No matter how many times I hike Bear Creek I still marvel at the effort and ingenuity that went into building this trail. In the 1870’s miners discovered large quantities of gold and silver in the Bear Creek basin southeast of Ouray. Accessing the claims proved difficult. A deep gorge, formed by sheer vertical walls rising high above the rugged creek bed, guarded the entrance to the basin. Building a trail in the steep rocky terrain along the creek bottom was not an option. Instead the miners blasted a narrow ledge into the cliff 700-ft. above the gorge.
Today, the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail follows this amazing route up beautiful Bear Creek Canyon. A series of long switchbacks with wonderful views of the Mt. Sneffels range climbs 1,000-ft. up the east side of the Uncompahgre Gorge to reach the traverse of the ledge high above the Bear Creek. Beyond Bear Creek’s gorge the trail wanders through forests and alpine meadows beside the creek’s tumbling cascades, visiting two scenic abandoned mines along the way.
Distance from Trailhead: 4.4 miles (round trip)
Ending/Highest Elevation: 10,030-ft.
Elevation Gain: 1,560-ft.
The Bear Creek National Recreation Trail starts on the west side of Highway 550, 2.5 miles south of Ouray. (See driving directions.) Carefully cross to the west side of the road and then follow the trail as it climbs over a road tunnel to the north of the parking lot. In a short distance reach the trailhead registry and the beginning of a series of long, moderately steep switchback ascending the east side of the Uncompahgre Gorge, a deep mountain canyon formed by the Uncompahgre River and Red Mountain Creek south of Ouray.
The lower sections of the switchbacks climb through a mixed conifer forest passing some impressive old white firs. As the trail gains elevation the trees give way to open slopes. Here the trail ascends through rock slides composed of slate and quartzite. Terrific views open to the Mt. Sneffels range across the valley to the wesst and the town of Ouray to the north.
Reach the top of the switchbacks in slightly under a mile having gained 1,000-ft. The grade now moderates as the trail enters the Bear Creek drainage, heading east across a talus slope high above Bear Creek. Views to the south extend to Red Mountain pass. A section of the San Juan Skyway (Million Dollar Highway) is visible in the distance.
After five minutes the trail levels off following the contours of the canyon's steep walls on a narrow ledge carved into the talus cliff. Footing is generally good except for a few short eroded sections.
One can only image the effort required to build and maintain this route. As you hike along the ledge note how sections of the trail are supported by logs and rubble fill. Across the canyon look for mines dug in the steep canyon walls. The walk along the ledge (0.8 miles) ends where it crosses a rocky drainage.
The trail now ascends moderately on dry slopes with intermittent pockets of trees. About 0.2 miles before the Grizzly Bear Mine the trail enters a nice stand of aspens. Keep an eye out for a metal sided shed on your left. Shortly thereafter mining equipment and a collapsed wood building with a corrugated aluminum roof lie scattered along the side of the trail. This is the Grizzly Bear mine (10,020-ft.), located 2.2 miles and 1,560-ft. from the trailhead.
The mine is a nice destination and a good turn around point for hikers with limited time (and energy). Otherwise, continue the hike to the Yellow Jacket mine, located 1.8 miles ahead.
Distance from Trailhead: 8.0 miles (round trip)
Ending/Highest Elevation: 11,130-ft.
Elevation Gain: 2,660-ft.
The trail to the Yellow Jacket mine ascends on a moderate grades above the left (north) side of Bear Creek through intermittent forests of mix conifers and aspens. At 2.7 miles (10,200-ft.) rock-hop across a tributary of Bear Creek. Look for a post marking the continuation of the trail on the other side. Shortly after crossing the stream the path traverses a pretty wildflower-filled meadow with views of peaks to the north and east.
The trail now continues its moderate ascent, aided by occasional switchbacks, through meadows and trees. Reach the Yellow Jacket mine (11,130) at 4.0 miles having gained over 2,660-ft. The site, flanked by steep grassy meadows and talus slopes, is littered with mine debris and includes a photogenic wood building. To the west distant views of the Mt. Sneffels range fill the skyline.
Slightly beyond the mine site a signposts points the way to the Horsethief trail, which ultimately leads to the Bridge of Heaven and Engineer Pass. Both destinations are too far for a day hike.
To complete your hike, return the way you came.
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Driving directions from Ouray: Take Highway 550 (aka the Million Dollar Highway) 2.5 miles south of Ouray. The trailhead parking lot is on the east side (left) of the road immediately after the road passed through a small tunnel. The trailhead is on west side (right) of the road.