Exploring the Infamous Black Bear Trail

Nov. 09, 2016 By Justin Fort, Photos by Justin Fort, Mireille Yanow, Dustin Dailey, and Majid Gol

Because we can’t help poking bears with sharp sticks, we decided to tackle one of southwestern Colorado’s most famous (and purportedly hazardous) trails. Our reasoning was straightforward: 1. Because it was there; 2. because it couldn’t be as bad as people say; 3. because when people say it’s bad, well, that’s like a big fat “Now I gotta.” What we discovered about Ingram/Black Bear Pass Trail (some locals and maps call it Black Bear instead of Ingram; the U.S. Geological Survey Board says Ingram) is that while the ingress to the trail is scenic, engaging but not overly tough, and the drop-in can be tricky, the actual descent to Telluride is more scary than difficult.

The famous, or infamous, Ingram/Black Bear trail, falling into Telluride (as seen from Imogene). It’s got a few offshoots to boot: plan your ingress and egress so as to enjoy all the features the trail has up its sleeve

Early a.m. Colorado has a ruddy glow to it. The trailhead (on the eastern end – the only way in but for one day a year) is marked well enough, and people begin clambering up the hill as early as sunrise.

If any spot is to be worrying, it’s the rock ledge drop-in that leads to the beginning of these notorious switchbacks: it’s more technical than the switchbacks themselves, and holds at least as much potential for your demise.

Nested within a crew of FJ and other Toyota-based ‘froaders, we quickly rose above treeline and switchbacked up into the first of several mountain plateaus.

Steppes such as this proceeded to greet us as the group climbed up the 823. This area was worked heavily in the heydays of Colorado’s mining past, so keep your peepers peeled for interesting bits of history to dig into.

A little history: Ingram/Black Bear is known for a famously precarious section of trail that switchbacks down the somewhat shear lower face of Ingram Mountain. This little slice of doom alongside Bridal Veil and Ingram Falls is not more than 1/10th of the trail (and starts just below Westinghouse’s first industrial A/C powerplant, which helped establish Tesla’s A/C generating method versus Edison’s D/C), but is not as dangerous as it is reputed to be. Long story short, unless you’re a convicted idiot, you can do this trail.

Ascending towards the third high glen, the trail winds up a mountain face littered with scree and loose rubble (not so loose that it’s dangerous, however). This trail’s popular enough that it rarely becomes impassible.

Run This Trail Yourself: Just Add Truck
Easier than advertised, sure, but a properly equipped truck is required to handle this run. Trail-friendly tires, a predictable locker, honest low-range, capable articulation and good brakes are a must. So is a skilled driver: always develop yourself at least as much as your truck. We have seen stock FJ Cruisers and Rubi Jeeps do this trail with a competent driver behind the wheel, but that’s more the exception than the rule: we’re not suggesting you run this in the Subaru Forester your mother drives to work (or your dad’s Suburban – the turns are too tight). However, if you’re felony stupid and can’t recognize that this trail could kill you, then our admonitions about using a well-hung truck won’t save you (and you’re probably reading this in a hospital waiting room).

As we mentioned, many of the more adventurous spots of the Ingram/Black Bear trail are before and just after crossing Black Bear Pass. The climb up through this creek bed was one of several watery features.

Because our group was being pressed by the squad trailing us, only a few minutes were available for hangoutery at the pass.

Dropping in west of Black Bear Pass, four-wheelers pass into Ingram Basin. This is one of those areas where the “road” has a little more character, the scenery is a little more involved, and the history is piled at your feet. Get out and poke around.

In some respects, the western run to the top of Ingram/Black Bear trail is better than the drop-in to Telluride. Wayout scenery, some high-Q trail features (in the trail-then-obstacle-then-trail style of most Colorado crawling), and enough “That’s pretty” to keep passengers who prefer flowers to ‘froading from biting your head off. This region was heavily mined, like so many in high-mountain Colorado, so a well-read adventurer will be able to put their hands on copious historic spots; you’d be advised to take your time on the run-up. To our chagrin, our group, a part of the tenth-annual FJ Summit, was pressed to keep our pace up (we were the first of six run groups on this trail that morning).

The folks from FJ Summit parked trail guides on the hairier runs, and there were no less than four working Ingram/Black Bear. Every once and a while, it’s good to have a little guidance: this trail is tricky. A section of a suspended footbridge hangs in the background.

“This is a road? You people are going to drive on this?” Trail dogs are often smarter than their masters, but aren’t quick to understand things “Because it’s there.”

It IS that steep. This rocky ledge is the most challenging section of the trail, if not the most lethal. Mind your footfalls, and don’t let the water worry you – tires grip better than you think so long as they’re fresh.

Several turnoffs peel away from the trail en route to Black Bear Pass (12,840 ft.). While it’s always recommended you explore shunt roads – some of our best off-roading has been found on trails off of trails – it’ll quickly turn a brunch run into a daylong adventure. Note: some of these trail spurs are more “closed” than others, but don’t cheat yourself out of something great because you didn’t check if a gate was locked locked. If you see a juicy spur and have time, run it.

Jeepfan or not, you’ve got to like a leaf-sprung Scrambler. These guys dogged us all morning. It’s good to have other skill-set off-roaders around, if but for having another set of lines to study.

