Footfalls knock and slap the loose shale that makes up the first mile or so of Bear Creek National Recreation Trail in Ouray, Colo., creating a distinct feel of walking on broken glass.
Like an out-of-tune xylophone, the chime-like sounds ring underfoot and echo off the cliff walls, singing the tune miners heard over 100 years ago.
The second mile offers a different sound -- the rolling, sliding, tumbling of vast amounts of scree-loose gravel-like debris left from years of miners tracing the trail edge in a daily search for gold.
Located at the edge of the Uncompahgre National Forest, Bear Creek National Recreation Trail #211 offers day-hikers a challenging yet scenic trek.
If you do the whole trail to Yellow Jacket mine, it's nine miles round trip. Limited on time, 12 members of the Chester County Trail Club of Pennsylvania, led by former member and now Colorado resident, Jerry Kroninger, briskly but carefully traversed 2.4 miles of switchbacks to reach Grizzly Bear Mine.
Exploring Mine Ruins
We languished at the top having lunch, exploring the mine ruins, and contemplating whether to go farther. We ultimately and reluctantly decided to go down, which is almost as hard as going up due to the looseness of the rock debris. Time en route was approximately four hours.
Bear Creek National Recreation Trail follows a historic miner's path that served as an alternate route to the toll road between Ouray and Silverton. Considering the narrowness and steepness of the trail, one wonders how the heavy, rust-laden mining equipment strewn about near the mine was ever pulled to these heights.
Stunning Forest Beauty
The challenge of the trail is offset by its stunning beauty, as it is one of the most scenic hikes in the Uncompahgre Forest. The trail is punctuated with wild flowers amidst hard, barren rock. We climbed in mid-September and mostly saw bright yellow, 2-foot high bunches of sunflowers, probably the Asteracea Family of hardy subalpine/alpine rock-loving flora. Alpine wildflowers are extremely vulnerable to hiker's boots, so tread lightly and stay on the path.
Yellow-green aspens provided welcome contrast to the brown, black and burnt sienna-colored shale. Orange and chartreuse-green lichen dots the rock walls and canyon floor. Low growing shrubs were just changing color and reminded those from the East Coast that autumn starts early in the Colorado mountains.
Bear Creek trail offers spectacular views of the Colorado alpine tundra. Snow covered peaks towering 13,000 feet to 14,000 feet present themselves at every viewing angle. Look down the trail and you see the town of Ouray, known as "America's Switzerland." Look up and you see the sun dancing off the snow-covered San Juan Mountains. At the top of the trail you are rewarded with the sight of an abandoned mine on the far cliff. Boarded up with logs during the wane of the gold rush era, the mine acts as a sentry to the cascading creek below.
Making The Trip
To get to Bear Creek Recreational Trail, take Highway 550 south from Ouray two miles. Ouray is about 335 miles southwest of Denver. Turn left into the parking lot immediately past the tunnel. There are no facilities here, only parking. Enter the trail by crossing the road (west) and sign in at the visitor's trailhead registration box found going east after crossing over the tunnel.
Bear Creek National Recreation Trail sends you up the north wall of Bear Creek canyon. It would be very difficult to get lost as it's one way up and one way down, but a permanent map of the area is found here. Additional maps of the area can be obtained from the Ouray Trail Group (www.ouraytrails.org) who maintains this trail.
For a fine selection of hiking footwear, click here.
For a selection of hiking sticks, click here.