On the trail: Bear Creek surprise
October 10, 2012
OURAY, Colo. – I’ve hiked the Bear Creek National Recreation Trail near Ouray a couple of times, though I’ve never gone nearly as far as one can on the system of trails and roads it accesses. I know it only as an out-and-back day hike.
I bypassed a chance to hike it again recently as I headed south out of Ouray on Highway 550, bound for Silverton, but pulling off the highway led to an unexpected surprise – Bear Creek Falls! As it turns out, perhaps the most spectacular feature of Bear Creek doesn’t require a hike at all.
Rather, a truly impressive waterfall plunges out of the mountains essentially right beneath the highway. I’ve driven over the top of it plenty of times without knowing it existed.
Last fall, as I made my way through this neck of the woods, highway crews were busy with construction alongside the highway just south of town. This year, their work was done. A metal walkway has been constructed off the shoulder of the road, allowing passers-by to peer into the abyss of the Uncompahgre Gorge.
Highway 550 south of Ouray, by the way, heads over Red Mountain Pass – a narrow, winding route that makes Independence Pass southeast of Aspen look tame by comparison. It’s known as the Million Dollar Highway, but it’s really the 12 miles or so between Ouray and the top of the pass that is considered the engineering marvel that earned the highway its nickname. With steep drop-offs, narrow lanes, no guardrails and hairpin curves, it’s not for the faint of heart.
But I digress. Be sure to pull off at the overlook just outside Ouray and check out Bear Creek Falls free-falling into a milky blue pool far below the highway – unless you don’t like heights.
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In that case, you don’t want to do the hike, either. After climbing a strenuous set of talus switchbacks upward through the trees, the trail clings to an exposed ledge in a rugged canyon high above Bear Creek. It was built by miners, and evidence of log and rock cribbing used to shore up what was once a narrow road is still visible today.
There are some old mines up there and opportunities for extended backpacking into the Uncompahgre Wilderness as well as a route to Engineer Pass. Even as an out-and-back, it’s worth hiking.