Getting In: Because Every Trail Begins Somewhere
Although Ingram/Black Bear is done against the grain once a year (heading east from the Telluride end, thanks to the Wild Bunch 4x4 Club out of Montrose, CO), on every other disappointing day of the calendar, the only option that won’t anger fleets of Jeeping tourists is to begin from the east. The relatively well-marked turnoff is either 10 minutes south of Ouray or 40 north of Silverton on Colorado’s marvelous State Route 550. Just across from the Red Mountain town-site, access begins with County Road 16, which peels off to become the 823.

That wanderlust rear on the 4Runner is usually a blessing, but it’s made the truck look like it’s going to tip over more than once (and freaks out the natives). Note the air under the right rear: perhaps we need more flex. Or stuff.

Relatively stock rigs can handle a trail like Ingram/Black Bear with relatively few mods: tires, good brakes, perhaps a little clearancing... We had several OE-height Toyotas and Jeeps drop-in with us on-trail without trouble.

The first 40% of the climb from Highway 550 – first on County 16, then on Forest Road 823 – is the easiest. You’ll climb and climb, passing multiple turnoffs and fields of mountain greenery that have been known to burst into rainbows of floral song, but tree line and most flora quickly disappear behind. With altitude, lumpy sections of trail increase, including low-range climbs with lots of water and snow, even in late July. There are workarounds, but playful trail challenges like those arrayed uphill towards Black Bear Pass are the sort that build driver skills.

Because of the extra-tight switchbacks, your slightly large rig suddenly becomes very long and fat. Don’t be afraid to back one extra time to avoid going statistic.

You see many more enduro and trail-adapted bikes on these high-mountain trails you used to. This pleasant fellow from Texas was leading with his brain and being cautious, and wound up walking the bike down the lumpiest sections of the trail.

With the easy climbing behind you, mining remnants and plentiful rock and ledge-style shelves increase. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – make the time to turn off-route and explore, and get out of your truck to dig around. A localized map with old mining claims will help you get closer to the interesting bits of history that still litter the crags up here. Mines like the Senator Beck, Andrus, Mayflower, Black Bear, Smuggler/Union and associated portals, adits and tunnels laced the area. The mining equipment supporting them was on display for 100-plus years (the area mined as recently as 1978), and several still-suspended tramlines to the Pandora Mill in the lower valley signal that it’s all in there, if just a little beneath the surface.

Some history is more conspicuous than others: this rubble has always looked half like a stamp mill and half a tram-house. Perhaps the pulleys were both guiding the tram cables and being driven for breaking down freshly mined ore.

Assembled below the rock-ledge feature, the lead group from FJSX broke for just a second before heading into the famous Ingram/Black Bear switchbacks. Ingram Creek bubbles in the foreground.

Dropping towards Telluride west of Black Bear Pass, the trail grows steadily tighter and lumpy as you pass Ingram Lake into Ingram Basin. The scene of more hard-rock digging (and full of hidden mine workings), this high alpine landscape is worth your attention. At this point, the trail isn’t the precipitous drop-off that Ingram/Black Bear is known for, but it’s rife with tricky nooks and crannies that make a 10-mile run like this memorable. Black Bear and Andrus Mines are accessible via turnoffs below and west of the pass, in the shadow of 13,509ft Telluride Peak.

The trail leading between switchbacks is definitely narrow: the video cited in the story displays what you don’t want to do here (that is, fall off the side). Our recommendation is to do your sightseeing only from a stopped truck.

The Terror Before the Terror, and the Terror that Isn’t
You’ll know you’re at the pre-drop staging zone for the “Switchbacks of Doom” by how the trail necks down below Ingram Basin at the funnel of Ingram Creek. Multiple structures (the remnants of such, anyway), several tram cables, and the remains of a cable footbridge overhang the drop-in. This mostly off-camber ledge, carved right out of the creek’s rock bank, hugs a craggy wall and curves lazily to the right (though it slopes much less lazily). In our opinion, THIS is the most difficult section of the trail, and with little room for error, you’d best know your path. The fine folks from the FJ Summit provided spotters for this section of trail when we ran it (with more here than the switchbacks, which should tell you something).

Drone, schmone – just climb a tree and you too can get fun split switchback shots from 1000 feet above Telluride.

Past the craggy rock right-hander are the famous Ingram/Black Bear switchbacks. Don’t kid yourself: they are awesome, and more than a few dead people would attest to the hazard in this section of trail. That said, a careful crawler won’t have any problems. From what we’ve been led to understand (and as seen online), it’s carelessness that gets people hurt, not the trail itself. Then again, the miners who worked the high mines used to sled down this hill to get to Telluride (real men...). Enjoy the view.

Even super-turning rigs like the third-gen 4Runner will probably need to back up once or twice in these switchbacks. Don’t push your luck – the trail is composed of packed dirt and rock, and those edges are soft.

Bridal Veil Falls and the restored Westinghouse A/C generator house are a champion Colorado landmark. There are wide spots in the trail a ledge or two down the switchbacks; you’ll have a chance to park and look around.

While cosseted in this delightfully hazardous section of the Ingram/Black Bear Pass Trail, you’ve got a few minutes to think about what it stands for: about a mile below is the recently schmaltzy city of Telluride (once a haven for cattle rustlers and outlaws, now infested with hipsters and poseurs), while within arm’s length are real remnants of the hard won history of Colorado’s past. There are fancy people driving fancy cars to fancy bars who could use some help getting in touch with that history, that what let them have a Telluride in the first place. Do them the favor of running this iconic trail and telling the uninitiated all about it (preferably after they buy you a beer).

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