Bear Creek Trail
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

home page
 Need more information?

Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
  • 90 colorful trail maps
  • 305 full color photographs
  • loads of hiking tips
  • book store price:  $22.95
    buy it here for only


    click to order

    Distance: 7.6 miles (round trip)

    Walking time:  5 3/4 hours

    : 2,640 ft. gain/loss
       Bear Creek Trailhead (start): 8,460 ft
       Grizzly Bear Mining Camp: 9,900 ft.
       Yellow Jacket Mining Camp: 11,100 ft.

    Trail: Well maintained and easy to follow. This trail has been designated as a National Recreation Trail.

    Season: Midsummer through mid-fall. The trail is generally covered with snow from mid-November through June.

    Vicinity: Near Ouray

    Bear Creek TrailBear Creek Trail


    home page

    Links to other sites: 

    Ordering books & Maps

    Comments about this site or our book:


    There were few good roads in Colorado before the turn of the century, and one of the greatest challenges faced by miners was transportation. Discovering the gold or silver was often the easy part. After a claim was staked the early miners were faced with the problem of getting their ore to a mill and bringing in tons of equipment so they could process the ore closer to the mine. They often struggled mightily to build roads and trails through the rugged mountains without the help of modern machinery.

    The Bear Creek Trail now stands as a monument to the determination and perseverance of Colorado’s nineteenth century miners. It was originally built in the mid-1870s, and rerouted to its present location 20 years later. The old trail follows an unlikely route up Bear Creek, through a canyon that is so rugged it is often impossible to reach the water without ropes. Progress was frequently impeded by the sheer cliffs above the creek, and in some places the workers were forced to dynamite horizontal shelves into the rock in order to traverse the vertical walls. The trail passes by the remains of two hundred-year-old mining camps along the creek, both of which once had stamping mills for crushing and processing the ore.

    From the Bear Creek Trailhead the trail first climbs 50 feet to the top of the highway tunnel and then doubles back over the tunnel to the east side of the road. Then, immediately after crossing the road, it begins climbing through a long tiring series of nine switchbacks up the side 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 crackle like glass when you walk over them. Notice the ripple marks in some of the slate beds. The rock is composed of metamorphosed mudstone, and although it is at least 600 million years old it still bears the marks of the river bottom or mudflat where it was long ago deposited.

    The trail levels out at the top of the Uncompahgre Formation and begins to turn south toward 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 affects of erosion are everywhere apparent.

    When the trail reaches Bear Creek it enters the most spectacular part of the route. The cliffs are too high to scale, and the creek bottom is too rugged for a trail; hence 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 for over a hundred years and I would be surprised if there has never been an accident.

    2.2 miles after leaving the trailhead you will pass by the wreckage of the Grizzly Bear Mining Camp, which according to the 1900 government census had a population of 24 people. At that time there was a bridge across the canyon giving access to the Grizzly Bear Mine on the other side. No trace of the wooden bridge remains now, but the ruins of several old cabins and some mining equipment are still evident along the trail. According to historic records the Grizzly Bear Mine reached its peak production in the mid 1890s under the ownership of George and Ed Wright and Milton Moore. In all, some $600,000 worth of silver and gold were extracted from the mine before it was closed.

    From Grizzly Bear Mining Camp the trail meanders along Bear Creek for another 1.6 miles to the Yellow Jacket Mining Camp. The Yellow Jacket Camp was never as big as Grizzly Bear, but it is better preserved today and it is also in a very scenic area. The camp is situated in an open meadow above the creek, just below timberline at an elevation of 11,100 feet. A picturesque cabin still stands near the remains of a large stamp mill with a great deal of antique machinery scattered about. The mine itself is located above the mill on the north side of the creek. The Yellow Jacket Mine reached its peak production in 1915, a decade after the Grizzly Bear Mine had closed.

    Engineer Pass Trailhead

    If a 4WD shuttle can be arranged the easiest way to do this hike is to begin above Ouray at Engineer Pass and walk downhill all the way to Highway 550. The total distance of this one-way hike is 6.4 miles and the elevation loss is 4,340 feet. In addition to avoiding the uphill climb near the Bear Creek Trailhead, this option also offers a pleasant walk through the alpine tundra in the top of the Bear Creek Basin above Yellow Jacket Mine.

    Looking northwest from the top of Engineer Pass you can see almost the entire route to the Yellow Jacket Mining Camp. The camp itself is hidden just below timberline in the first grove of trees below the pass, but if you look carefully you can see the yellowish tailings from the mine above the trees on the right side of the canyon. The trail starts out as a jeep road that drops west into the basin from the summit of the pass. After 0.4 mile the road turns into a footpath and makes a sweeping bend to the north. Soon afterward it crosses the creek and continues down the bottom of the drainage to the Yellow Jacket Mining Camp. From Yellow Jacket it is another 3.8 miles to the Bear Creek Trailhead.


    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Bear Lake Trail
    we recommend:
    Silverton, Ouray, Telluride (Trails Illustrated, map #141)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

    [top of page]

    [table of contents]

    [home page]

    [ordering information] 

    © Rincon Publishing Company, all rights reserved