Jeep guide Keith Gerry has a system for classifying the four-wheel-drive trails around Ouray, Colo. It involves just two categories: "mellow scenic" and "gnarly scenic."
As the common denominator, "scenic" refers to crystalline waterfalls, multi-hued wildflowers, century-old mining ruins and 13,000-foot-tall ridges ribbed with snow -- stuff that comes standard in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.
"Mellow" implies those views, plus some moderately big bumps.
"Gnarly" is what I chose.
As a consequence, I spent a July morning flouncing between my passenger's seat and its seat belt, watching the sky pitch violently up and down over our Jeep's hood and listening to Gerry narrate the bounces with statements as simple as "uh! uh! uh!" and as complex as "ooh-ah-eee-ah-ooh!"
One wonders: What about this place could prompt such eloquence? What could rocket Gerry -- a ponytailed rock-and-roll drummer cum ski-shop worker cum summer Jeep guide -- to such literary heights? More to the point, what could motivate me, an occasional off-road driver, to trek here from Atlanta, some 1,600 miles distant?
It is probably best to start from the beginning.
In the latter part of the 19th century, miners swarmed to the mountains near the towns of Ouray (pronounced YOUR-ay), Silverton and Telluride, Colo., lured by veins of ore containing gold and silver. Boomtowns sprang up in valleys and alpine meadows, and prospectors staked claims by the thousands. Many hit pay dirt, as ore poured out of the earth. But a problem remained: how to move the bounty out of some of the wildest, steepest terrain in Colorado.
Men like Russian-born Otto Mears -- nicknamed the "Pathfinder of the San Juans" -- offered an early answer, charting routes through the mountains and dynamiting rough roads out of sheer cliffs. The region's mineral economy proved fragile: An 1893 collapse in silver prices turned boomtowns into ghost towns almost overnight.
But even as the mining industry suffered a long, fitful decline, the old roads remained. Uneven and rocky, they follow river canyons and cross high-altitude meadows carpeted by tundra and speckled with wildflowers. They navigate snowfields and climb passes that hover around 13,000 feet. All along the way, they lead past weathered bunkhouses, half-buried gears and other reminders of a time when travelers came for business, not pleasure.
There are a lot of options to explore. According to Dale Tuttle, owner of a Ouray Jeep tour company called Switzerland of America, the mountains near Ouray contain about 500 miles of Jeep trails, most of them old mining routes or mule paths.
And so the silver crash had a silver lining. Jeeps replaced burros. Prospecting expeditions gave way to Ford Expeditions. Mill workers and miners morphed into Explorers and Pathfinders. Ouray, once a mining center, now calls itself the "Jeep capital of America" or, when feeling saucy, the "Jeep capital of the world." A tour is one way to experience the backroads.
But after a day in the passenger seat, I wanted to take the wheel myself. I knew the route I drove would be scenic. Despite some nervousness, I decided it would also be a little gnarly.
Ouray promotes itself as the "Switzerland of America." This claim struck me as a bit overblown, until I met two Swiss guys near the top of a 12,800-foot pass. After they posed for a picture, smiling atop their four-wheelers, I asked the obvious: Was this really the "Switzerland of America?"
"Yes," one nodded seriously, scanning the horizon.
"Exactly the same."
So there you have it.
Still, why compare this place to Europe? Let the Swiss have their secretive bank accounts, their fine watches, their marvelously versatile pocketknives -- Ouray can stand on its own merits. Simply put, it is the most beautiful and charming mountain town I've found in Colorado. A bold claim for this unpretentious destination, but I'll stick to it, Aspen and Telluride be damned.
It's the setting that sold me. With a year-round population around 800, no stoplights and only one street paved in its entirety, the city -- and it is officially a city -- is stamped on the bottom of a glacially carved valley. With rock walls rising thousands of feet in nearly every direction, it seems as if someone scooped a bowl out of the mountains and dropped a grid of Victorian buildings, coffee shops, art galleries and gift stores into the crater.
Founded in 1875 as Uncompahgre City, the settlement was quickly renamed after Chief Ouray, a leader of the Ute Indians who maintained peace with white prospectors even as they forced the Utes off their land. Nomads at the time, the Utes had particularly treasured the valley for its soothing hot springs.
In that respect, they aren't much different from modern visitors. The valley's natural waters now fill a nearly 900,000-gallon, municipally owned oval at the edge of town, a low-key attraction that draws soakers, swimmers and teenage boys circling bikini-clad girls like sharks.
