In the quaint Western enclave of Ouray, the call to adventure is strong, echoing off the steep San Juan Mountains that tower above town. This southwestern Colorado hamlet, known as “The Switzerland of America,” is outdoor nirvana—and best known for ice climbing. But the same waterfalls that harden into icy flows in the winter are gaining popularity for canyoning in the summer.
Canyoning is similar to canyoneering in that it involves exploring river canyons, potentially in technical terrain. The two are sometimes considered synonymous, depending on who’s doing the talking. But according to Annie Quathamer of San Juan Mountain Guides, adding the element of waterfalls sets canyoning apart.
“Canyoneering tends to be associated with hot, Utah desert canyons with less running water,” Quathamer says. “Canyoning involves more rugged terrain with more running creeks.”
Translation: You can expect to get wet. Picture rappelling down waterfalls, with cold water showering your head and back. After splash-landing in ankle- to knee-deep pools, you venture to the next drop, scrambling in deep canyons that slice through sculpted rock walls. It’s fun stuff. And a wee bit adrenaline inducing, too.
Ouray is an ideal spot for canyoning, owing to steep terrain and an abundance of runoff that drains into the valley that cradles town. While canyoning is not new here, it is picking up steam. The town even has a nonprofit dedicated to canyoning—the Ouray Canyon Coalition—which runs the Ouray Canyon Club and hosts the Ouray Canyon Festival in August each year.
If you’re keen to give canyoning a try, consider checking out one of the guiding operations in town. San Juan Mountain Guides has been guiding canyoning in Ouray for a decade, while Peak Mountain Guides added canyoning to its lineup this year. Canyoning Colorado is a new outfit that focuses solely on canyoning. For those with a hankering to learn how to get after it without a guide, Canyoning Colorado and San Juan Mountain Guides also offer training courses.
You don’t need any experience to try canyoning. Your guide will teach you how to rappel on a practice wall before you plunge into the depths. Beginners can sign up for a half-day tour, exploring Angel Creek or Portland Creek, or an all-day trip that combines both.
Where to Go
Angel Creek is a great place to get your feet wet, so to speak. It is a quick hike up to the start of the magical sandstone canyon. After dropping down the first waterfall, you can read the history of water flow in the rounded rocks along the creek bed. In places, the marbled stone shows off with streaks of green and red. Three more rappels take you back down to your car.
The other iconic beginner spot is just above town at Portland Creek. Here the creek tumbles under a bridge down a titillating 50-foot drop, where a watery massage pounds your back as you rappel down the rocks. A couple more rappels drop you at the end of the canyon on the edge of town, so you can stroll straight to a beer to cap off the day.
Oak Creek is a more advanced, full-day option for those with some experience. You’ll hoof it for an hour and a half to the top of the middle section. From here you drop down more than 20 rappels—the tallest stretching 170 feet—through alpine scenery with fern-covered walls and log jams. This is a committing route, with no way out but down, so make sure the water isn’t flowing too strong before you start.
Plenty of other canyons claw through the hills around Ouray. For detailed beta, try to track down a copy of Michael Dallin’s book, Ouray Canyoning: Explorations in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
When to Go and What to Wear
The canyoning season is short and depends on snowpack and spring melt-off. Hard-core canyoners can go as early as June, although the water tends to be raging at this time, making routes more technical. As creeks subside, they become better suited to beginners. August and September are prime times to try canyoning for the first time. Exact timing varies year to year.
Keep an eye on the weather and know if rain is expected above you. Heavy runoff can channel into tight canyons quickly, creating flash floods.
Wear sturdy, closed-toed shoes. Your outfitter can set you up with a wetsuit, splash jacket, helmet, harness, hardware, and ropes. If you bring a camera phone, keep it in a waterproof case with a tether that can stash inside your clothing for descents.