Round Trip Distance: 4.7 miles
Elevation: 9,820 - 11,328 feet
Cellphone: 0-1 bars
Time: 3 hrs.
Trailhead: Gray Copper
Attractions: waterfalls, gold mines
The Gray Copper trail is located in the Ironton Park area of the Uncompahgre National Forest, along the Million Dollar Highway, near Ouray, Colorado. The trail begins off of County Road 20 where it follows Gray Copper Gulch between Brown Mountain and Red Mountain Number 1. After climbing for a couple of miles the trail passes by the scenic Gray Copper Falls. Hikers can turn around at that point or continue climbing along Gray Copper Creek to where the trail ends at a junction with the Vernon Mine Road.
To get to the trailhead drive south out of Ouray, measuring from the Hot Springs or Visitor Center, on US Highway 550, a.k.a 'The Million Dollar Highway', for 8 miles. Turn left just past the Ironton Park Ski area sign onto County Road 20. Drive past the tailings pile and take the left fork following the sign for Brown Mountain. After taking the left fork there is another intersection where you continue straight ahead on the middle fork. If you don't have a high clearance vehicle then park at this intersection and begin hiking from there. It will only add about a tenth of a mile to the hike.
The first part of the trail follows a jeep road that is open to all forms of 4x4 travel and mountain bikes. The climb is long, steep and steady with a few breaks in the grade from time to time.
Somewhere along the way you will probably notice that you are being watched.
Just past the 3/4 mile point the trail comes to an intersection where a singletrack continues straight ahead. There is a trail register on the left where you can sign in. From this point on the trail is only open to hiking and equestrian use. There are places with some exposure though where horseback riders will probably want to get off and walk.
The first part of the singletrack is mostly easy. Depending on where the spring runoff is there can be quite a bit of water running down the trail in places. It is kind of one of those '6 of one or a half dozen of the other' things. If you wait for the runoff to end then the waterfall isn't going to be as neat. If you go during high flow then there is going to be more water on the trail in places.
Near the 1 mile point from the trailhead the trail crosses Gray Copper Creek.
The trail gets a little steeper after crossing the creek. After a short distance the trees thin out and the views of Brown Mountain and Red Mountain #1 get quite spectacular. As long as there is still snow to melt higher up most of the colliers are one long cascading waterfall.
After a little more climbing Gray Copper Falls comes into view. The best place to see it from is on top of a rocky outcrop a little further up the trail. From there you are looking more down at it than across. Notice the water as it splashes into the pool and the blue pigments trapped in the iceburg to the right.
The trail continues past the waterfall for about another 3/4 mile. Just above the waterfall is a tailings pile from the Gray Copper Mine. Down in the small gorge above the creek you can see several old mine tunnels. Further up the trail about a half mile the Vernon Mine comes into view. The area around the buildings is all marked as no trespassing and a sign indicates that the owners live there at least part of the year. More mine tunnels can be seen along the creek at this point also.
Hiking up Red Mountain #1 would be a nice extra credit excursion. From this vantage point there is one route in particular that looks manageable where the trees reach almost all the way up to the ridgeline.