Posted by: kerryl29 | January 3, 2018

Colorado, Day 4: The Bear Creek Trail Experience

My third full day (fourth total) on the ground in Colorado was to be my last based in Silverton.  The following day I would relocate to Gunnison, about three hours to the northeast, as my base point for exploration of the Kebler Pass area, to the west of the town of Crested Butte.

On this day, the weather forecast was for more of the same–a very cold, clear morning, followed by a warmer, still mostly clear, afternoon.  Based on my exploration the preceding day, I decided to spend daybreak along the South Mineral Creek Road, just north of Silverton.  After that, I thought I’d spend most of what remained of the day hiking the Bear Creek Trail, high up into the San Juan Mountains near Ouray.  I’d found the trailhead the day before and knew that this longish (close to nine miles round trip), steep (elevation gain of roughly 2600 feet to a point more than 11,000 feet above sea level) hike would be grueling, but I figured I could use the exercise.

It was brutally cold when I went outside in the pitch dark, a bit more than an hour before sunrise, but fortunately I didn’t have a long drive this morning.  It’s just a few miles along the Million Dollar Highway from Silverton to the junction with the South Mineral Creek Road.  From there, this graded unpaved road more or less follows the creek all the way to a national forest campground, about eight miles to the west.  The spots I had in mind for sunrise were at most halfway down this road, but I figured that, after shooting what sunrise there would be (remember, the forecast was for almost literally no cloud cover), I’d make my way to several other places I’d marked on my GPS during my Day 3 late morning exploration of the area.  I’d finish by checking out the waterfalls I’d found the day before, near the campground.  If they were in even light, I’d photograph them on this morning.

During my scouting session the day before, I’d found a couple of spots along the road where, from a high perspective, an S-curve in the creek could be observed, looking in both directions.  I started out at this spot.  The air temperature was about 20 degrees (F) when I arrived, with frost coating everything.  It wasn’t much fun standing out for any length of time under these conditions but I waited and had the bonus of the lone cloud formation in the sky drifting right into place as the sun rose in the east.

South Mineral Creek at Sunrise, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

South Mineral Creek at Sunrise, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

While the view to the west from this spot lacked clouds, I liked the composition enough to photograph it anyway.  I adjusted my position by several hundred feet (to the right) to take advantage of different foreground elements.  The top of Twin Sisters Peak East was just beginning to catch the first rays of morning sun as I was shooting.

Twin Sisters Peak East, South Mineral Creek, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

Twin Sisters Peak East, South Mineral Creek, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

I then continued my drive toward the campground.  Ostensibly I was trying to get there as quickly as possible to give myself the best chance of photographing the waterfalls in even light, but I kept catching glimpses of potential compelling images as I proceeded, and I kept stopping.  This meant constant ventures back out in the chilly air to find the shots, then grab my gear, fine tune the compositions and make the final images, but–as I’ve mentioned previously on this blog–under circumstances like this I subscribe to the bird-in-the-hand theory of image making.  So, indeed, I kept stopping and investigating (and frequently photographing), even though I knew that this meant that I wouldn’t be able to do anything with the waterfalls on this morning.  (I kept telling myself that the next morning would do just as well.)

Twin Sisters Peak East, South Mineral Creek, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

The area along the South Fork of Mineral Creek, is quite beautiful.  Most of the tree growth is coniferous, but the entire drive from the highway to the campground runs through meadows pocked with undergrowth, beaver ponds and, of course, the creek itself.  There is, as a result, no shortage of compelling elements from which image-making inspiration can be drawn.

Twin Sisters Peak East Reflections, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

By the time I got within a mile or so of the campground, I’d been at it long enough that a healthy chunk of the facade of Twin Sisters Peak East was lit up with direct sun.  This actually worked to my advantage.  There was a section of the creek where the mountain’s reflection in the water was particularly strong, and the contrast of the brightness of that reflection with the relatively dark, subdued tones of the rest of the scene, in open shade, is striking.

Twin Sisters Peak East, South Mineral Creek, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

South Mineral Creek Reflections, San Juan National Forest, Colorado

When I reached the campground I took a few moments to investigate the two waterfalls I wanted to photograph.  As expected, both scenes were already significantly impacted by direct sunlight so I didn’t shoot either one.  Instead, I made my way back to the highway and began the trip over Red Mountain Pass to the Bear Creek Trailhead.  I was delayed for about 20 minutes by an unexpected temporary closure of the road–presumably to allow some construction vehicles to pass, but it was never made clear to us exactly what was going on.  Regardless, I ultimately made it to the trailhead by late morning and geared up for the long hike.

Aspen Trio, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

The Bear Creek Trail is an experience.  I hiked up to the edge of the Yellow Jacket Mine (the second abandoned mine site along the trail), which is more than four miles one way and gains nearly 2700 feet of elevation.   The hike itself is relatively easy–in the sense that there’s no scrambling or anything of that nature involved, though you do have to cross several talus slopes over the first mile or so.  But it’s steep and pretty relentless.  I, of course, was “aided” by carrying my personal boat anchor–a full pack of gear and a tripod (about 30 additional pounds).  The other factor is the altitude;  the trailhead (i.e. the bottom of the trail) is roughly 8500 feet above sea level.  The first mine site–the Grizzly Bear Mine–is just under 10,000 feet; the Yellow Jacket Mine is approximately 11,100 feet above sea level.

