Have you ever heard of American Switzerland? It is located in Colorado – and with Ouray and Silverton offers two pretty little towns with Wild West nostalgia.
Tourist trips to the USA are currently not possible. But when visits are allowed again, there will still be a lot to discover – for example American Switzerland. Was it because of the similarity to the Alps or because of homesickness? European settlers christened the mountains around Ouray American Switzerland. There is even a Matterhorn.
The Rocky Mountains do indeed look extraordinarily harsh and rugged here. The mountain village of Ouray is closely embraced on three sides by giant peaks, at almost 3000 meters it lies crammed into a funnel gorge dug out of the hard rock by the mineral-yellow gurgling Uncompahgre River.
In terms of landscape, Ouray makes a strong impression of doppelgangers. But the people enliven the picture book valley with their very own Wild West version of Helvetia. In summer, geraniums bloom on the carved wooden balconies of the “Box Canyon Lodge”, but now in winter it is clear: This is not a transplanted alpine inn, but a genuine Ami motel with mud-smeared off-road jeeps in the parking lot.
Gold rush and expulsion – the history of American Switzerland
Colorado has always been a magnet for adventurers and adventurers. Ouray was first populated by roughneck miners, not mountain farmers. In 1861, the first gold diggers rumbled into the secluded cul-de-sac valley with covered wagons. However, the region has been home to the Tabeguache Ute for centuries. Chief Ouray (1833-1880) strove for peace, but ultimately the ancestral people were expelled. It is not known why the mining camp was later named after the great local chief. Archaeologists found historical remains of Ouray’s winter quarters on the site of the “Wiesbaden Hot Springs Motel”.
The municipal thermal springs outdoor pool from 1927 is odorless because it is sulphur-free. Ouray’s flagship pool cannot compete with sophisticated Swiss health resorts. But where else do eccentric bathers wear wide-brimmed cowboy hats?
Historical markers adorn the town’s many Victorian buildings. The Outlaw Restaurant says John Wayne played pool here during breaks in The Marshal in 1969 and his hat still hangs behind the bar. The history museum distributes brochures for the tour on your own.
Ouray is only nine blocks long, ten wide at most, has one paved street, Main Street, and no traffic lights. About a thousand people live here today. During the mining boom of the 1890s, the numbers doubled. The magnificently designed “Beaumont Hotel” with slate roof mansard, corner tower and golden weather vane dates from this period. Anyone who couldn’t afford an architect ordered a façade kit made of molded cast iron parts from a catalogue. This was provided by the railway, which finally went to Ouray in 1887.
The Wright Opera House – now a theatre, cinema and concert hall – is a pretty testament to the instant design of the past. Ouray has successfully preserved its history.
Western nostalgia and deep snow delights
Most of the mines are now depleted, unprofitable and closed. Ghost towns and skeleton mines line the Million Dollar Highway, 40 hair-raising kilometers between Ouray and Silverton . The first version of the pass road was just a horse cart narrow and rocky.
Today Ouray no longer has a train station. But the narrow gauge line to Silverton is still active. Historic steam locomotives take day trippers up to three times a day in midsummer to the 600-person nest with the colorful western houses. Then crowds of mountain bikers and hikers explore the old mining paths. In winter, deep snow fanatics make the pilgrimage to Silverton Mountain, the highest and steepest extreme ski area in North America.
Cheers to tranquility
Meanwhile, Ouray could learn from Switzerland. Davos was also a small mountain village at first, then a chic spa. It is now a posh ski resort. But: “Fortunately we don’t have room for such a huge resort,” says Celestino “Bombie” Martinez. The 66-year-old was born and raised in Ouray, a veteran. He serves scrambled eggs with red salsa on tortillas at Restaurant Outloaw.
Tradition, love of home and the geographical location would have saved Ouray from being sold out, says Martinez. The narrow valley is just big enough for a public toboggan run and two blocks down Lee’s Ski Hill, where Ouray’s flock of children enjoy themselves.
Vertical in the frozen waterfall
Uncompahgre Gorge is wilder. The natural waterfalls there freeze over every winter, and since the early 1990s, self-proclaimed extreme plumbers have been helping out with tap water and 140 lawn sprinklers, forming frost walls across the board for an “Ice Park”. In January, international climbing professionals meet here for championships. Newcomers can take introductory courses.
White-blue light shimmers from the cascade of bizarre icicles, unreal beautiful and cruelly cold. The knees are shaking. The climbing rope tied to the hip belt pulls tighter. Through a deflection anchored at the highest point, it runs back to the guide, who belays from the ground. And Bombie only wants to have climbed here as a child in rubber gloves and sneakers?
Celestino Martinez smiles. He would have liked to have had such equipment back then. “Change is good,” he says. But changing does not mean marketing. “We have to keep our niche.” And by that he probably means both – this valley and its uniqueness.
American Switzerland in Colorado
Arrival: Denver is Colorado’s international hub and was also served by Lufthansa non-stop from Frankfurt before Corona. There are connecting flights to smaller regional airports. It is cheaper and more practical to book a rental car in Denver.
Entry and corona situation: German vacationers do not need a visa for the USA, but must obtain an electronic entry permit at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. It costs $14 and is valid for two years. You will find information on tourist entry into the USA despite the corona pandemic.