Black Bear Pass

Telluride, Colorado (SanMiguel County)

Last Updated: 10/12/2021
5 / 5 ( 52 reviews )
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Information
Nearby Trails
Status:
Impassable
Typically Open: 07/01 - 11/01
Difficulty: 5-7
( DIFFICULT - SEVERE )
Length: 10.26 miles
Highest Elevation: 12840 feet
Duration: About 3 hours
Shape of Trail: Straight Through
Best Direction to Travel: West
Nearest Town: Telluride
Nearest Town w/ Services: Telluride
Official Road Name: 823
Management Agency: San Juan National Forest
District: Antonito Ranger District

Highlights

Highlight: Black Bear Pass
Black Bear Pass was originally constructed in the late 1800's to service the Black Bear Mine and subsequently re-opened for recreational travel in 1959. Few trails in the United States have attained the legendary status that Black Bear Pass has. The ascent from US 550 begins near the summit of Red Mountain Pass, historically known as the "Million Dollar Highway." The initial climb is easy and scenic, with beautiful wildflowers carpeting the high mountain meadows. Waterfalls cascade from alpine snow melt as you climb to the 12,840 foot summit. The descent into Telluride is vastly different, with narrow shelf roads and steep drop-offs. The descent into Telluride is highlighted by the stunning 365 foot Bridal Veil Falls topped by the Smuggler-Union Hydroelectric Power Plant, better known as the Bridal Veil Powerhouse. The trail descends adjacent to Bridal Veil Falls, with some of the tightest switchbacks a vehicle can travel through. Black Bear Pass' infamy has even been penned into a bluegrass song, written and performed by C.W. McCall: "Mary Elizabeth drawed a picture of the road; it looked like a whole bunch a' Zs and Ws all strung together. And RJ took one look at it and said that the only way that Jeep car is goin' down that road is over her dead body. Then a rock slipped out from under the wheel and the U-Drive-'Em Army Jeep car went right over the edge of the cliff. Yahoo-oo-oo-oo!" C.W. McCall - Black Bear Road 1975

Video

Route Information

Advanced Rating System

Recommended Vehicle:
Stock SUV with High Clearance and 4 Low
Concerns:
Summary:
The one way only section descending into Telluride has multiple tight switchbacks that demand unwavering attention and cautious driving.

Technical Rating

MANDATORY
5
DIFFICULT
OPTIONAL
7
SEVERE
Rocky or undulated road surface. Potential rocks and/or tree stumps less than 24" tall and/or vertical ledges less than 24" tall and/or near vertical ledges or waterfalls less than 54" inches. Tire placement becomes more difficult. Can be steep and off-camber.
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Community Consensus

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Description

The legendary sign that once stood on Black bear pass read: "Telluride ---> 'City of Gold' 12 miles- 2 Hours, You don't have to be crazy to drive this road- but it helps. Jeeps only" This sign has recently been replaced by a more informative sign reading: "Extreme Road Ahead- Black Bear Pass is a narrow shelf road with 1000 foot plus drop-offs with dangerous off-camber switchbacks, tight turns and loose shale. Expert drivers only. Travel at your own risk." This warning should not be taken lightly. The actual trail is not difficult in its own right. However, on the Telluride side of the pass there is ZERO room for error. Black Bear is no more dangerous than any other trail in Colorado or anywhere else. It is impressive, to say the least, however, any lapse of attention or judgment on this trail can result in a roll over which may lead to injury or worse.

