OUT: Haggerty’s Hikes April 26, 2009


“I’m shufflin through the Texas sand, but my head’s in Mississippi,” blared ZZ Top on the car stereo.

My head was not in Mississippi, but into a hike in the Colorado Rockies to see how high I could climb without getting stuck in the snow this early in the season.

I received the year’s first sunburn on my left arm as it hung out the window while driving over Red Mountain Pass the other day. My mom would be petrified of this pass because of its narrowness, height and exposure. However, during the week when there’s little traffic, and prior to the main tourist season, this is one of the most spectacular drives in the country.

I pulled off U.S. Highway 550 just south of Ouray at the Bear Creek Trailhead. (I could easily have pulled off at the Amphitheater a mile back and hiked the Portland Trail, but I’d written about that one about a year ago after my buddy Sid Pass said, “I keep giving you these great ideas, and you don’t do anything with them!”)

To reach the Bear Creek Trail, travel south from Grand Junction on Highway 50 through Montrose. Continue south on Highway 550 through Ouray. About two miles south of town, you’ll travel through a tunnel. Just past the south end of the tunnel, there’s a large loop parking area. Park there. It’s 100.5 miles from Fourth and Main St. in Grand Junction.

The trail actually begins on the other side of the highway, so be careful as you cross the road. It leads over the top of the tunnel, from west to east.

The Bear Creek Trail is a National Recreation Trail — one of only about 1,000 trails designated in the United States as an especially scenic trail.

The higher you hike, the more jagged San Juan peaks you’ll see. If you climb high enough, you’ll eventually find a great view of Ouray and the valley northward. Seventy miles in the distance, you can see the Grand Mesa. A rugged Forest Service sign said it was 2.4 miles from the trailhead to Grizzly Mine at 10,000 feet in elevation. It was 4.2 miles to Yellow Jacket Mine at 11,100 feet in elevation; 7.1 miles to Horsethief Trail at 12,310 feet; and, 7.1 miles to Engineer Pass, at 12,400 feet.

But you can’t get there from here right now. It’s too early in the season and there’s still quite a bit of snow up there.

I slid across a couple snowfields in the shade of dark timber. My best guess, without use of the mighty Global Positioning System and its four dead AA batteries, is that I made it to about 8,900 feet. A few hikers had gone further, but not without self-arrest. It was slick.

Elevation at the trailhead is 8,400 feet, so I only climbed 500 feet up, but it was steep enough to huff and puff at that elevation.

According to the Ouray Trail Group, which watches diligently over many of these trails in the San Juans near Ouray, this trail is “not recommended as a first hike for people just getting up to this altitude, for those fearing steep drop-offs, 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.”

Sounds like the perfect hike, doesn’t it? But most of it will have to wait for another month or two as the snow melts.

That gives you time to write to the trail group at http://www.ouraytrails.org and get a copy of a great map called “Hiking Trails of Ouray County and the Uncompahgre Wilderness.” It’s a topographic map that contains sections from 12 USGS maps. It also describes 73 trails in the area, including the Mount Sneffels and Wetterhorn Peak approaches.

The Ouray Trail Group is a non-profit corporation of volunteers, founded in 1986 and dedicated to the preservation and safe public use of Ouray County’s trails. The group works in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, Ouray District.

According to the group, “Ouray’s magnificent legacy of trails is largely a result of the mining activity of the 1800s. The remaining mine structures are irreplaceable and everyone’s help is needed to preserve them. Local trails are normally maintained in reasonable condition, but can deteriorate drastically in severe weather. These steep mountain paths are prone to erosion, so leaving the trails or cutting corners on switchbacks only hastens their destruction.”

Nonetheless, a hike in this country can do your head a world of good.

ZZ Top might sing, “I keep thinking of a night in Memphis ... I thought I was in Heaven.”
I thought I was in heaven the other day, south of Ouray.


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