It was our last morning at Lightner Creek campground and since we were going to be without electric/water hook-ups for the next three nights, I set out to do laundry up by the office. I brought a good cup of coffee and my tablet then plucked myself down at a picnic table to read emails and watch hummingbirds fight over the multiple feeders hanging nearby. With a trip over the Million Dollar Highway on our agenda, this peaceful start to the day was perfect.
Tip: It is becoming common for campgrounds to offer wifi connections. Some will have service throughout the campground, while others like Lightner Creek, will offer a Hotspot. Make sure to ask when you are making your campground reservation.
After laundry, we packed up and headed north on Highway 550. It was extremely slow going as our truck strained with both the extra weight of the trailer and the altitude. Finally, we made the summit of Coal Bank Pass (elevation 10,640 feet), then Molas Pass (elevation 10,970 feet). There is a lovely turn-out at the top of Molas Pass which was the perfect spot to give both truck and Troy a break. There is a viewpoint there which provided a stunning panoramic view of Molas Lake, Animas River Gorge, and Snowdon Peak. Since it was quite cool at this altitude, we enjoyed our picnic lunch in the trailer before heading back onto Highway 550.
From Molas Pass, we headed down into the valley that houses Silverton to the “Million Dollar Highway,” the 25 mile section of Highway 550 that stretches north from Silverton to Ouray. The 12 miles that travel through the Uncompahgre Gorge to the summit of Red Mountain Pass (elevation 11,018 ft) is the most challenging. This section is not for the faint-of- heart, especially those driving really large RV’s. The road runs along steep cliffs with hairpin turns. If that is not challenging enough, many lengths of the highway has NO guardrails! Being in the passenger seat, it was I that was facing mortality as I looked straight down to the depths below. It was always a little crazy when a large RV was coming towards us in the opposite direction. I was praying no one was going to swing too wide. It was truly thrilling (and scenic) but reaching Ouray city limits was definitely a relief.
Now to find Amphitheater Campground. As we were winding down the mountain into Ouray I saw our turnout. I was surprised that it was wasn’t at town level, rather up the side of a mountain. We wound up the narrow road while Troy kept asking me, “OK, where are you taking us?” It was a steep one mile to get to our destination. This US Forest Service campground is beautiful; with sites surrounded by Gambel Oaks and mixed confers. Our spot (Site 3) allowed us to unhook and still park our truck at the site. Perfect!
After a short respite, we got back into the truck to do some exploring. First stop was just halfway back to Hwy 550; a hiking trail called Baby Bathtubs. When I was reading about it, it sounded so cool but in reality, we found the trail very confusing. Due to the low water level, we could only see the empty indents in the rocks where the baths should have been. Quite disappointing.
Tip: Even if you are not staying at the campground, take the turn-off to get a birds-eye view of Ouray.
Next, we drove north through town to check out Lower Cascade Falls Trail. It is a short but steep trail up to the base of a series of seven waterfalls that carries snow melt off the mountains and down one of two flumes through Ouray. There are several vantage points around Ouray where you can see all seven waterfalls. Being late in the season, the waterfall was not robust, but none the less beautiful.
In the morning, we set out to visit the much advertised Box Canyon Falls. When we arrived, we realized that there was an admission fee of $4 for adults and $2 for kids 5 and older. It was hard to justify spending $12 to see a waterfall so we decided to continue on the four-wheel drive trail towards Yankee Basin.
This is the road the jeep tours take, although we went further than the tours go. It is a beautiful trail, slowly climbing with a sheer rock wall on one side, a river down the other side and plenty of waterfalls! We ended up making a stop to see a lovely double waterfall where rumor has it, a Budweiser commercial had been filmed in the 80’s. Not sure it’s true, but it was definitely picturesque.
We turned around and headed back to camp for lunch. Drake and Mia were jumping up and down because they knew it was time to head to Ouray Hot Springs. This is a “must” stop if you have a family. Prices are $12 adults, $8 kids 4-12 and 4 and under are free. Admission is for the day so you can leave and come back later!
Ouray Hot Springs has an 1,000,000 gallon sulfur-free mineral pool which means… no odor!! The mineral pool is divided into 3 sections including: Hot (temps 102-106 degrees), Deep (67 -80 degrees and Shallow (92-98 degrees). My favorite was the Hot pool. Sitting there enveloped in the hot water with 13,000 foot mountain peaks surrounding me, it was a little slice of heaven.
As much as I had wished I could’ve sat in there all day, it was time to get back to my family. While I was basking, Troy had been watching the kids enjoying the waterslide (there is a tot slide as well). The problem was that each time the lifeguard changed (which was often), there were new rules. One said no goggles, another said a parent had to be in arms distance, and another didn’t like how they were coming down the slide. By the time I met them in the shallow pool, they were a little aggravated.
What they wanted to do most was the Wibit – the water obstacle course. To be able to enjoy Wibit, they would need to pass a deep-water test and since they were under 7, a parent still had to be within arms reach. Mia went first and I will say the test was challenging. She had to swim the length of an Olympic-size pool, then turn around and return in a back stroke. She did it brilliantly and wore her bright green bands showing she passed the test with pride.
Drake gave the test a go but didn’t make it on the first try. He calmly took a break and retook the test and passed! Now we were ready for the obstacle course showdown! They climbed, they jumped and they slid until they could barely hold on. It was then that I talked them into some time in a warm pool and we got to soak as a family.
Afterwards, we took advantage of the relatively clean showers since our next campground would also be without water. I liked that they had individual changing rooms but be aware there is an open area where some women were disrobing in plain sight.
Tip: Ouray Hot Springs locker rooms have rental lockers!
The kids were wilting by the time we finished dinner. It was nice to have a little bit of time with the hubby outside enjoying the campfire and the few stars we could see through the clouds. Soon, we made our way in as we were to break camp in the morning.