Utopia Unraveling

Wildflower season is winding down in the San Juans, and so is our Ouray Utopia.  It has been an incredible time here, connecting with former friends and making new ones.  The hiking has been among the most spectacular I have done yet, way up there, where the air is rarefied.   My addiction for “getting high” has grown stronger than Colorado’s legalized marijuana business.

There have been a few fun surprises in our Utopia, like getting invited to go over Black Bear Pass with Mindy and Chris, and getting to finally meet Glenn, a blogger who’s path to simplification I have followed since the initial nomadic seeds were planted back in 2010.  There have been unexpected delights like the outdoor concert series in nearby Ridgway, accompanied by the best gourmet tacos on the planet at local Taco del Gnar.  If you are in Ridgway, take my advice…don’t miss these “gnarly tacos!”

You can't imagine the cool melody flowing from the saxophone inside this rig parked outside my window...

You can’t imagine the cool melody flowing from the saxophone inside this rig parked outside my window…

Thursday Nite Free Concerts in Ridgway were great entertainment.

Thursday Nite Free Concerts in Ridgway were great entertainment.

But one by one, our “gang” numbers are dwindling quickly, as are my days left to hike the Ouray trails.  Of the many hikes Mark and Bobbie have recommended as “must dos,” I am down to just a couple left on my wish list now.  Bear Creek Trail, just outside of Ouray off the Million Dollar Highway is at the top of that list.   Chris and Debbie have both done this hike before.  Mark is now out on “injured reserve” following hernia surgery.   Bobbie is on grocery store duty.  And Jim and Gayle have left Ouray headed north.  So it looks like I will be doing this hike solo.

Bear Creek Trail begins with a tunnel overpass crossing lver Hwy 550, the Million Dollar Highway.

Bear Creek Trail begins with a tunnel overpass crossing over Hwy 550, the Million Dollar Highway.

One downside of hiking solo is no "models" on the steep, narrow cliffside trail for perspective.

One downside of hiking solo is no “models” on the steep, narrow cliffside trail for perspective.

Not only will my Bear Creek hike be done solo, but I am about to head off on my own for the first time since Organ Pipe National Monument last February.   While most of the tribe will be heading north, I am pointed south.  As the neophyte full timer among the group, there are places I want to visit where the others have “been there, done that” already.  So they will all head north to discover uncharted meadows in Crested Butte, while I have a train to catch.

The trail starts up narrow switchbacks right away.

The trail starts up narrow switchbacks right away.

Rock slides of slate sound like breaking tiles beneath my boots.

Rock slides of slate sound like breaking tiles beneath my boots.

I must be honest with myself that “breaking from the pack” after the year I have had leaves me with a bit of apprehension.  It has already been a year of too many “goodbyes.”  One would think they would get easier, not harder. But given that a lot of those goodbyes have been the result of sudden departures home to bury my loved ones, I am left feeling more tender than usual.   The summer has been such a roller coaster with the most extreme highs and lows that I have ever experienced before in my life.  Since Stephen’s death ripped a gaping wound, the highs seem higher and the lows seem lower, as if all the nerves in my pain center had been sharpened by a single-edge razor, leaving me with a heightened sense of awareness of life’s tenuous balance.   So I wonder if leaving my nomadic friends behind will be too much loss.   If one is to survive the nomadic life, one must master the art of “goodbye” with a great deal more grace than I have shown lately. IMG_3384 IMG_3385

My goal this day is to make it up the Bear Creek Trail as far as Grizzly Bear Mine, 4.4 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 1,560’ up a sheer, rocky cliff.   This trail is unique for many reasons, the greatest of which is being carved into the rugged cliffside of the Uncompagre Gorge. Quite a bit of gold and silver was discovered on the opposite end of the 700 ft deep gorge back in the 1870’s with no way to retrieve it, so the miners blasted a trail in the side of the cliff, which is now the Bear Creek Trail.

That beautiful blue ribbon at the bottom of the gorge is Bear Creek.

That beautiful blue ribbon at the bottom of the gorge is Bear Creek.


