- Sports and Recreation
Explorations in Colorado's San Juan Mountains
The San Juan Mountains are an extraordinary area to explore canyons and Ouray's canyons are a national treasure. This page was made to share the beauty and wonder of Ourays canyons with you, and to highlight an amazing sport which can be done in the area, canyoneering.
Canyoneering (aka canyoning) is the exploration of canyons. It is more than just hiking down a canyon, it is a technical descent down a canyon and involves rappelling, rope work, technical climbing, down climbing, technical jumps and sometimes technical swims. The canyons in Ouray provide all of these exciting features and more.
Ouray lies on US Route 550 (Main Street in town) south of Montrose and north of Durango in southwest Colorado. The canyoning season in Ouray varies from year to year, but averages August 1st through September. The season can be shorter or longer depending on how late the spring runoff completes or how early the autumn snows arrive.
Two terms are used to describe techincal descents of canyons: canyoneering and canyoning. Canyoneering is an American coined term whereas the term canyoning has roots in Europe's flowing water canyons.
A Brief History Of The Ouray Area
"The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And in the narrow rent, at every turn,
Winds thwarting winds bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky"
William Wordsworth, excerpt from "The Simplon Pass", 1799
Ouray, named after Chief Ouray of the Tabeguache, has a rich geologic history involving weathering and erosion as well as advancing and retreating of seas over a huge time period spanning millions of years. As the Rocky Mountains rose, volcanoes erupted across the San Juan Mountains. Eruptions left lava, ash and tuff thousands of feet deep across the landscape. The remnants of these blasts are seen as the gray cap to the San Juan Mountains.
Additional faulting and folding lifted the Rockies even higher. Large rivers cut into the mountains forming many of the river basins we know today: the Colorado, Arkansas, Rio Grande and Platte. Around 2 million years ago large alpine glaciers formed across the mountains. The glaciers carved deep, forming the many U-shaped valleys and glacial cirques that we see today. Glaciers carved the Canyon Creek valley and the Uncompahgre River's other high tributaries. The glaciers sculpted the high peaks forming sharp horns and deep cirques.
By 11,000 years ago, the glaciers retreated, and streams further carved the mountains. The climate became similar to what we see today setting conditions for the arrival of humans. The Tabeguache Utes followed by Spanish Expeditions were the first to settle into the area. Eventually miners arrived and timber was logged within the valley. A regular boom and bust cycle of mining continued within the area for many years.
Finally, as the twentieth century progressed tourism increased as a viable industry. Today little mining takes place, but Ouray hosts many recreation opportunities, including the world's first ice climbing park. Visit HERE for more information on Ourays ice park. Ouray also boasts numerous hiking trails, cross country skiing and most recently, some of the best canyoneering in the state. Ouray still proudly embraces its mining legacy and traditions.
Ouray Canyoning - Get the guidebook to canyoning in the Ouray area.
Filled with historical, ecological and geological information, this grand guidebook, written by my good friend and expert canyoneer, Michael Dalin, offers a detailed introduction to Ouray's special canyons.
Ouray Canyoneering - A Sample Of Two Canyons Worth Exploring
Information from Ouray Canyoning, an illustrated guidebook available on this page.
Blue Moon Canyon:
Blue Moon flows high in the San Juan mountains. The landscape is stark and surreal. The only colors are gray and green. The canyon has a reputation due to loose rock. In the words of one canyoneer: "this canyon bares its teeth at you!"
The shot to the right was taken at the very end of the Inner Gorge, looking back at the short rappel of Blue Moon canyon. Depending on the anchors used throughout the canyon, this is the only waterfall where one must rappel through the water. This is near the elusive Blue Moon Tunnels.
After this point the canyon opens for a long way until the Crystal Section.
Cascade is easily one of the best, and certainly classic, canyons of Colorado - if not the entire United States. It comes at a price - big rappels, up to 300 feet, and a significant amount of downclimbing. While hazardous, it holds a beauty and adventure mix that will tantalize all canyoners skilled enough to enter.
