Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mountain Biking Crested Butte for the First Time

Colorado has its fair share of great mountain bike destinations.  With a long history in the sport, one of the most iconic destinations in Colorado is Crested Butte.  I live about two hours away from Crested Butte and was ready to take a trip to check out some of the riding there.  The riding season is relatively short in Crested Butte so I wanted to go sooner than later.

The problem, if you want to call it a problem, with mountain biking in Crested Butte is that there are too many choices.  This was my first trip to Crested Butte and picking a ride is overwhelming with more than 500 miles of trails.  There are several iconic and renowned rides in the area.  I scoured over maps and guides to figure out where to ride but had a hard time dwindling down my choices.  My short list was still a handful of rides.

I wanted to get a lot of bang for my buck on my trip since I was only going to be there for the day.  I was looking for rides that were close together so that I could possibly combine routes.  I finally thought I'd go for an epic ride and combine two loops that were close enough to start at the same trailhead.

I found two rides to combine.  The first is a route called Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadman, named after the trails that make up the 20 mile loop.  The second ride is another 20 mile loop called Doctor Park.  The first ride is a fairly popular ride in the area with three distinct climbs and descents.  Doctor Park is known for its downhill singletrack and often listed as top ride in the Crested Butte by many.

I wasn't sure if I would be able to ride both loops in one ride.  The total distance would be over 40 miles.  But the real challenge is the elevation gain.  Both rides have around 3400 vertical feet of climbing.  The combination of mileage and intense climbing would make it a challenging ride.

On Tuesday, August 18th, I got an early start an headed to Crested Butte.  By 830AM I left the North Bank Campground trailhead and began my 8 mile grind up Spring Creek Road, FS 744.  The road climbs gradually the entire way but never gets too steep.  It's actually a nice warm up since it was only in the low 40s when I started.  The road follows a canyon cut by Spring Creek and is often surrounded by cliffs.  It's a fairly easy spin heading up the road apart from a few washboarded stretches.

Cliffs along Spring Creek Road
Although I was on the route for the Doctor Park ride, I turned onto FS 744.2c.   This would connect me to the Deadman Gulch Trail and the Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadman Loop.  FS 744.2c  is a rocky and rough affair that is the kind of technical that is more miserable than fun.  Luckily it is fairly short.  Before long I connected to the Deadman Gulch Trail.  The end of 744.2c and the beginning of Deadman were quite unpleasant riding in the morning.  Overnight thunderstorms left the trail a slimy mess.  There were endless puddles on this stretch.  Running through the puddles didn't just splash water  .It caked my tires in 2 inches of slimy mud that didn't come off.  There were numerous small water crossings in this area and the mud didn't come off in the water crossings.  Each additional puddle I passed through just added to the mud already on my tires.

FS 744,2c and its rough rocks
Deadman continued to climb and eventually got away from the water crossings.  The trail climbed gradually through a meadow much of the way.  There was still an occasional puddle but they were less frequent and somewhat avoidable.  Deadman gradually climbed to its high point at over 10,600 feet.  Other than a few short flat stretches, I had been climbing since the trailhead at an elevation of 8400'.  I finally got my first real downhill of the ride after the high point with a 1200 foot drop over about 1.25 miles.  The descent wasn't too technical but the trail has more than 30 switchbacks in this section.  Because dirtbikes are allowed on the trail, the switchbacks were fairly wide and fun to negotiate.

Riding up Deadman Gulch
The downhill ended much too quickly before the long climb up Reno Road.  From the end of Deadman, I had 5 miles and 1700 feet of climbing ahead of me.  The first 1.5 miles are up Cement Road which is a decent dirt road.  Reno Road is a jeep road and is moderately steep at times.  Although there are nice views from the road, the trudge up Reno Road is definitely not the highlight of the loop.  The top of Reno Road was the high point of my entire ride at over 11,100 feet.  I don't know how long it took me to get to the top, but it seemed to drag on.  By the top of Reno Road, I had already climbed more than 3800 feet.  There are descent views from the clearing near the top of the road looking to the north at the Elk Range just south of Aspen.

View from Reno Road
Looking north from the ride high point
at the top of Reno Road
From Reno Road, Flag Creek was my next trail.  Flag Creek drops more than 900 feet in about 3 miles and is basically all downhill on nice flowing singletrack.  It was a nice break from the climbing but over too soon.  Since the trail isn't technical, I could enjoy the views, and easily avoid the grazing cattle and their presents left on the trail.  The bulk of Flag Creek traveled through a grassy meadow and never got steep.