The sound effects on this hike are unique as well.   The first part of the trail ascends some pretty steep switchbacks that are lined with rock slides of slate that sound like tiles breaking beneath my feet.   And since it follows Bear Creek for most of the hike, the roaring sound of the creek and falls echoes up through the walls of the gorge.

Remains of Grizzly Bear Mine.

Remains of Grizzly Bear Mine.

A rare reciprocal photo opportunity on the bridge, as there are few hikers on the trail today.

A rare reciprocal photo opportunity on the bridge, as there are few hikers on the trail today.

Trail looks like a belt too tight around the mountain's midsection.

Trail looks like a belt too tight around the mountain’s midsection.

The trail narrows down to a few feet in sections as it follows the contours of the canyon.  I reach Grizzly Bear Mine sooner than expected.  I am feeling good so I decide to keep going on toward Yellow Jacket Mine, and see how far I can get.  It will mean an 8 mile hike with a 2,660’ elevation gain, but I decide to go for it, with the knowing that it is an “out and back” hike, and I can turn around at any time.

Trail follows Bear Creek up the mountain.

Trail follows Bear Creek up the mountain.

Happy to see some wildflowers still remain!

Happy to see some wildflowers still remain!


I see very few people beyond Grizzly Bear Mine.  The incline becomes more gradual as it follows the clear blue Bear Creek up the basin.  The higher I climb, I see some remaining patches of wildflowers and a few wild strawberry vines.

The last mile is tough, psychologically.   I realize my Garmin hand-held GPS is malfunctioning, as it says I have traveled 6 miles, while I know it is only 4 miles to Yellow Jacket Mine.  Further examination reveals the device is accruing miles while I am standing still!   I think about turning around several times, but not knowing how close I am, I would hate to find out later that I turned within yards of the mine.IMG_3399

Yellow Jacket Mine, finally!

Yellow Jacket Mine, finally!

My lunch spot.  Hard to see, but there is an "island" of blue wildflowers in the middle of the creek.

My lunch spot. Hard to see, but there is an “island” of blue wildflowers in the middle of the creek.

Finally, I recognize the old miner’s shack from pictures I have seen, and feel a great sense of relief at having made it.  I enjoy lunch on the edge of the creek, almost deafening in its roar while tumbling down a series of rapids.  I don’t tarry too long, though, as I can see thunderhead clouds moving in.

Yellow Jacket Mine Shack

Yellow Jacket Mine Shack


View of beautiful Red Mountains across the canyon.

View of beautiful Red Mountains across the canyon.


By the time I reach Grizzly Bear Mine on the return, the sound of thunder is getting louder as it moves my way.  I pick up the pace until I am almost jogging down the switchbacks.  I don’t want to get caught in a lightning storm on the exposed part of this trail!   I make it as far as the tunnel overpass on Highway 550, when the skies open up and the rain comes pelting down.   By the time I run across the parking lot, I am soaked.

But guess what awaits me in the car, left over from breakfast?   A half of a Mouse’s Chocolates Scrap Cookie! When I first arrived in Ouray, I compared it to “Life’s own version of the Scrap Cookie.” All my favorite types of “candy” (gorgeous hikes, breweries, inviting hot springs, good friends) baked into one “cookie” (Ouray.)  So as I sit in the car in the pouring rain, I savor my last bite of Utopia…unraveling one tasty morsel at a time.

24 thoughts on “Utopia Unraveling

  1. Love this post, from raw beauty to raw emotion. Never thought about describing my passions as “candy” but they are traveling, soul friends, contra dancing, and nature. Best of all, they are zero calory and truly nourishing. Can’t wait to read about your next chapter.

    • Thanks for the nice comment, Lee. If you are not familiar with the famous “scrap cookie” from Mouse’s Chocolates in Ouray, they are made from the left over chocolate candy. All my passions rolled into one. 😉 We share the same passions, you and I.

  2. I’m glad to see you soloing again. Sorry the gang wasn’t available, but there’s something special about being alone in the midst of grandeur.