Ouray Canyoneering -What You Need For Success
Do not enter a canyon in Ouray without training in aquatic (flowing water) canyoning techniques, even if you are an experienced climber, mountaineer, kayaker, caver or Colorado Plateau canyoneer. Even the most benign or beginner canyons are dangerous without proper training, even in normal conditions. Ouray canyons contain dangers that are recognized only with canyoning training, even for otherwise experienced adventurers or canyoneers.
Approach and Exit Hike Clothing:
Many canyoners wear light clothes on the approach and exit hike even if it is cold on those early mornings. On hot summer days shorts and a polyester or polypro T-shirt with an optional thin long-sleeved fleece top will suffice. On cooler days bring light long pants to go over your shorts and possibly a light fleece jacket. Everyone should bring a light compact rain jacket and a fleece hat. Consider bringing fleece gloves. Wool socks add comfort, though many canyoners wear their neoprene socks on the approach hike.
Ouray canyons are very cold and are dangerous if you don't wear enough thermal protection even on the hottest days. Before you enter the water you will likely change from hiking clothes to a wetsuit or dry suit. Dry suits work well since Ouray canyons are not as narrow and abrasive compared to other canyoning areas, but they are expensive and require careful use and maintenance. Most canyoners prefer wetsuits. Either dry suits or full wetsuits (that is, wetsuits that cover everything except hands, feet and head, with at least 5 mm of neoprene on your core) should be worn in all canyons that are not trail hikes. Many people will add a neoprene hood for additional warmth. Regular hiking clothes are usually sufficient for routes that are trail hikes, but check the route description first.
Paddle jackets are recommended to ward off the wind and spray of waterfalls. Neoprene socks are a must. Some people will wear wool socks on the approach hike, and change to neoprene socks in the canyon. You may find neoprene gloves helpful too, though they may get damaged or decrease control on rappel.
To save weight you will usually wear the same pair of shoes on the approach and exit hikes as in the canyon. Some may wish to wear comfortable shoes on longer approach hikes and then switch to another pair for the canyon. Several companies make special canyoning shoes with sticky rubber soles and mesh to facilitate water drainage. Finding a pair that fits well is tricky. If you can't find canyoning shoes approach shoes can work. Try to find a model that has no leather or water will damage them. Make sure they have good traction and sticky rubber. Traction is tricky in Ouray canyons. The rock can be wet and slippery and even the best canyon shoes won't stick well, so watch your step. Stick to light shoes, but be sure that your shoes have the ankle support that you desire - twisting your ankle is common when walking on streambeds.
Technical gear includes ropes, anchors, harnesses and gear for climbing and rappelling. Most canyoners are comfortable using sit harnesses used by rock climbers. These come in many forms, from light alpine mountaineering harnesses to thick-padded sport climbing models. Sliding on rock when wearing a harness can abrade the harness. Some companies sell a protective seat that reduces abrasion damage and extends the life of your harness.
Canyoners use static Kernmantle ropes designed for canyoning or rappelling. These ropes do not retain water like dynamic climbing ropes nor do they bounce and stretch excessively while on rappel. Some models don't sink in pools, but most do. Check the flotation before you toss it into a pool. Static ropes should not be used to belay lead climbers as falling forces are deadly. If you think you may lead climb in your canyon, bring an extra dynamic rope.
Some geologic layers in Ouray are abrasive and occasionally cause serious rope damage. Historically as many as 5 to 10% of canyon trips have experienced rope damage. Unchecked, this damage results in rope failure and serious injury or death. Do not swing or bounce when rappelling and avoid laying the rope on a sharp edge when you weight it. Examine your rope after each rappel for sheath and core damage, and retire damaged ropes immediately. Reset the abrasion point between each rappel. Always bring extra rope (at least 50-100% more rope than you need) on your trips in case one is damaged. Thicker ropes (9mm or more) are strongly suggested. Note that some retailers may inadvertently try to sell you thick static accessory cord thinking it is rope. Always make sure the rope is designed for rappelling!