The canyon is just plain gorgeous, however, with the milky creek cutting its way through layers of Limestone, Quartzite, and other marble like rocks I can scarcely identify. One thing I especially love about the Ouray canyons is how varied the rock strata are and how much the canyons transform when passing through them. One of the prettier drops in Bear Creek, and me during a downclimb:

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