The beginning of the Flag Creek singletrack and downhill
Nice scenery as I dropped through a meadow
Road block
Mother and child feet from the trail
Near the end of Flag Creek
After Flag Creek, I hit Bear Creek.  All the elevation I lost on Flag Creek, I had to regain on the first 3 miles of Bear Creek.  Before the climbing began on Bear Creek, I sat down in a section of woods and took a quick lunch break consisting of three granola bars.  With a few calories and and a little bit of sugar in me, I began the gradual climb through the grassy meadow along Bear Creek.  Even though the climb was never steep, I was beginning to feel the effects of nearly 5000 feet of climbing.  Soon enough I made it to the high point of Bear Creek and the start of another 3 miles and 1200 foot descent.  The downhill started out gradually through a meadow.  Then the trail dropped into the woods with a few technical spots.  The technical spots never lasted too long before opening up into more fast, flowy sections.  The downhill on Bear Creek is surely a fun ride.

Near the beginning of Bear Creek
Much of Bear Creek rode through a meadow
More bovine friends grazing along Bear Creek
Near the beginning of the downhill I had my only incident of the day.  I was descending fairly quickly on a super smooth stretch of trail that wasn't steep.  I looked away just briefly to check out data on my bike computer on my handlebars.  My eyes were off the trail long enough.  The trail was a thin ribbon through the grass in this stretch.  My front tire went into the grass.  As I attempted to correct my trajectory, my rear wheel caught the lip of the trail.  The next thing I know I faceplanted into the grass.  Luckily the grass was soft and soil sandy, so it was painless.  If anyone saw where I went down, I would be embarrassed since it was such a nonthreatening section of trail.  I checked my bike to make sure there was no damage, made sure my helmet visor didn't snap since my helmet hit the ground, wiped off the dust, and continued.  If it was rougher trail, I wouldn't have been so nonchalant and the mishap would have never happened.

At the end of Bear Creek, I rejoined the Deadman Gulch again.  This was the end of the Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadman Loop. Unfortunately, I had to retrace my route through the muddy section with all the water crossings.  Luckily the dry mountain air and steady breeze dried most of the mud from earlier.  I still had a few puddles to contend with, which were still full of tacky mud, but not nearly as bad as earlier.  I also had to retrace my path through the rough, rocky section of FS 744.2c before I was back on FS 744.

Once I was back on FS 744, I had another climb to look forward to.  A short distance from the intersection of 744,2c and 744, I turned onto FS 554.  Before reaching FS 554, I had to cross Spring Creek.  The creek is wide enough that I didn't want to attempt riding it, not knowing how deep it was.  I took off my shoes and socks and forded the creek.  On the other side of the creek I began climbing gradually up the jeep road.  After a mile there is a junction and the road gets steeper and rougher at times.  I had nearly 1500 more feet of climbing to go from the creek.  Normally, I wouldn't have found this climb so bad but by this point I was really feeling the results of more than 30 miles of riding and well over a mile of climbing.  Although it was breezy most of the ride, this stretch was out of the wind and I was starting to feel the mid afternoon, high elevation sun hitting me during the climb.  The road traveled in the open and at least there were good views.

The beginning of the climb toward Doctor Park
Sections were rocky
Some views as I climbed higher on FS 554
After several miles of climbing, I finally hit the start of the Doctor Park Trail.  Doctor Park is one of the most regarded trails in the Crested Butte region.  It is often listed as a favorite ride in the area.  That is saying a lot for an area with as many miles of trails as Crested Butte.  What makes Doctor Park so well liked is its 2500 feet of descent over 5 miles on a mix of technical switchbacks and rocks combined with fast flow bombing through groves of aspens.  This was the part of the ride I was most looking forward to.

Back on the singletrack on Doctor Park
At the start of Doctor Park, the trail turned back to singletrack and traveled through woods.  Unfortunately it wasn't what I was looking for.  The trail was full of puddles and muddy.  The trail was flat and still uphill at places and didn't have great flow for at least a mile.  I wasn't seeing the hype over Doctor Park.

