OURAY, Colo. — Ducking through an entryway not much higher than my head, I felt the hot water trickling on my feet before I could see it.
The cave was shrouded in steam and lit by a single bulb. I made my way barefoot over the rough rocks of the floor and sank into a shallow pool of 106-degree water straight out of the earth. As I leaned back against the reddish wall of the cave, where it's completely quiet except for the soft gurgle of water, drops gradually fell from the glistening ceiling onto my cheek, then my shoulder, then my back.
Outside, it was 30 degrees, and snow covered the ground and rooftops of Ouray, a bucolic haven — population 800 — nestled 7,700 feet above sea level on the doorstep of Red Mountain Pass. The old mining town is virtually ringed by 14,000- and 13,000-foot peaks in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, not all that far from the ski resort town of Telluride.
Seven natural hot springs in Ouray County spurt from the ground at up to 150 degrees, and the town has developed a few of them into soaking areas, some more luxurious than others. The Ute Indians who first inhabited this area and their chief, for whom the town is named, believed minerals in the water have special healing properties.
The town corrals some of the springs into a family-friendly 150-by-280-foot pool with lap lanes, water slide and kiddie section.
There's also a "clothing-optional" hot springs just outside town at Orvis.
But I opted for the bathing-suits-required Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa. The vapor cave and soaking pool are atop several hot springs, which range in temperature from 78 to 128 degrees. Unlike a chlorinated hot tub, there are no chemical additives and none of the water is recirculated.
For other soaking spots, the town uses a mile-long pipeline to bring in 150-degree water from Box Canyon Falls — a geological marvel where water comes seemingly from nowhere. A slight crevice in the rock spews a massive waterfall with enough force at its peak to power most of the town. The canyon, like many other local attractions, is just a short hike off Main Street, which is part of a National Historic District.
The town feels similar to other Colorado mountain destinations like Breckenridge but smaller and quieter. It's also a little dustier, more rustic and more Western — in contrast to designer label-drenched resorts like Aspen, Vail and neighboring Telluride. The people in Ouray don't try to impress you with the glitz, though the area does have its share of billionaires, including Ralph Lauren.
"We're pretty unpretentious here," offered Bud Zanett, who moved back to Ouray after living elsewhere. "I haven't bought a tie in years. We only wear suits here to funerals and weddings."
The town was built during the gold and silver rush in 1875, and in some ways it still feels like a simple mining community. There are no big-box stores. One local restaurant brews Starbucks coffee, but a Subway sandwich store that opened a few years ago didn't last.
At one time, Ouray's hot springs drew visitors only in the summertime. But the town now draws visitors in winter too, thanks to the Ouray Ice Climbing Park, which is internationally recognized for its spectacular ice-climbing. The park operates 150 different climbing routes in a 1.5-mile section of the Uncompahgre Gorge and also hosts an annual ice-climbing festival that attracts the best climbers in the world.
Many of the businesses in town have signs thanking the climbers or a smiley face with the slogan: "Have an ice day."
The ice park — up the hill at the end of Main Street — is one of the best places to take in the views of the peaks that surround the town. The adventurous ice climbers' red-and-orange jackets dot the blue ice of the gorge, which winds through the mountain and disappears.
I walked up to the edge, peered over and followed the black rope line down, down, down to the thwack of an ice pick. A creek runs through the gorge, and the rusted-green tinge of the water still looks tinted with the gold that once lured horse-drawn carriages west.
After spending a few days here, I can see why those early settlers came, and why the tourists keep on coming. Even without the promise of gold, Ouray is a gem.