Waypoints

1. Trailhead (0 mi)
The trailhead is easy to spot on the west side of US 550. There is a spacious staging area with enough room for 6-8 vehicles to air down and prepare for the trip.
2. Scenic Waypoint (0.9 mi)
The trail quickly rises from the highway and opens up to splendid views of Mineral Basin to the southwest and the prominent Trico Peak to the north. Weather can change quickly in this area of Colorado and it is not uncommon for storm clouds to move in without much notice.
3. Porphyry Gulch Intersection (1.1 mi)
Keep right at the fork and continue to follow signs for Black Bear Pass. Left at the fork will lead in to Porphyry Gulch. The fork is well marked. This area can become crowded during peak wildflower season with the presence of nature photographers in addition to vehicles running the trail.
4. Seasonal Closure Gate (1.9 mi)
A seasonal closure gate is found at this point. It is helpful to research ahead of any trip through Black Bear Pass to verify the road is open as there is not much room for a vehicle to turn around if needed at the gate.
5. Black Bear Pass Summit (3.2 mi)
Spectacular views abound in all directions at the top of the 12,840 foot summit. Warning signs with a description of what is in store are posted at the beginning of the descent into the Telluride side of Black Bear Pass. For those that do not wish to continue the route, the large parking area at the summit offers an easy spot to turn back towards US 550. The ridgeline along the summit of Black Bear Pass marks the border between San Juan National Forest to the east and Uncompahgre National Forest to the west.
6. Scenic Waypoint (4.1 mi)
The trail narrows and begins to cut a path along Ingram Basin. This is a great vantage point to watch across the basin as vehicles make their descent down the trail.
7. Downhill Only From This Point On (6.1 mi)
A sign is posted at this point along the route advising that any traffic from this point on must continue downhill into Telluride. ALL vehicles who do not wish to continue, this is the point of no return. Tram cables can be seen overhead at this point that formerly connected the Black Bear Mine with its processing Mill at Ingram Falls.
8. The Steps (6.4 mi)
Black Bear Pass' infamous descent into Telluride begins with an obstacle known as "The Steps." This area consists of a series of loose shale steps that are off-camber and follow along a very narrow shelf that is barely wide enough for a full sized vehicle to pass.
9. Ingram Falls (6.6 mi)
Below the steps, the trail passes by Ingram Falls and the remains of the Black Bear Mine's processing mill. The trail widens in this area and it is possible for vehicles to pass if necessary.
10. The Switchback of Legend (6.8 mi)
As the trail continues its descent, the first switchback is encountered on the descent into Telluride. This is by far the tightest switchback and it greatly helps at this point to have a spotter to guide the vehicle through the corner. Expect to have to back up at least 1-2 times in order to safely navigate this turn. It is approximately a 900 foot drop over this edge. There are ten more switchbacks similar to this to come. None of the switchbacks are nearly as difficult and each one is progressively easier as the trail nears the bottom of the box canyon.
11. Bridal Veil Powerhouse- Begin Two Way Traffic (7.4 mi)
The switchbacks continue, and are wider and easier to navigate. Uphill traffic is again allowed at this point. The beautiful Bridal Veil Powerhouse comes into view as it sits prominently perched at the top of the 365 foot Bridal Veil Falls. Officially named the Smuggler-Union Hydroelectric Power Plant, and built in 1907, its purpose was to produce electricity for mining activity in Telluride. Now placed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is owned and managed by the Idarado Mining Company and the plant presently produces 25% of the electrical needs to the town of Telluride.
12. Bridal Veil Falls (7.9 mi)
The switchbacks continue to become easier as the 365 foot tall Bridal Veil Falls comes into full view. Remember that uphill traffic has right-of-way as the trail continues to descend down into Telluride.
13. Base of Bridal Veil Falls (8.3 mi)
At the bottom of Bridal Veil Falls, a small parking area is present for vehicles to stop so that the falls can be enjoyed. Bridal Veil Falls is the tallest waterfall in Colorado and is a popular year-round destination.
14. End of Trail (9.8 mi)
The trail comes to an end at the active Pandora Mine. A maintained gravel road turning to pavement leads directly into downtown Telluride from this point.

Directions to Trailhead

Starting Point: Ouray, CO

From the corner of US 550 and 6th Avenue in Ouray: Travel south on Main Street/US 550 for 13.1 miles. The trailhead is well marked on the west side of the highway approximately 1/4 mile south of the summit of Red Mountain Pass.

Camping

Not allowed
There is no established camping along Black Bear Pass. Free dispersed camping can be found 5.2 miles north of the trailhead on Highway 550 at Ironton Park. Lodging can be found in both the towns of Ouray and Telluride.
Camping: Black Bear Pass

Trail Reviews (67)

Questions & Answers (10)