Messy on the first part of Doctor Park
The beginning of Doctor Park was also rooty and rocky
with no flow
Then the flow of the trail changed and I finally started going downhill.  Initially I descended gradually through a meadow before the trail reentered the woods and the fun began.  The trail descended fairly steeply in a technical section.  Roots, rocks, loose terrain, and switchbacks all tested my bike handling and line choosing abilities. The technical terrain and steepness let up and I entered a long stretch of beautifully flowing, narrow singletrack that traveled though the forest.  Finally the flow ended and I hit a short rolling section with a few final short climbs.  Then it was back into the tech and probably the most challenging riding of the day.  The last mile or so of trail gets steep.  Several switchbacks keep your speed in check.  To add to the challenge, several of the switchbacks feature some rocks to negotiate immediately after passing the switchback.  Despite hours on my bike, I forgot all about my previous six hours in the saddle and had an absolute blast on the Doctor Park descent.  By the time I finished Doctor Park, I understood the hype about this trail.  It was definitely one of the most fun downhill trails I have ridden.

Finally getting to the fun stuff on Doctor Park
Steeper than it looks, dropping fast over some
tech on Doctor Park
more tech
Dropping into the Aspens
Still some wildflowers lingering in the last half of August

Between the downhill and switchbacks lower on
Doctor Park
Much steeper than it looks,  Cement blocks used to control erosion
on the switchbacks of Doctor Park.
The trail ended at the North Bank Campground.  A short ride on the campground road dumped me out on the main road right where I parked.  By the time my ride was finished I covered 43 miles in 6:15 minutes of riding time.  While I have ridden longer road riding, this was the longest time-wise that I spent on a mountain bike.  My total ride climbed and descended somewhere in the realm of 6800' vertical feet when all was said and done, more than I had ever climbed in a single mountain bike ride.

Both Doctor Park and the Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadman Loop can be ridden individually and are both around 20 miles.  Doctor Park is a long road trudge followed by a killer downhill.  Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadman is more of a crosscountry ride with 3400 feet of up and down.  Having never ridden the Crested Butte area, I was like a kid in a candy shop and couldn't pick just one ride so I chose these two.  They are close enough to be ridden together and both are known as great rides in the area.  This late in the riding season, I'm in my peak riding condition so I figured I would get the most bang for my buck and cover two rides in one outing.

Despite the popularity of mountain biking in the area I saw very few people for the length of my ride.  On the road sections, I saw one group of ATVs and another of dirt bikes.  I saw two cyclists on the dirt roads as well.  On the singletrack I saw far more cows than people.  A group of dirt bikes that were parked along Bear Creek and a group of five mountain bikers near the end of Doctor Park were the only people I saw.  I did have the advantage of riding on a Tuesday though.  Now that I have experienced the riding in  Crested Butte, I'm sure I'll be back many more times.  I'm hoping to get in at least one more trip this season.  I have only ridden a small sampling of the riding there and can't wait to see more of the many marquee rides in the region.

The Elk Range from Reno Road
Sweet singltrack on Doctor Park

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Mountain Biking the Colorado Trail: Kenosha Pass to Georgia Pass

Most of the Colorado Trail is open to mountain bikes.  One of the more popular sections of for mountain bikers is Segment 6, which begins at the 10.000 foot summit of Kenosha Pass and continues to Breckenridge.  The first 12 miles of Segment 6 travels from Kenosha Pass to 11,585 foot Georgia Pass.

Asters along the Colorado Trail
This stretch of trail has a good reputation among mountain bikers and I wanted to ride the area to see if it lived up to its reputation.   Despite a better forecast on Sunday, I decided to take my chances and headed to Kenosha Pass early Monday morning, August 10th.  Since the area is rather popular and a fairly short jaunt from the metro Denver area, I figured it would be better to avoid the weekend.

On the drive up to Kenosha Pass, the weather wasn't looking ideal.  My entire drive travels along the mountains and most of the summits were socked in the clouds with only patches of sunshine.  The spot forecast had more than 50% chance of storms after noon.  I left home fairly early however and thought I had a good chance of finishing my ride before the weather moved in.

I left the Kenosha Pass trailhead around 830AM.  My route followed the Colorado Trail (CT) right from the trailhead.  Right out of the gate the riding runs on singletrack through an aspen forest.  The trail is generally rooty, but never too challenging.  The first 6 miles, the trail rolls with a mix of ups and downs. The scenery alternates between forest and meadow.  Most of the terrain is at least moderately technical with plenty of roots and a few rockier sections.  The sections through the meadows are fast and flowy.  The ride starts at 10,000' at the pass drops to its low point on the edge of South Park at 9854'.  The open areas through the meadows offer good scenery across South Park and ahead to the climbing toward the Continental Divide.  On a clearer day, I'm sure there are more mountains visible across South Park but on this day the visibility was somewhat obscured.

