Experienced canyoneers know that the trail map comes built into the landscape. Follow the flow of running water through the labyrinth – climbing down slots, rappeling over surging waterfalls, and jumping off small cliffs into chest-deep rivers – to find the open sky. The best known spot for this sort of aggressive canyoneering is southern Utah, known for its endless red rock caverns and chutes. But the Western Slope of Colorado has its own cracks and other narrow passages to explore. Ouray, the old high-country mining town where John Wayne shot the original ‘True Grit,’ sits just below a number of intricate, multicolored canyons.
The first adventure is getting to the slots. San Juan Mountain Guides, which offers family-friendly trips through Portland Canyon ($149 for two) and full-day adventures in Oak Creek ($249 for two), schlepps clients over Red Mountain Pass along a particularly dangerous stretch of the aptly named Million Dollar Highway. The shoulder is a vertical drop down steep rocky cliffs into the Uncompahgre Gorge, but the views are lovely. A quick hike up from the road, adventurers find a beautiful alpine landscape of ponderosa pines and wildflowers. There is one way back down, straight through the gut of the canyon, with its 100-foot walls and drops of up to 300 feet.
All of the company’s guides are certified by the American Mountain Guides Association, which means a lot because canyoneering is an inherently dangerous business and getting back safely puts travelers well on their way to having a drink at Ouray Brewery. The brewery is the perfect place to chase an adrenaline high with a brew and some blue corn spinach enchiladas.
Early fall – when the runoff is more consistent and yellow aspen leaves light up the terrain like fire – is the ideal time to visit Ouray. If you get there a little late in the season, no worries. The town doubles as the ice climbing capital of the U.S.
More information: For relaxed, listen-to-the-birds-sing kind of accommodations, the Box Canyon Lodge (doubles from $149) backs right up to mountainside hot springs where you’ll take your final steps from the Oak Creek descent. To be closer to the small town action, check out the Ouray Chalet Inn (doubles from $99) right on Main Street. Plan ahead on canyoneering day and pack a turkey cranberry sandwich from Backstreet Bagel, right across the street from San Juan Mountain Guides.