Where have you been, Colorado?

This past weekend, I finally made it back to Durango to ride a portion of the Colorado Trail. Although time constraints meant it was a modest one – just 78 miles of its 539 mile length – I’m struggling to envisage how a bikepacking route could get much better. I mean, this was seriously good stuff – now I understand the reverence attached to Coloradan singletrack.

The terrain in the San Juan Mountains is a deliciously lush, craggy, rooty and rocky melange. The names and dotted lines that scatter the trail map are equally beguiling: Engineer Mountain, Cascades Creek, Indian Trail Ridge, Hotel Draw, Orphan Butte, Blackhawk Pass and Slide Rock.

Coloradan high country, a lofty land of verdant meadows rolling far above the timberline, is vast and solitary. From there, the views into the deepest folds of the La Plata mountains (a subrange of the San Juans) are as bold as anywhere in the world, streaked and saturated with mineral deposits, and scarred with babyhead strewn scree slopes. The climbs are protracted and test the mettle of even the hardiest riders. The descents – endlessly long and loping – could well inhabit in a timewarp of their own. In short, the Colorado Trail – if this taster is anything to go by, at least – appears to be everything I could dream of in a long distance mountain bike trail.

Joined by Jeremy, his Pugs, my 29+ and Zach (ex mountain biking pro/Durango resident – a potent combination if ever there was one), I honed in on the segment south of Molas Pass. Our arrival in the mountain state coincided with that of the monsoon season – gracing us with afternoon dousings, nightly thunderstorms and a heightened sense of drama to the blotted skies.

Colorado sets the bar high. My body is still tingling and my mind is still racing. Riding the entire route, from Denver to Durango, has suddenly become a priority…

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Incredibly, people (like Zach, for instance) ride this route in a day – albeit a very long one. We chose to enjoy it in a more leisurely fashion. We started late on Thursday, camping 10 miles into the trail from Molas Pass. On Friday, we rode to a few miles shy of Indian Ridge Trail, camping early in the afternoon to weather a storm – which is no time to be riding the high country. On Saturday, we started early and completed the ride, rolling into Durango with plenty of time to spare.

The highest point of the route is 12 300ft (3749m). Durango lies at 6500ft (1980m), and Molas Pass at 10 910ft (3325m). Despite the significant net loss in elevation, this is a tough ride – I definitely wouldn’t want to ride it in the opposite direction. Later in the season promises clearer conditions, though I enjoyed watching the afternoon monsoonal storms barrel in.

Jeremy rode his Pugsley, I took the 29+ ECR and Zach was aboard a Trek carbon 29er. There’s no shortage of rocky terrain that’s hard on bikes – Jeremy’s front Large Marge took a serious ding, needing to be bashed back into shape with (another) rock.

Grub… Begin (and end) any ride in Durango at Bread the place for coffee/pastries, and the meeting point for cyclists. Carnivors should devour one of their mountainous turkey sandwiches. The Sow Your Oats cookies were delicious too. As were the scones… And…

31 thoughts on “Where have you been, Colorado?

    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      It is!

      I was thinking about your ride… Zach suggested that if you start in Durango and ride north, you’re better off climbing out via Junction Creek Road (dirt) rather than beginning on the Colorado Trail – as the second of the singletrack climbs would be brutal. From there, you’d then have a ride/push up Slide Rock to the reach the high country, before a final climb up to the Highline Trail. It’s going to be a tough start in that direction!

      Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks Bill. Throughout the route, we were commenting on how lovingly maintained the trail felt. Only one dead tree to hop over in the whole ride! Thanks for looking after it so well – it’s a gem.

      Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      I guess to some extent that depends on what you’re used to. I’ve only ridden a small portion – which was perfect for the rigid Krampus. One descent beat me up a bit, but dropping tyre pressure a little beforehand would probably have sorted that out. Jeremy had the (rigid but voluminous) Pugsley, which is another way of doing things. Zach was on a carbon Trek hardtail – I think he was happy to have a front suspension fork.

      Tubeless helps too – both with grip and comfort. I’d have ridden it on my rigid Ogre, but I was glad to have the extra tyre volume of the Knards. Rigid 26 might be a bit of an ordeal though.

