perimeter trail

The City of Ouray, looking north from Route 550. The popular Perimeter Trail above town has been completed. (Courtesy photo)

Dozens of trails lead high above the City of Ouray, up into the rugged backcountry above town.

Each path tells its own story. Before they were trod by humans, some paths were likely game trails, used by local wildlife as the surest, safest way down from the precipitous cliffs and deep drainages that surround town (before it was a town).

Most were created by miners: the Old Horsethief Trail, for example, passes by the Wanakah, Johnathan, Schofield and American Nettie mines on “Gold Hill,” and dates back to the city’s earliest days.

The Ouray Trail Group (OTG), which maintains many dozens of trails above town, calls Old Horsethief “a great trail.”

But there is one even greater (or at least, definitely more well known). Paula Damke, a volunteer at the Ouray Visitor Center, calls interest in this trail “absolutely phenomenal.”

“It’s the number one thing people ask me for, other than a visitor guide,” she said. “I hand out 100 maps for it a day.”

“It” is the Perimeter Trail, a 6.2-mile loop above town that wends its way through conifers, looks out above ledges, takes in four waterfalls and spans five bridges. The trail is now complete: The final segment, which connects the Old Twin Peaks Trail to Oak Street in downtown Ouray, was officially commemorated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 6. The OTG collaborated on the trail with the U.S. Forest Service. “We owe a huge thanks to the Ouray Trail Group for their dedication and commitment to managing trails in the Ouray area,” Ouray District Ranger Dana Guardunio said. “We are pleased to see another section of this unique trail system in place, providing access to the National Forest Service and surrounding areas.”

The trail was founded by longtime Ouray resident (and past OTG president) Bob Risch, who used to gaze up at the elk “that used to trail from the Amphitheater to the valley floor along the base of the cliffs from Cascade Falls to the north,” as a press release puts it, “giving him the the idea for that part of the trail.”

Over the years, the OTG has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars towards the trail, working with local landowners and the forest service and passionate volunteers — many of whom visit Ouray, are smitten by the hike and the views, and return to assist (or simply donate) year after year.

“I don’t think elk are still using it,” said Steve Boyle, the group’s current president. “But we often see bear scat, and deer, and coyotes, and foxes.” A mountain lion sighting, as he put it, “would not be out of the question.”

The trickiest part of the construction, according to Boyle, was the steel bridge where the trail crosses Oak Street. “Some parts of the trail follow existing USFS land,” Boyle said, “and some parts had to be constructed from scratch.”

The part that needed a bridge was forest service property, which “required that the bridge had to be engineered to public-safety specifications. We fundraised something like $60,000,” Boyle recalled. “Some pieces had to be brought in by helicopter; some large trees had to be cut down. If the trees had fallen, they would’ve smashed the bridge.”

A Ouray County engineer and a steelworker designed and fabricated the bridge, which contains a surprise, “something not many people know about,” Boyle said. There is a troll beneath the bridge, and not just any troll: “An ice-climbing troll with an ice ax and a pick,” which is visible to those who go down to the water.

A map of the trail shows places where it is easy to enter and exit (many people who are unused to high altitude hike the Perimeter Trail in segments). “One of the things that’s amazed and shocked all of us is how popular this trail has been,” Boyle said. “With the boom in outdoor recreation in Southwest Colorado, people have flocked to it in numbers we never would have expected.”

Learn more about the Perimeter Trail, and numerous other trails the group maintains, at ouraytrails.org.