Several hotels also have private hot springs facilities, but the $8 admission fee at the pool means that most everyone can afford to get warm and pruny. The town has also garnered a good deal of attention in recent years for its decade-old ice-climbing park, a winter facility that allows adventurers to pick their way up frozen waterfalls of solid ice.
Rock climbing is another emerging attraction. While relaxing in Bear Dance Books and Coffee Shop on Main Street, I noticed a January 2005 edition of the climber's magazine Rock & Ice. Its cover lauded Ouray for having "Stonker Rock, Thunker Ice" and "Honker Potential." I have no idea what any of those words mean, but they sound very good, in an X Games sort of way.
You do not, however, need a mountaineering pedigree to get an outdoor workout in Ouray; hiking boots will do. According to the visitors center in town, 18 hiking trails depart from within Ouray's city limits, most of them beginning with steep climbs.
One clear day, I gasped up one of the more popular routes above town. At the top, the trail crossed a landing between two waterfalls, then came to an old miners' bunkhouse, complete with a coal-burning stove, coals inside. Such ruins are not unusual around Ouray. Nor, for that matter, are the super-fit trail runners who jog -- jog -- to them for exercise.
While I stopped to catch my breath on the same trail, one such uber-athlete, a tanned, shirtless man perhaps 20 years my senior dashed past me, carrying only a bottle of juice.
"Tough one," he said.
Here's one strategy for dealing with such insincerities: Catch your breath. Then get something with a motor.
Because I hadn't driven a stick shift -- much less navigated a four-wheel-drive trail -- in more than a year, it seemed wise to begin my Jeeping experience with "mellow scenic."
After picking up the Jeep at 5:30 p.m., I spent the evening on one of the area's easier options: the route to an alpine meadow called Yankee Boy Basin. Even on this relatively undemanding trail, though, the road got a little bumpy and narrowed to one cliff-hugging lane, sans guardrail.
Still, riding high in a Jeep makes you feel sort of tough -- tougher, really, than you probably are. So after an evening spent checking out the basin's waterfalls and wildflowers, I was ready for something more challenging.
Although I'd already driven part of the route with Gerry, the next morning I headed for the bone-jarring road to Engineer Pass, elevation 12,800 feet.
While excited, I was also slightly nervous. Although the overwhelming majority of people who explore the area's four-wheel-drive trails do so safely, accidents occur. Last year, two vehicles went over cliffs, and four people died. Local law enforcement officials say the fatalities were unusual, but caution is necessary.
Panic, however, is not. Heavy winter snows were still blocking the roads where the deaths occurred -- two tricky passes between Ouray and the town of Telluride -- and almost all the open trails were easier than those routes. In fact, some of the area's backcountry roads are passable even in normal, two-wheel-drive vehicles.
Engineer Pass is decidedly not one of them. Still, I'd seen too many middle-aged Texans in fancy new SUVs to think I needed to be an expert to drive it. For the most part, I was right. It took a moment to overcome my street-driving instincts -- to realize that a Jeep can handle obstacles that would rip the bottom out of a normal car -- but when that realization arrived, each bump became thrilling.
The engine whined, mostly in second gear, as I picked paths over deep ruts and pitted rock. My mind made constant calculations: Will I bottom out if I drive that line? Is there enough space here for that other vehicle to pass? Can I take the corner tightly, or should I go wide?
I shifted up and down according to the terrain, and the Jeep lurched steadily ahead, climbing two-foot-tall stone outcroppings and bouncing over the road's sharp rocks. The vehicle was doing all the work, but my ego was taking the credit.
I moved slowly and stopped at ruins including, among others, a sagging rail trestle for ore cars and a collapsing mill where two boilers sat rusting on a disintegrating pile of brick. Then the road climbed across the green alpine tundra, passing slow-melting pockets of snow and zigzagging up a set of switchbacks. Finally, I reached Oh! Point, an overlook near the top.
The name says it all. A collection of four-wheel-drive vehicles sat on the jagged roof of the continent, their drivers taking in a 360-degree panorama of rocks, ice and peaks more than 14,000 feet tall. Literally and figuratively, it was the high point of the day.
But one treat still remained. After turning in the Jeep, I headed to the Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa & Lodgings, featuring a hot springs pool inside a natural cave.
Once inside, I moved between the 108-degree waters of the pool and a separate entry chamber, where a cooler spring poured over a natural flowstone. I leaned against the flowstone and let the waters run over my shoulders, basking in the humid, saunalike air.
It may not have been gnarly. But man, it was good.
Ben Brazil last wrote for Travel about Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.