Ouray Mountain Adventures, Part One: Black Bear Pass

This post needs to begin with a Disclaimer:

Pictures, pictures, pictures. This post is photo-laden and not ashamed. If you don’t like pictures of craggy mountains decked with colorful wildflowers, photos of death-defying Jeep trails, and the digitally told story of a fun family camping trip, you may want to stop here. But if you want to experience nature in its full splendor, read on. Look with me through the eye of a camera, and see the exquisite creation we are blessed to enjoy!

Ouray, Colorado, accurately nicknamed the Switzerland of America, lies nestled beneath and fully surrounded by the rugged San Juan Mountains. In September 1997, two kids got married at the ages of 21 and 18, respectively, and chose to call Ouray their honeymoon destination. They found a three bedroom, two bathroom home to rent for a week, and spent their first seven days of wedded life in the splendor of a heaven-on-earth destination.

My husband and I were those two kids, and nearly 17 years later, we’ve not lost our love for each other or this magnificent part of God’s country. Through the years we’ve camped and wheeled in the mountains above Ouray several times, but two things have been missing:

  1. We had never taken Peanut to our favorite place
  2. We had never wheeled the most infamous Ouray trail of all: Black Bear Pass

So we decided to take a three-day weekend and head to southwest Colorado with my mom and Peanut for a relaxing camping trip that included a trip up Black Bear. The mountains above Ouray can reach an altitude of over 14,000 feet, and the camp spots begin at around 10,000 feet, so tent camping in the San Juans before late July can get pretty cold. So last Friday morning, we loaded up our TJ and my mom’s WJ, stopped for our usual going-out-of-town burritos, and drove through curvy canyons and over high peak passes to Colorado’s largest mountain range by area.

 

 

Once there, we chose a forest service campground to stay in, and found our spot. The last couple of camping trips we’ve taken this year have been in large, over-populated commercial campgrounds, with showers and playgrounds, but with barely enough room to squeeze in a tent, fire pit, and picnic table. If you sneezed after 10:00 pm you may well have violated the “quiet time” rule. While we generally prefer wilderness camping to any type of campground as far as space goes, having an outhouse is appealing for us ladies! And though we did pay $10.00 a night to pitch our tents, we had more space than we knew what to do with – our entire camp spot was a good size of about 150 x 100 feet with million dollar views.

 

 

We enjoyed setting up our tents, then Skot chopped us some wood while I cooked up a supper of Andouille sausage, potato, onion, and bacon hash. We brought Bob our faithful iPod player along, of course, and enjoyed a mix of tunes throughout the evening. After Mom and Peanut went to bed, Skot and I stayed up for a while, talking and relaxing with a couple of margaritas.

 

 

Saturday morning we woke up early and began preparing for a day of wheeling. Skot built a fire and I prepared our lunches. Our first trail of the day was Black Bear Pass, a trail notorious for narrow shelf roads, tight, steep switchbacks, and multiple fatalities. It’s Colorado’s most treacherous (though not most deadly) trail, and while neither of us was concerned about going on the trail, we chose to leave Peanut back at the camp site with my mom for our first-time run. We kissed our girl, said our goodbyes, and got going.

Ouray and the surrounding area puts you in a state of sensory overload. The sights, sounds, and scents of the majestic Colorado Mountains reveal the glory of God and give you a peak into heaven. Black Bear Pass is located just past the crest of Red Mountain Pass, which straddles the divide that separates the Ouray and San Juan counties. There are very few places in Colorado in which you lose sight of mountain grandeur, and in this area, it is everywhere you look.

 

Once we reached the trailhead, we aired down and took a look around. We have gotten used to and believe in safety in numbers, so Skot talked to the drivers of two other rigs that were going together, and asked to tag along with them.

 

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Black Bear begins at an elevation of 11,018 feet and peaks at 12,840 feet. From beginning to crest, the trail is easy but not in the least uneventful. Wildflowers, waterfalls, and snow-capped mountains sweep you off your feet and into a fairy wonderland.

 

 

 

From the top, Black Bear’s descent is as beautiful as its ascent. The road travels the steep perimeter of Ingram Basin, and continues down the Basin before dropping down over a stunning chasm, quickly followed up by several sets of infamously tight switchbacks traversing the nearly vertical alpine slopes towering above Telluride. An ominous sign marks the point of no return.

 

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Of course, we and our little band chose to go on. The initial drop is rather steep and extremely narrow, and more than a bit uncomfortable, requiring no small amount of spinal fortitude. We actually found it to be far more intimidating than the switchbacks.

 

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The switchbacks presented relatively little challenge, partially because, even with two to three point turns, it was easy to see the line, and also in part because, with our short wheel base, Skot was able to take a sharp inside track and eliminate much of the drama. Still, the switchbacks are no joke, presenting a nearly 1,000 foot drop if handled incorrectly.

 

 

The trail then passes both the top and the bottom of Bridal Veil Falls, a spectacular and highly photographed 365-foot cascade of pure white wet foam.

 

 

 

The trail ends in beautiful and historic Telluride, Co., and there we said goodbye to our newfound friends. We stopped at a creekside park, ate a turkey sandwich, used the facilities, and headed up Imogene Pass on our way back to our camp site.

Black Bear Pass is as epic, as beautiful, and as amazing as it’s reported to be. And I am glad we didn’t take Peanut on our first time up. It was more romantic (yes, Jeeping IS romantic!) and less stressful to not have the responsibility of a child’s life in your hands when you don’t know what’s coming next on a trail that leaves little room for error. But I can’t wait to run Black Bear again, and you better believe we will be taking our little Jeep-Girl!

Black Bear wasn’t the end of our trip, though. As mentioned, we took Imogene Pass back to camp, so tune in next week to read about the rest of our adventure!

4 thoughts on “Ouray Mountain Adventures, Part One: Black Bear Pass

  1. Awesome post and so jealous. We had every intention of renting a razor this summer to take Black Bear Pass and Imogene – the very route you took, but life through us a curve ball when our GROWN peanut requested our presence for the summer. Thus exploring other adventures. I look forward to plenty of more photos from you on Imogene Pass that I’m sure will hold me over until next summer 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Ingrid! A razor would be perfect for those trails! I’m sure your time with your grown peanut is well worth it for now, and when you do make it over to the trails near Ouray, they’ll be well worth the wait, too!
      Heck, maybe we could meet up over there…you never know! 🙂

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