Date hiked: 06/09/16
Mileage: 8.6 miles; 3hr 45min
Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 3 groups
Smack dab in the thick of Colorado’s Mineral Belt, the highly mineralized San Juan Mountains once presented unique challenges to the hopeful miners flooding the state in its early days. Not that that stopped our ancestors from trying to play God with the mountains.
Ouray is no exception.
Late into the 1800s, gold and silver were discovered deep within the rugged folds of the Bear Creek Basin just south of town. But with sheer, impassable, cliffs guarding the mouth, and the river much too rogue to navigate, dynamite became the only solution at reaching the jackpot. As the miners blasted their way through the mountainside, it created a narrow shelf where the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail now stands.
From the overpass, the trail dumps you straight into a grueling slate and quartzite covered series of steep switchbacks, gaining nearly a thousand feet in just under one mile. The scree can be loose, so sturdy shoes are a must, and I don’t recommend this route if the area has seen a lot of rain.
Impressive stands of aspen and the coniferous firs and pines flank the trail, offering highly appreciated shade to combat the rolling sweat. Nearing the summit, the trail levels out before joining up with Bear Creek on the notorious ledge. Take care not to get too close to the cliff edge, as nothing but crisp mountain air separates you from the frigid depths of the water below. It’s not for the acrophobic. Another mile of easy climbing ends at the first of two historic mining camps perched high above Bear Creek.
Springtime out here may as well be dubbed waterfall season. With each step, keep watch at the opposite wall of the canyon where spouts of snowmelt plunge hundreds of feet along the cliffside to pool in Bear Creek and the Uncompahgre. Also keep an eye out for the historic mines peering out from the canyon walls, and volcanic dikes.
In its hayday, the Grizzly Bear Mine generated close to a million dollars worth of gold and silver from the nearby Engineer Mountain. Today, though, not much remains of the once promising venture: a collapsed boarding house and a patchwork of machinery sewn across the grassy hillside, rusted red by the nearly one hundred years of abandonment. The Grizzly Bear Mine is a good destination in itself, but if you’ve got your sights set on Yellow Jacket Mine, take time to explore before setting off.
The elevation slowly gains on you again, and the trail grows a bit rougher. Tread lightly as it’s become heavily eroded in spots. The route never strays far from Bear Creek, at one point crossing a tributary which presents a particular challenge in the spring.
Nearing the final stretch, the trees open up to a beautiful meadow. With pockets of snow still littering the ground when I went, I missed out on what’s sure to be a spectacular wildflower display come summertime. At the three mile mark, the first of a series of switchbacks pulls you up the slope away from Bear Creek.
Just below treeline, the trail levels out in time to cross one final drainage of Bear Creek. Uphill, mining ruins litter the grassy meadows where Yellow Jacket Mine rests, basking in its former glory days.
(From Ouray): Head south on Highway 550 2.3 miles to the tunnel. Just south of the tunnel, the trailhead is on the right side of the road, with a larger pull-out parking area on the left side.
2.3 miles; 5 minutes