Update: The US Forest Service has closed this trail from the US 550 trailhead into October 2023 for extensive tread repair. Upper Bear Creek is still accessible from Engineer Pass and from the Horsethief Trail in American Flats. Please check with the USFS Ouray Ranger District office in Montrose before hiking Bear Creek this fall.
Drive two miles south of Ouray on US 550. Parking: Immediately past the south end of the tunnel, turn left into the large loop space. The trail begins on the west side of the highway, going over the top of the tunnel.
ATTRACTIONS AND FEATURES:
This a National Recreation Trail--one of only a few designated in the USA as an especially scenic trail. As you get higher, more peaks are revealed and also the valley northward, with the profile of Grand Mesa 70 miles away. A round trip, to either the Horsethief Trail or to Engineer Pass via the South Fork, is 14.1 miles with an altitude gain of 4,230 and 4,400 feet respectively.
This exciting climb first goes up a series of switchbacks hewn out of the cliff face, then along ledges high above Bear Creek. The first switchbacks cross slides of slate and quartzite. Along the canyon trail watch for ripple marks from an ancient ocean preserved in rock on the canyon's pposite wall. Volcanic intrusions, called dikes, may be seen in many places along the trail. Switchbacks on the first part of the trail rise steadily for a gain of 1,000 feet, then the trail levels out for some stretches as it turns eastward along the Bear Creek gorge. The Grizzly Bear mine is reached after 2.4 miles. The Yellow Jacket mine is reached after a total of 4.2 miles.
If you are going on toward the Horsethief Trail, you have a choice of routes here, (shown on the Hiking Trails of Ouray County map). The most traveled route goes straight ahead and crosses the creek (look left for nice cascades). The old route starts with switchbacks by the mine machinery; care is needed in route-finding, but two creek crossings are avoided.
Not recommended as a first hike for people just getting up to this altitude, for those fearing steep dropoffs, or for those with venturesome children. There is considerable open exposure if weather turns bad. Be careful not to dislodge rocks. Be very cautious near the high cliffs and gravelly slopes. Keep alert for rockfalls from above.
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