Whether you’re running, backpacking, hiking or just out for a stroll the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail is Rocky Mountain country hiking at its best.
By Brandon Mathis
Who: Ambitious hikers, history buffs, trail runners, backpackers and bighorn sheep.
What: A stunning, rigorous historic trail that climbs a mountain drainage area through mining history and opens into an alpine paradise.
When: Summer and autumn. The snow lingers late, the wildflowers are astounding, Bear Creek rages and winter comes early.
Where: Two miles south of Ouray, Colorado, on U.S. Highway 550. The trail wraps over a tunnel.
Why: Within the first mile, Bear Creek gains almost 1,000 feet, up a series of switchbacks carved out of the slate and quartzite mountainside that rings like glass underfoot. While the grade relaxes, the trail takes on a character like few others in the nation.
The trail was constructed by resolute gold and silver miners in 1870 who refused to pay the tolls for the road to access the canyon. A rugged path was chiseled and blasted from volcanic rock, creating a baffling and unlikely way along cliffs and ledges well above the creek that lends the trail its name. Remnants of several attempts to keep the trail in place under the constant strain of erosion can be observed – iron rods, railroad ties and old fencing meant to bend the laws of geology. The trail, cut from a 30 million-year-old layer of volcanic tuff, also travels over recognizable veins of intrusive rock – dykes from ancient volcanoes.
Yellow Jacket and Grizzly Bear mine camps lay in ruin along the trail. An eerie old miner’s cabin still stands with three bedsprings and a stove inside.
Deer, elk, black bears and mountain lions frequent the area.
Bear Creek trail meanders uphill toward Engineer Pass, crossing naturally chalky blue-white creeks, surreal against the alpine backdrop. Open tundra falls under 13,260-foot Darley Mountain immediately overhead, and the view west over the Sneffels Range becomes hypnotic above a kaleidoscope of wildflowers.
With nearly 4,500 feet of overall elevation gain, Engineer Pass, 12,800 feet, can be reached in just over seven miles from the trailhead.