  3. Beautifully written, as usual. I’m glad you were able to make this solo hike, and break through those initial goodbyes. It’ll be a while before things got normal again, but thankfully most of these meetings are really au revoir…till we meet again.


    • Nina, I like that concept of au revoir, though I suspect it sounds a lot better with your Danish/British/French than my Texan!

  4. I have mix emotions about you hiking alone. Solitude, I get. But it’s still high country. This, even though I am sure you have learned your lessons Suzanne-San. Miyagi Mark and others have taught you well.

    Knowing that you will likely be well on your way soon, if not already, I’ll make you an offer. Sharon and I will be at Ridgeway S.P. beginning the 8th of September. If you are still in the area, maybe YOU could be OUR hiking mentor. We even have a Jeep. 🙂

    • Ed-San, 😉 Wish I could take you up on that offer, but I will be on “the wrong side of the range” by that time. I look forward to reading about your visit to the Box Canyon!

  5. Love the Bear Creek trail and your photos really picked up the steep drop off next to the trail. If that was a National Park they would have guard rails in several sections of the Bear Creek trail.
    I carry a small umbrella in my pack in case the sky cuts loose with heavy rain, but only if there is no lighting. Like feeling the rain on your face, the solitude of a solo Bear Creek hike can be very refreshing.

    • Hi, John Q. That Bear Creek hike was a beauty, wasn’t it? I agree, I like the slow rain as well. It’s the lightning that scares me off the mountain, though, especially on that exposed face when I am the tallest thing around!

  6. I really loved that trail, and we only went to Grizzly Bear! I can hear and see the slate right now, so unique!

    This post is lovely. Thank you for sharing your story here, your writing moves me and I hope your new found alone time is healing.

    • Thank you for the nice comment, Lisa. It means a lot to me to know that my writing has “feeling.”

      I think you saw the best of Bear Creek unless it is wildflower season, and then that is reason enough to keep going!

    • Hi, Reta Kay. Only as far down as Durango and Pagosa Springs, and then I am curving back up north. Are you coming north? I’ll probably see you in TX before I do in NM…

  7. What a great description and pictures. I love to travel where I can see the tracks of man’s efforts in nature and this hike was certainly full of those signs.
    Keep enjoying, we are. Glad you got down before the lightening storm.

    • Thanks, Allen and Deede — Yes, I agree part of the interest on this hike was pondering what it took to build such a ledge back then!

  8. I knew you could do it;-) You are right about that last mile, though. Luckily we had Mark telling us it was only another 15 minutes! We may have turned back without his words of encouragement.
    I’m glad that our first and last scrap cookie wasn’t very good as it kept us from wanting to go back for more.

    • I think Forest Gump’s box of chocolates theory applies to the Scrap Cookie as well. Of the four I had during my 3 week stay, numbers one, three, and four were the best cookies I ever ate. Number two was just so-so…with some kind of espresso beans I didn’t care for. I had to keep testing them….for research purposes, you know. 😉

  9. A beautiful day on the trail (well, til the last mile)! There is definitely something to be said about hiking without a crowd. Sounds like the perfect day for your solo move on to new territory. I love finding old mines and searching around all that is left. A treat at the end of a beautiful climb:)

    Once again your thoughts and feeling are so beautifully written. I really enjoyed your analogy at the end. I will think of each of our favorite stays as a “cookie” now as we move back west. It fits perfectly!!

    Safe travels where ever your journey takes you:) We are aiming for the Tetons mid Sept.

    • Pam — I think we could also use the same comparative analogy with a finely crafted Imperial Stout. 😉 Hope to find you and John soon…

  10. Beautifully written Suzanne, as always. Terry really appreciated this post as he finds his most reflective times out in nature alone. This has been such a tough year for you and saying goodbye to friends, for the time being, had to be very emotional. We look forward to your new adventures and I feel certain, new friends.

    • Thank you so much for the beautiful, soothing words in return, LuAnn. Aren’t we fortunate to have a life that affords both reflective time alone, surrounded by nature, and the chance to meet up and share it with good friends…

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