Q: Planning vacation for next year 2022.. what month would you say would be the best time to visit.
–Ariel Tittsworth (12/29/2021)
A: Hello, trails in the area are typically open by the beginning of July. However, that opening date is entirely dependant on winter snow pack. Peak wildflower bloom is around the end of July for the best summer experience while early October is the peak for fall colors but the risk for snow becomes a concern.
–Greg Stokes (12/30/2021)
Q: Any reason not to attempt Black Bear Pass in a full-sized Chevy Blazer? Planning a trip this August and stringing trails together if possible. Thanks in advance!
–Francis Johnson (04/21/2021)
A: Hi Francis, there are many full sized vehicles that pass over Black Bear each year. However, I would strongly caution you to look at the trail guide and weigh the risks with your knowledge of your vehicle and driving abilities. It is a very narrow trail in spots and there is no room for error on the shelf portion of the route.
–Greg Stokes (04/21/2021)
Q: When I drive Black Bear I'm planning on checking out that detour to Porphyry Gulch at waypoint 3 to see Bullion King Lake up there. Anybody know what to expect from that road as far as difficulty goes and if it is open?
–Josh Spring (09/09/2019)
A: Ended up driving this and found a few very steep sections with loose rock that were a little tougher. The majority is a steep, narrow shelf road with almost no passing areas for long stretches of the road
–Josh Spring (09/18/2019)
Q: Are there any Jeep rental agencies in the Ouray area that have 2dr Wranglers available and don't have an issue with Black Bear?
–John Rauscher (06/07/2019)
A: John, I am not certain on the specifics of each Jeep rental company in Ouray. I'm pretty sure there are options for a 2 door Wrangler to be found but my assumption is that none of the rental companies authorize their vehicles to be driven over Black Bear.
–Greg Stokes (06/08/2019)
Q: Just wondering is the trail is doable in Early March or is there too much snow cover and terrible conditions? Wondering the same about Imogene as well.
–aaron stone (02/05/2019)
A: Hi Aaron, Black Bear and Imogene are typically snowed in until late June or early July. In years past the county tries to open these trails by July 4th weekend. I will keep this trail guide updated when it opens and you can also consult the US Forest Service here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsinternet/cs/detail/!ut/p/z1/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfIjo8zijQwgwNHCwN_DI8zPyBcqYKAfjlVBmA9cQRQx-g1wAEci9eNREIXf-HD9KKxWIPuAkBle-lHpOflJkOByzEsytkjXjypKTUstSi3SKy0CCmeUlBQUW6kaqBqUl5frpefnp-ek6iXn56oaYNOSkV9coh-BqlK_IDc0NMIgyzSnzMcRAIRE-zk!/dz/d5/L2dBISEvZ0FBIS9nQSEh/?position=Conditions.Html&pname=San Juan National Forest- Recreation&navtype=BROWSEBYSUBJECT&ss=110213&pnavid=null&navid=110000000000000&ttype=detail&cid=fsbdev3_002300
–Greg Stokes (02/05/2019)
Q: I have a 2017 Ford Expedition EL (extra long) would that Switchback of Legend be too tight for it? Should I take a pass on this road?
–Stuart Lee (11/29/2018)
A: Stuart, no, I don't think that would be a good idea at all!
–Todd (12/01/2018)
Q: Is there a shuttle service to take ATVs through Telluride from Black Bear to Imogene Trailhead?
–Cheryl (08/31/2018)
A: Cheryl, good question; due to our focus being on 4WD Jeeps/trucks/SUVs, I'm not certain of the correct answer. I suggest referring to this page from Stay The Trail, which lists OHV rules regarding operation on public roads for each county. I would suggest contacting the San Miguel County Sheriff's Office to clarify whether there is an approved/legal route for OHVs to drive between Black Bear and Imogene, and if not, to ask if such a shuttle service exists. http://www.staythetrail.org/content.aspx?page_id=22&club_id=266593&module_id=247557
–Tracy Barker (09/01/2018)
Q: I have a relatively stock 4runner with upgraded KO2 tires on stock size. Will I make it this trail?
–Michael Luzano (08/12/2018)
A: Most definitely you will be alright equipment-wise. Blackbear Pass is doable but any stock high clearance 4x4 with low range. Just remember to drive within your skills and refer to this trail guide regarding Blackbear Pass. It leaves zero room for error if a mistake is made.
–Greg Stokes (08/16/2018)
Q: Would I be able to do Bridal Veil falls in a lifted 2018 Toyota Tundra with offroad upgrades (35" tires, skid plates...etc)? the switchback look like they might be too tight for the truck
–Sean (07/17/2018)
A: The switchbacks would be extremely tight for a full size truck. I would not recommend it.
–Kevin (07/21/2018)
Q: If I park a vehicle at the trailhead of Black Bear and ride a side by side over, how easy is it to get back to my vehicle?
–Shonna (04/27/2018)
A: OHV's, though fully allowed on Black Bear Pass, are very difficult to manage. If you unload at the trailhead you could travel Black Bear all the way to the section of the Pass that is "Downhill Only." This is Waypoint #7 at 6.1 miles in and safely return to the trailhead and your tow vehicle. If you proceed past this point there is no way back and you would need to arrange to pick your side-by-side up at the Valley View Parking Area near the end of the trail. The paved route around the mountains from the trailhead to get to the Telluride end of the trail is 65ish miles and nearly a 2 hour drive. OHV's are not legal on the city streets of Telluride so a return trip on Imogene Pass is not advised. Even if you did manage a return trip on Imogene Pass you would still be approximately 12 miles north of your trailer where you'd hit pavement.
–Greg Stokes (04/28/2018)

Writer Information

Greg Stokes

Mapping Crew - Colorado

Greg Stokes Is a Colorado native, born and raised in Colorado Springs. He has been off-roading since childhood, his parents say his first trip was a Jeep run over Medano Pass when he was only 14 Months old. Greg has been at the wheel of everything from dirtbikes, ATV's, early Jeep CJ5's that he has restored, Wranglers, and presently explores in a 1997 80 Series Toyota Land Cruiser and a 2016 Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycle. Greg is a proud Husband and Father of 3. His passion in the off road world is the vehicle-reliant world of Overlanding. He hopes to one day make it to Canada to Explore the Yukon and Northwest territories.
For individual use only, not to be shared.