Fall/Autumn: Salida to Del Norte, CO

It’s that time of year, when vast brushstrokes of forest flare a brilliant burnt-orange, as trees turn in perfect, orchestrated unison: one last, startling swansong before winter takes hold.

Then, as the wind picks up, leaves begin to fall, collecting in great handfulls below pale, skeletal branches.

A contrary few always remain clad in colour, stubbornly resisting change until the very end, holding their breath as if maybe, just maybe, such behaviour might go unnoticed. But it’s a tenuous existence. One gentle shake from a passing giant and surely the last, lingering leaves would come fluttering down…

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A cottonwood turns on the outskirts of Salida.

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And a wrapped-up Nancy. To lighten her load, panniers have been shipped back to her hometown, Santa Fe. Her Surly Troll now sports a full Porcelain Rocket framebag setup. This, along with some new, burly 2.4in CST tyres (just $20 a pop) has transformed her bike into a petite, rock-munching rottweiller.

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And here I am, pleased to have reached the top of Marshall Pass. We camped just below the top, at almost 11,000 feet - the coldest night so far.

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It was a nose-running descent on the other side, through a ravaged, apocalyptic forest. Just a few splashes of colour remained.

Water, which had frozen overnight, remained in the form of sculpted, undrinkable chunks of ice until later in the day.

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Down in the valley, it felt deceptively warm and welcoming. At this time of year, it pays to scrutinise the weather, and plan strategic leap frogs to basecamps, sitting out potential storms.

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It's that ribbon of dirt again. More classic Coloradan riding.

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With some three or four days before the next resupply in Del Norte, we plundered the gas station in the blink-and-you-miss-it settlement of Sargents, cramming the trailer with supplies.

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Skirting round Upper Dome Reservoir, looking out towards the Continental Divide.

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We were in the backcountry once more - a long way for the postman to travel.

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Cycling in late October risks storms rolling in at any time. But the rewards are sweet - snow capped views like this.

Our view from the tent that evening.

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Rejoining the route after a peaceful night's camping on public land. Wild camping is wonderfully easy in the open spaces of the South West, making bike touring accessible and cheap.

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Cocheropa Pass, 10 032 feet, the Native American Ute word for 'pass of the buffalo'.

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It was a ten mile descent through rimrock. After a brief stint on pavement, we began the next climb, working our way up towards Carnero Pass.

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The sun was already low, backlighting the chimizo shrubs and lending them an ethereal glow.

Once it had dropped behind the mountains, temperatures quickly dipped too: all colour seemed to drain from the land.

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We found a small clearing to camp and cook up food to keep warm, amid bean-pole, bleached white beech trees... Looking up at them reminded us of bronchials in a lung. My own, incidentally, are doing far better these days, as several 10 000ft passes will attest.

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Unexpected patterns in nature.

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Over the pass, Fall was well underway and leaves were in fast retreat.

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In places, it looked as if the forest was literally ablaze.

It was an incredible descent, past weird rock formations of volcanic columns etched into the side of the valley.

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Heading down into Coolbroth Canyon.

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Life on the other side of the pass was a world apart: desert-like and barren. The Sangre de Christo - Blood of Christ - mountain range rose up dramatically behind us, the southern most subrange of the Rocky Mountains. It's so named for the red colour that bleeds across it at sunrise and sunset.

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It was hot and dry, our frozen-finger-tipped morning a distant memory. Like desert rats, we stopped to bask in the sun and feed, examining the map for clues of what lay ahead.

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In the space of a few miles, it was all change: mesas sprouted out of the land and baby cacti mined the trails.

Stunning desert doubletrack in these parts too.

Then, some tempting singletrack strayed us away from our route, depositing us on a local runway..

The gun slingin' settlement of Del Norte, in Rio Grande County.

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There, we were welcomed in by our wonderful, bicycle-enthusing hosts, Gary and Patti. Like a foster home for Great Divide riders, we were the last of some forty cyclists to pass by this year.

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Del Norte was the perfect opportunity to relax, ride singletrack and work on bikes amid the comforts of Gary's workshop. The photo above is from 1984, when he was riding unfeasibly steep terrain on a drop handle-barred mountain bike. No helmets in those days...

The Chain Tree - I duly found one of the few remaining branches over which to hang my well worn Sram 8 speed.

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We had a chance for a quick spin on this 29er tandem monster, beautifully built by local framebuilder, A M Peirce.

Another of his creations: a simple, elegant 29er singlespeed, complete with Black Cat swinging dropouts and swoopy titanium handlebars.

The man himself, Andy, beside an old frame jig bought from iconic US bike builders Ibis. The location? A converted old potato barn in rural Del Norte.

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I was hankering after those bars...

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Need a haircut?

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Not today...

Links:

In the market for a beautifully crafted custom frame? Check out AMPeirce. I know where I’ll be going if I’m ever after a 29er tandem…

15 thoughts on “Fall/Autumn: Salida to Del Norte, CO

  1. gyatsola

    Oh, now I’m regretting not getting further than Salida on the trail (Marshall Pass was under snow this time last year).

    Brilliant pics as always, I love those Peirce bikes.

    Reply
  2. Gary Blakley

    I really like the term “nose running decent”, never heard that one before. :-) How true though this time of year. I feel honored to have met you (twice!) and Nancy. Fabulous photos and narrative, as always. Stay in touch.

    Reply
  3. Ken Reiss

    Susie Moberly shared this with me; I am so excited for you and your journey! I currently live in Thailand, and have been biking for 20 years. I lived in Boulder for 3 years and know that part of the country. If you ever trek out here, please let me know as I would love to take a long ride one day with you guys…thanks for logging this; your photos and words are most excellent!
    Cheers,
    Ken Reiss

    Reply
  4. Ford Bailey

    I am enjoying your writing and pictures a great deal. I miss touring, but at least I have the vicarious pleasure of seeing yours.

    Thank you-

    Ford

    Reply
  5. drjon

    those bars: watson cycles parkarino’s? looks like it…i have some and love them….they are indeed awesome…
    just catching up on your blog… we just moved house… glad to see you back at it….if and when you get your cairngorm trip sorted give me a shout…you’d be very welcome here on the way by.

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      I don’t here, but I should be able send you one in a couple of weeks when I have access to my hard drive.

      Reply

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