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Friday, June 28, 2019

Shortcutting Bear Creek Trail's Boring Switchbacks

Well, here we go again. This is what happens when plans made in "Jello" get left out in the rain.

Maybe it's a subconscious thing...the underlying, latent boredom of repeating a trail we've already hiked umpteen times...especially when it's an out-n-back instead of a loop. You see, attempting to make a loop out of an out-n-back engages the brain as well as the body. And on this hike, arms and shoulders in addition to legs...

With Lovely Ouray's sentinel Twin Peaks looking on, Bobbie crosses Camp Bird Road on the Perimeter Trail's Ice Park Loop. 

Last summer, while hiking the Ice Park Loop portion of Ouray's Perimeter Trail, Bobbie (finally) stumbled across something we've heard about but could never find, the unmarked connecting trail to the Bear Creek Trailhead. Our friends, Jim and Gayle, told us about it after taking a wrong turn on the (then) under-signed Perimeter Trail.  

Since I had yet to do the connecting trail, we decided to hike from home, i.e.: Perimeter Trail to connecting link to Bear Creek Trail, then hike on up to Grizzly Mine, and back. Your basic out-n-back. Basic daily exercise with no bells, no whistles, no fireworks, no adrenaline (yawn). 

Water from record-setting winter snowmelt rages over the spillway of a dam on the Uncompahgre River.

Not much of a lake above the dam...basically it's used for generation of Hydro Power. The water is piped down to a small, privately owned power plant located in Ouray. 

Relics from mining days along the connecting trail.

Ralston Creek goes vertical...across from Bear Creek Falls

Sure enough, about three miles from home, the connecting trail spit us out on Highway 550 at Bear Creek's Trailhead. Before hiking up to Grizzly we decided to walk up the highway another half mile to see how Bear Creek Falls was handling the extra runoff this year. 

It was LOUD!

Mount Abram from Bear Creek Falls...another Ouray sentinel mountain.
Like Donna Summer's "cake left out in the rain," here's where our Jello plan began to melt. We hadn't walked 100 feet back toward Bear Creek's Trailhead when we spied a small, barley noticeable road taking off from the east side of Highway 550. Huh, wonder where that goes?

There's only one way to find out, so we follow it to a couple sweet Boondock spots, tucked privately off-highway. There was even a strong cell signal. But (there's always a "but," right?) the road up to the campsites is extremely steep. You'd need a 4 wheel drive to get to access those ideal boondocks with the sound of Bear Creek Falls roaring in the background.

This foray served to reminded us of a couple of rope-less hiker-guys we met while hiking Bear Creek Falls Trail a year or two back. We chatted with them after topping out above the Bear Creek's notorious and noisy slate-strewn switchbacks. Honest, it sounds like you are walking on broken china. Anyway, I was taken aback when the rope-less duo said they had come from Bear Creek. 

Ever since that day I've kept an eye out for their "shortcut" route up from Bear Creek, only to find precipitous slopes that a couple Geezers like us had no business trying.

So, while admiring the two nifty boondocks, I craned my neck up-mountain and wondered if maybe this slope was the one those two guys scrambled up. We won't know if we don't go, so, after talking it over with Bobbie, we decided to give it a "go," with a pledge to turn around if and when the route becomes too exposed.
You can see Highway 550 below the power-line poles. So far so good.

Shortly, the "route" became a little more serious. But hand and footholds were plentiful and solid, so we pressed on. My Gaia App topo map indicated it would be another thousand vertical feet before we intersected Bear Creek Trail. 

Bobbie picking a line up a series of weather-polished slabs. We could hear Bear Creek roaring below...and of course winds were gusting 20 to 30 mph out of the south, which always unnerves me for some reason.

Taking our time...still plenty of solid handholds.

At this point, Bobbie's hiking pole was more nuisance than help. Slowly, and after considerable "investment," the slope was becoming more and more exposed. It bothered me to look down on her so we traded places. 
I suggested to Bobbie that I'd feel better if she took lead. Soon, some of the rocks became untrustworthy. We learned the hard way, a LONG time ago while climbing Wilson, to exercise extreme caution when tugging on rocks that are above you. 

Bobbie picked some good lines. We were definitely getting a leg, as well as upper body workout. 

Somewhere around here I rechecked my Gaia App to be sure we were on line to intersect Bear Creek Trail, still out of sight and 500 vertical feet above us. It would be our luck, after all this investment, to either miss the trail or run into a wall just short of our destination. 

"Is it just me or is this thing getting steeper?" I said in to a wind that carried my question off to who knows where. 

Ahhh, my two loves...Climbing Bobbie and Abrams.
Looking up (and "out") for Bobbie, I thought I spotted a couple hikers a few hundred feet above. 

"Look! That's got to be Bear Creek Trail. We might just pull this shortcut off after all."

Finally, a wall of loosely stacked boulders and some really rotten cribbing is all that stood between us and Bear Creek Trail. Never have I looked so forward to hiking boring switchbacks off a mountain.

We started at the Highway 550 below...and stuck pretty much to the "spine."  

Standing solidly on Bear Creek Trail never felt so good. After collecting ourselves we high-fived, agreeing it wasn't so bad and we'd probably do it again, especially now, knowing that it can be done. 

I was tired and ready to head down. Bobbie, however, was still adrenalized and wanted to keep going up Bear Creek Trail. 
Reluctantly, "Okay..."

Out of gas, I finally asked if we could turn around...reminding Bobbie that we didn't just hike from the parking lot below like usual. 
"We still have to hike all the way back to Ouray!"

And it look so far away...

Poppies welcome us home. Another solid adventure in paradise, with some "new dots." 

Mark and Bobbie
Go where you feel most alive...


  1. Wow, it was like seeing a side of Ouray we have never seen before (after 19 years) and getting to see the dam and spillway and all that water, maybe there is hope for lake Mead after all :-)
    LITTLE SWITZERLAND INDEED.......what's next?
    Sonoma Co guys

  2. I am going to hire you two to hike up somewhere to distribute my ashes when I die. You'll still be hiking at 100 so it should be no problem!

  3. Every so often you post about a place I've visited before, and then I understand a little better just how crazy you are (if the photographs didn't already illustrate their own precarious scenario, which they do.) On the Bear Creek Trail, the drop-offs over the gorge did not bother me much, but I became a little eeked out on those final switchbacks, cutting down the steep and loose talus slope. Never could I eye any of the nearby ridges shooting up from the highway, "Ooo, shortcut."

    1. I remember a few years ago you and Beat came to Ouray...he was in some god awful super race...and you did something we've always wanted to do: hike that backcountry loop up Horse Thief Trail, to Bridge of Heaven, to Bear Creek, and back to Ouray...alone, and in one day! I think it's 17 miles with well over 10,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Your blog post about that was where I first heard of the connecting trail from Bear Creek Trailhead to Ouray!
      We are treasuring every adventure these days, knowing the time is drawing nye when just going to Walmart will be about all we can handle...
      Thanks for your comments

  4. Glad we helped you connect some more dots, and even more glad we weren't with you on that one!

  5. Looks like you could have used Chris’s drone to scout the short cut to Bear Creek. How adventurous to find that challenging new route. It must be rewarding to leave your car parked in the driveway and not burn gas to enjoy a hike. Thanks for sharing the great pictures.

    1. And when we do need a car to get to a trailhead, it's generally a short drive :)
      Your appetite to return to Colorado mountains must be pretty whetted by now...


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