      Reply
      1. Chris

        Have flights booked to ride the whole trail in late August. Currently have a rigid Ogre with 2.4inch Ardents set up tubeless on Stans FlowEx rims. I rode this on all sorts of trails across France and Spain in late 2014 but I’m tempted to get some suspension forks for Colorado. Just not sure whether its necessary or how much I’d appreciate them… My riding buddy will definitely have suspension forks, and possibly even a full susser, depending on which bike he takes.

        What would Cass do??

        Reply
        1. Cass Gilbert Post author

          I’ve only ridden a part of the Colorado Trail, and that was on my ECR – which afforded the plush comfort of 29+ tyres. I’ve heard the route as a whole dishes out quite a beating. I think I’d go with a suspension fork – particularly if your buddy is riding on a full suss.

          Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks Ken. We ran things pretty light. I had my Black Diamond Megalite I shared with Zach, Jeremy had his Bear Paw Lair. Plus cooking gear: lots of food, as our original plans were to stay out three nights by looping into another valley.

      In any case, my camera far outweighed anything else I carried… Canon 5dMk2 with 17-40 f/4 and 70-200 f/4 (non IS).

      Reply
  1. Andi

    Stunning! No chance to get those shots with anything else than a DSLR .. been absolutely worth carrying it around. Nick told me, Colorado is one of his – if not the – most favorite place/s to ride .. now I absolutely see why.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks Andi. I hate to say one place is ‘better’ than another but really, the riding there is first class. It’s mindblowing how much great singletrack there is in Colorado, especially in the Durango (San Juans) area.

      Looks like the three of you had fun riding your local trails!

      Reply
      1. Andi

        Well, hasn’t been that local .. still a 4 hour ride by train to get there.
        I definitely had fun though, guess Lael and Nick did as well. ^^

        Reply
  2. Daniel

    headed to Denver in one month to ride the whole thing, your photos have just gotten me excited! Can’t wait, glad to see you guys had fun. I’ll be on a 29+ rig as well, should be a good test for it.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Thanks Mark. Loved every minute of it, what a great trail. And – as everyone constantly told me – so much more in the area.
      I’m really enjoying following your family travels!

      Reply
    1. Alex Bowling

      You said it Cass! Glad to see you’re doing well in Peru, despite the intestine soup! Will be arriving in Cusco Oct 23. Will you still be around Peru by then?
      Travel well man!

      Reply
          1. Cass Gilbert Post author

            I haven’t ridden around Cuzco, but the trails here in the Cordillera Blanca are pretty hard on tyres – steep and rocky. I’m running Smart Sam’s as they roll nicely on pavement too, but if I was just mountain biking, I’d probably have gone for something bigger and more aggressive.

        1. Alex Bowling

          …although, I’m a little concerned about serviceability of the Lefty down there should I have troubles and have been considering installing a traditional suspension fork. What are your thoughts on this?

          Thanks so much, be safe and happy.

          Alex

          Reply
          1. Cass Gilbert Post author

            I guess if your Lefty is in good shape when you leave, should be fine. What’s your timeline?

            Not sure what the deal is in Cuzco, though I expect given that it’s a tourist hub, there should be some good shops/mechanics around. For sure, parts are going to be really hard to come by – generally, they’re sent up from Lima by bus if needed. Might be worth checking to see if there’s a Cannondale dealer in Lima to put your mind at rest. Note that parts are really expensive here (much more so than Ecuador and Colombia, for instance).

          2. Alex Bowling

            Ya, I’ll be sure it’s in primo condition before heading down. I’ll be with two friends, flying in and out of Cusco Oct 23 – Dec 5th. While we do understand that Cusco is a bit of downhiller’s paradise, we’re there to bike-pack/travel.

            You posted about having forgotten a few items back home; if you’re still down there by the time we arrive, I’ll happily bring some supplies.

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  4. Todd

    Cass: Great photos of one of my favorite parts of the Rockies! Though my bicycling body is currently on the “disabled list,” those segments of the Colorado Trail in the San Juans have been a favorite destination for me for many years. I’ve experienced indescribable views of sky, clouds, natural light, and rusty-colored mountains on that trail which are permanently burnt into my retinas and visual cortex.

    Though I’ve not bee there, friends tell me that the scenery on segment 22 of the Colorado Trail near Lake City is even more amazing! Lots of rocky hike-a-bike, but worth it for the views.

    Reply

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