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Climbing the Ouray Via Ferrata

The Ouray Via Ferrata hadn’t been on my list too long when I got the opportunity to go down to Ouray a couple weeks ago. It recently opened this year. With the state opening back up under the pandemic, I decided to take a trip to the southern part of the state to do some hiking and exploring with my friend, Jessy. 

We researched both Ouray’s and Telluride’s Via Ferratas. Telluride’s is pretty famous, but when researching it, I found that it isn’t as technically difficult as Ouray’s. The Via Ferrata in Telluride is more hiking; however, for those afraid of big heights, the Telluride one rises much higher above the ground than the one in Ouray.

We finally decided to try out the new one in Ouray instead. After we noted the different scenery, we saw that it also has climbs up and down the cliffs as well as traverses them. The obstacles, the Sky Ladder and Cable Bridge, to cross the river looked like a lot of fun too.

Colorado has a few different Via Ferratas, but until recently, the only one that was free to public use was the one in Telluride. Coming from a climbing and scrambling background, I did not want to hire a guide, so I was happy to find that the new one in Ouray was free to public use! 

Getting There

The Via Ferrata is located right in the town of Ouray. If you are coming from Denver, or anywhere north from the state, the closest big town you will be in will most likely be Montrose. From Montrose, head south on Highway 550. If you are coming from the south, you most likely will  hit the town of Durango. From here, head north on Highway 550 towards Ouray.

Once in the town of Ouray, continue south on Highway 550 towards Durango. Right outside of the town as the road starts climbing, you’ll come to a sign for the Box Falls pulloff for campers and ATVs. There will be a sign for the turn off to a road on the right. Turn right onto road 361 to Camp Bird and the Yankee Boy Basin to Mt. Sneffels.

About 300 feet or so down the road, there will be a couple pull offs on your left. It fills up pretty quickly, so we parked in the first lot we came to. This lot is a little past the Ouray Rescue House. There will be a sign that says ‘day use only‘. Park here and then hike up the road a couple hundred feet. You’ll pass another little house with a couple places to park.

 Maybe 50 or so feet after this, there will be a yellow sign on the left with a VF on it next to a trail. Take this trail and follow it. You have to hike maybe a half mile up the trail. You will see another yellow sign or two signaling that you are still on the right trail.  

There is another road that intersects the trail, but just stay straight, heading towards the winter ice park. After a couple minutes of walking, you’ll pass by the ice park shed on the right and on the left will be the sign for the Via Ferrata along with the trail heading off. 

Know Before You Go on the Ouray Via Ferrata

Trailhead: Box Canyon Falls to Via Ferrata trailhead. The Via Ferrata opens at 8 and closes at 4.

Mileage: About 0.8 miles RT

Permit: No, but you will be checked at the beginning for the proper gear. It is free to do, but there is a donation box at the start of the hike, or you can donate online. It helps keep the access free to the public.

Partner: Jessy

Time: 2:15 hours. We got to the trailhead at 9am and finished at the car at 11:15am. 

Since we were only two, we finished faster than what the time seemed for other groups. Around 2 hours car to car seemed to be a reasonable time to anticipate the Via Feratta taking. This includes a couple stops for water breaks if your party moves at a casual hiking pace. If anyone in your group is scared of heights, you have a larger group, or your group tends to move slower, anticipate it taking longer. In that case, I would say add on an hour or more or if you are following larger groups.

Plan on going earlier to avoid hangups in the canyon, especially on the weekends. There are only a couple areas for passing. We arrived with only one group or two group further ahead of us, but had quite a few larger groups behind us on the cables.

Weather: Go when you have an adequate amount of time before the weather moves in. Ouray is known for afternoon thunderstorms. While rain will make the rocks slippery, that won’t be your main concern. You are connected to large metal cables throughout the canyon: perfect electricity conductors that you don’t want to be on if lightning happens to strike. There is a bail out exit about 2/3s of the way through if you notice the clouds overhead, but you have at least an hour to get to it.

Going With a Guide on the Ouray Via Ferrata

If you don’t have experience, or have children in your group, it is recommended that you go with a guide who knows how to use the gear properly. Anyone 16 and under requires an adult to accompany them.