The trail is not, in my opinion, a “must do” from a photographic point of view and, yes, I knew this to be the case before I decided to make the hike.  In fact, had the conditions–in terms of the sky and the status of fall color in the area–been different, I probably wouldn’t have made the hike this day.  But given that it was essentially a blue sky day, that I’d pretty thoroughly covered the area from Ouray south to Durango and that I had it on good authority that peak color wouldn’t come in the area between Ridgway and Telluride for the better part of a week, I decided that spending the “bad light” hours of the day on a (somewhat) challenging hike would be a good way to spend some time.

Whenever I decide to do something like make an 8.5 mile hike, at altitude, on a steep trail, I remember why engaging in a vigorous, hour-long daily cardio workout for the last 30 years has been a good idea.  Without the boat anchor, I’m sure that this hike wouldn’t have been all that big of a deal for me, even considering the altitude.  With the boat anchor…well, it still wasn’t all that challenging but it was a bit of a slog at times.

Bear Creek Trail, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

The first segment of the trail–the first mile or so–is a steady uphill climb along a mountainside; there’s roughly 1000 feet of elevation change during this segment.  At that point, the trail flattens out and follows a path that’s cut right into the rock as you enter the canyon containing Bear Creek, which you can hear (and occasionally see) far below the trail.  After about 1/3 of a mile of this, there’s another, somewhat less steep, steady incline (roughly a mile in length) until you reach the remains of the Grizzly Bear Mine, which is located in the midst of a mixed forest.  There’s not all that much left of the mine–a couple of overgrown (and in one instance, collapsing) buildings and some rusted implements.  Given the lighting conditions and breeze, I didn’t make any photographs there.

Traffic on the trail was extremely light.  I saw, perhaps, a total of a handful of groups of people on the way up–and not a soul above the Grizzly Bear Mine, either way.  On the way down, which was late in the afternoon, perhaps two hours before sunset, I never saw another person over the entire (nearly) 4.5 mile hike.

Aspen, Bear Creek Trail, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

From the Grizzly Bear Mine it’s about two miles to the Yellowjacket Mine site, and it’s a steady and somewhat steeper route to get there, with the trail gaining about 1600 feet of elevation over this stretch, through a mixture of forests and meadows.  During this last segment, there are several spots where it’s possible to access Bear Creek at water level and I did so–on the return trip, by which time there were extended areas in open shade.  On the hike in, these areas were in full sun.

Bear Creek, Bear Creek Trail, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Bear Creek, Bear Creek Trail, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

I also photographed the creek from a higher perspective from several spots.  This was difficult on occasion due to the trail being very narrow and the drop-off into the canyon being fairly steep.  It never felt dangerous to me, but there were spots where setting up the tripod was a bit of a challenge.

Bear Creek, Bear Creek Trail, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Given the elevation, it was interesting to see just how much green there still was in the aspens in these high alpine meadows that I came across, between the Grizzly Bear and Yellowjacket mine sites (i.e. well over 10,000 feet above sea level).

Bear Creek Trail, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Bear Creek Trail, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

When I made it back down to the trailhead it was after 5 PM, only a couple of hours short of sunset.  Just a mile or so up the road from the Bear Creek Trail parking area, the Uncompahgre River flows beneath the highway.  On both sides of the road there are waterfalls.  I’d scouted them back on my first full day in Colorado, and this was my opportunity to photograph them.

The two sets of falls are very different; to the east of the road is a smallish cataract in a bit of a grotto.

Upper Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

This waterfall has a lot of compositional possibilities connected to it, provided that the photographer is willing to climb down to water level and rock hop a bit.

Upper Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Upper Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Upper Falls Black & White, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Upper Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

On the west side of the road, the waterfall is a long drop, only visible from above as there’s no easy way to descend into the canyon safely.

Lower Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Lower Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Lower Falls, Uncompahgre River, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

When I was done with the waterfalls, it was only about 30 minutes before sunset.  I made my way up to the Clear Lake area with the intention of photographing Red Mountain Creek in nice light.  And so I did.  I made my way down to the edge of the creek, found some exposed rocks and a mid-ground tree and set up.  A setting moon was a bonus element.

Red Mountain Creek, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Red Mountain Creek, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Before I left the area–before it got dark–I pulled out the telephoto lens:

Red Mountain Evening, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Red Mountain Sunset, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

Red Mountain Sunset, Uncompahgre National Forest, Colorado

And with that, the day of photography came to an end.  I would move on to the Kebler Pass area the next day, but not before spending one more morning in the greater Red Mountain Pass area…

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Responses

  1. Beautiful!!

  2. Beautiful shots Kerry. I was through that area several decades ago, and must get back to see how things have changed -as I’m sure they have. Your photos have put it back on my radar!

    • Thanks, Mike!

      If you get the chance to visit I’m sure you’ll find it well worth your time.

  3. Wonderful and fun to see the area around home through another photographer’s eyes! I can see you made the most out of your time here.

    • Thanks, Denise. It’s always interesting to have the opinion of someone intimately familiar with the area.

  4. As always, there are some lovely shots included here. I really like the black and white Upper Falls on the Uncompahgre River. I think a future “digression” post might be why you continue to haul the heavy DSLR gear rather than switching to a lighter set up.

    • Thanks, Ellen.

      Re the heavy gear…I don’t think there’s enough to it, for an entire post; there’s really only one reason for going to the trouble of hauling this kit around regardless of how difficult it is–preserving the possibility of making a high quality large print from any image I make. I can’t afford to carry an equally high end lighter kit (now that such a thing actually exists), so I make do with what I now have at my disposal, as long as I can hack it physically.

  5. […] I decamped, I spent the early morning in the same general area that I experienced daybreak on Day 4:  the South Mineral Creek […]


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