Elevation at trailhead: 8,460 ft.
Elevation at Grizzly Bear Mining Camp 9,900 ft.
Elevation at Yellow Jacket Mining Camp 11,100 ft.
Map: Ouray, Ironton USGS
Vicinity: near Ouray
Season: Midsummer through Mid-fall. The trail is generally covered with snow from mid-November through June.
|Hike can be done either as in and out hike from The Bear Creek Trailhead, or from the top of Engineer Pass and ending at the Bear Creek Trailhead. A 4WD vehicle is required, however, to get to Engineer Pass. to reach the pass drive south of Ouray for 3.6 miles where you will see a sign on the left marking the beginning of the Alpine Loop. Engineer Pass is 9.8 miles up this 4WD road.Of the four different Bear Creeks found in the western half of the San Juan Mountains, the one that drains into the Uncompahgre Gorge a couple of miles south of Ouray could well be the most spectacular. Although the creek bottom itself is far too rugged to follow, miners during the late nineteenth century were not deterred and constructed a trail into the upper reaches of the drainage. In so doing, they built one of the most improbable mountain trails in the Colorado Rockies. The hike is designated as a National Recreation Trail.|
From Ouray, drive 2.3 miles south on US Highway 550 (=Million Dollar Highway) to where the road passes through a small tunnel. The trailhead is on the right (=west) side of the road immediately beyond the tunnel. It is well marked.
From the trailhead, the Bear Creek Trail crosses over the road by way of the top of the tunnel. It then begins climbing up a lengthy series of switchbacks along the east wall of the Uncompahgre Gorge. After gaining 900 feet in 0.9 mile the trail finally levels out at 9,400 feet. Notice the composition of the rock as you climb through the first mile of the trail. This is the Precambrian Uncompahgre Formation, which is comprised primarily of slate and quartzite. The shiny black slate is particularly interesting. It fractures into thin, brittle sheets that crackles like glass when you walk over them.
The trail levels out at the top of the Uncompahgre Formation and begins to turn south towards the Bear Creek. Also at this point it begins to skirt along the base of the volcanic cliffs of the San Juan geologic formation. This thick, gray colored layer of tuff is only about 30 million years old, much younger than the underlying slate and quartzite. It is also very crumbly and easily eroded.
The miners were forced to blast a narrow path into the side of the vertical wall a hundred feet above the canyon bottom. There are no published statistics about people or animals falling into the canyon here, but the trail has been in use over a hundred years and I would be surprised if there has been never been an accident.
2.4 miles after leaving the trailhead yo will pass by the wreckage of the Grizzly Bear Mining Camp. Bear Mine reached its peak production in the mid 1890s.
From Grizzly Bear Mining Camp the trail meanders along the Bear Creek for another 1.8 miles to the Yellow Jacket Mining Camp. The Yellow Jacket Camp was never as big as Grizzly Bear, but is better preserved today. The Yellow Jacket Mine reached its peak production in 1915, a decade after Grizzly Bear Mine closed.
Bear Creek trail splits into two branches 0.1 miles past Yellow Jacket Mine. Right (=southern) branch continues to Engineer Pass. This is the more travelled branch, which follows the Bear Creek though a high alpine meadow. Wildflowers in July and early August are amazing on this section of the trail. The left (=northern) branch connect higher up with Horsethief Trail. This branch is less travelled, and provides access to Cow Benchmark and even to Wildhorse Peak.