There are plenty of guides for the Via Ferrata in town who will help you get across safely. The San Juan Mountain Guides are very reputable guiding company. You also can go through Mountain Trip and Basecamp Bouldering.

What to Bring

There is a ranger at the top who will inspect your gear before you’re permitted to go on the route, if you go without a guide. You’re required to use three technical pieces of gear, all of which can be rented at the San Juan Mountain Guides office on Main Street if you don’t have them.

 It is on a first come, first serve basis. Call the office for details on their hours of operation. We went by at 8:30, right when they opened on a Thursday. I wouldn’t go much later than that; there was a line already starting to form with a big group in front of us and three groups after us. Gear must be dropped back at the office before they close or you will be charged for another day. 

It was $25.00 per lanyard, which is what most people will need to rent. If you need a helmet and harness as well, the total is $35.00 per package. 

Technical Gear (You can rent any combination of these)

Harness: You must be wearing a climbing rated harness at all times. 

Helmet: You need a climbing rated helmet that protects you both against falls and rock fall. A bike helmet or ski helmet will most likely not work unless it is cross rated. I don’t know if the ranger allows them, but best to go with what is listed on the website.

Lanyard: Unlike the Telluride Via Ferrata, you must have a specific Via Ferrata lanyard. While for the Telluride Via Ferrata, you can use two personal anchor systems as you go straight across the cliff, the Ouray Via Ferrata involves climbing up and down over obstacles as well as across. This makes it so you have to use a specific lanyard that expands in the case of a fall, especially between cables. When it expands out, it gives you a dynamic catch. This keeps you safe if you fall between some of the longer bolted cables while climbing up or down.

Non-Technical Gear (You must bring your own)

There are other gear items that are required for the climb, though I do not know how much these as upheld. I would bring them though. It makes life easier.

Shoes: Shoes with sticky rubber are definitely recommended. I brought my approach shoes, but hiking boots or shoes or trail runners would also work. You want something with good support and grip.

Gloves: My finger-less gloves that I use for canyoneering somehow did not make it this trip, so I used my full fingered liners. These still worked, but my hands did get hot in them. The gloves help protect against the metal. Working gloves from a home repair store would also work for a cheap option. If you can get them though, definitely go finger-less. The grip is better.

Everything Else: I brought a smaller backpack that fit some water and a snack and had a place to fix my camera to it so it wouldn’t fall out into the river below. I sunscreened up before the route, but if you know it may take a while, some spray sunscreen would be good to help keep your hands from getting greasy and slippery. 

What to Expect on the Ouray Via Ferrata

Get ready for the adventure of a lifetime. Okay maybe not ‘quite’ that intense, but the Ouray Via Ferrata is an absolute blast! It starts off with a fun downclimb into the canyon before heading across the cable bridge that goes over the river.

After this great introduction to the Via Ferrata, the route traverses across the cliffs before it starts to climb up and down around the cliffs. It gorgeous throughout the canyon and we got great views of the river. A couple benches are placed on the Via Ferrata for resting, with cables above them. You are required to stay clipped in the entire time.

When moving around bolts, you unclip one carabiner and move it to the other side before unclipping the second. Because of how the Ouray Via Ferrata is set up, there are only a few places you can safely pass people throughout the canyon. Extra cables and footholds are above or below the route. If you notice someone behind you, you are easily able to step off to let them by. 

The Ouray Via Ferrata traverses up, down, and around the cliffs for a while before it comes to the last obstacle, the Sky Ladder. The Sky Ladder goes for 75 feet above the river and falls. It’s definitely my favorite part of the Via Ferrata. There was a final, short section of cables before it was over, a little too soon in my opinion. After we exited the gates at the end, the walk back to the car was only a couple minutes. 

We drove back through Ouray and returned the lanyards before heading out on another adventure. The Ouray Via Ferrata is definitely an adventure I would recommend going on. It isn’t too hard, but if you have any doubts, definitely go with one of the guides. It is a ton of fun and a great way to experience the Uncompahgre Gorge. 

Keep an eye out for my next post on other adventures to have in Ouray while you are down in the area. And let me know if you’ve done the Ouray Via Ferrata. Did you like it? Would you do it again? Or are you planning to go visit? Reach out in the comments! 

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