South Park below with clouds obscuring the mountains
Early on the Colorado Trail
"Self Portrait"
Trail dipping into upper reaches of South Park
Entering a meadow

Rock outcropping above the trail
After  6 miles the trail descends and crosses a bridge over Jefferson Creek.  This starts the next leg of the ride.  Shortly after crossing the creek, I passed the junction for the West Jefferson Trail, the trail that I would descend from Georgia Pass.  I passed by the West Jefferson Trail and continued on the Colorado Trail.  The CT turned and began its climb toward Georgia Pass.  The trail became more technical with more rocks and roots.  The climbing was never too steep, but the rocks and roots with the climbing make you give a solid effort.  After the steepest climbing, the trail leveled out and traversed along the side of the mountain with much more gradual climbing.  The trail was also less technical at this point.

Bridge over Jefferson Creek
Nice trail in the coniferous forest
Nearing treeline
A glimpse of Mt Guyot
The easier climbing continued all the way to treeline.  By this time the clouds lifted some from the summits and the visibility improved.  Mt Guyot is the dominant landmark above treeline, towering to the west just above Georgia Pass with Glacier Peak on the other side of the pass.  The line of summits that make up the Continental Divide stretch out on either side of Georgia Pass.  Shortly after riding above treeline, I passed the another trail junction which marks the upper end of the West Jefferson Trail, my descent.  Rather than descending though, I continued the short distance to the Continental Divide and the crest of Georgia Pass right around 11,600'.  The last bit of riding to the pass is gradual through the grassy tundra.

Riding a ribbon through the tundra
Peaks of the Continental Divide
Mt Guyot looming ahead
The skies were cloudy and somewhat hazy so I didn't have far reaching views from the pass.  The views were still fairly good, especially of the peaks in the immediate area.  From the top of the pass, the trail CT continues another 21 miles passing the back of Keystone Resort before reaching the Breckenridge area.

View from the pass with ominous clouds
Mt Guyot
The Colorado Trail continuing toward Breckenridge
Guyot and its neighbor
Looking across the tundra from the pass
After enjoying the views for a few minutes and sharing my map with some hikers, I headed back downhill toward the West Jefferson Trail.  The West Jefferson Trail descends back toward Jefferson Creek and is an alternative to returning on the Colorado Trail.  The West Jefferson Trail is less traveled than the CT and allows riders to avoid uphill traffic on the CT.

Leaving the pass
Lots of tundra above treeline
The West Jefferson Trail descends from the CT through a meadow on a tiny sliver of singletrack.  It was clear that this trail is less traveled.  On the upper reaches of the trail, it passed just below some lingering patches of snow.  Traveling downhill, it didn't take too long to drop back below treeline.  Once below treeline the trail descended quickly through a section of a half a dozen or so sharp switchbacks.  Below the switchbacks, the trail had better flow before a series of creek crossings.  After the final crossing of Jefferson Creek, the trail widened to doubletrack and was quite rocky in spots before reaching  Jefferson Creek Campground.  The trail passes briefly through the campground before rejoining the Colorado Trail a short distance later near the bridge over Jefferson Creek.

Start of the West Jefferson Trail
The view from the top of the trail
Small pond just below the trail
A look back toward the beginning
of the West Jefferson Trail
The last bit of riding above treeline
Log bridge over a water crossing
Nice cruising on the
West Jefferson Trail
Riding just a few feet from the creek
Rough stretch near the end of
the West Jefferson Trail
From the bridge, I retraced the CT for the last 6 miles to the trailhead.  Just after passing the bridge it started to thunder.  I was a little concerned since I had about an hour of riding remaining.  Fortunately it thundered only a few times before the storm moved on.

After the bridge, the trail climbed a fair amount.  The climbing isn't terribly steep, but the trail was rooty and rocky at this point.  After 20 or so miles, I was beginning to feel it, especially since I tried to pick up my pace with the recent thunder.  The final stretch of climbing from the rides low point passed through a meadow and was less technical but seemed to go on for several miles before finally ending.  I often find the long, gradual climbs wear me down more than the steep, short grunts.

The trail climbs and follows the grassy ride in the distance
Once the climbing ended I had a fairly easy ride that was mostly downhill to Kenosha Pass.  During the last mile and a half, there was quite a bit of thunder.  I wasn't too worried though since I was making quick time heading generally downhill and the thunder seemed to be coming from the other side of Kenosha Pass and moving away from me.  I made it back to Kenosha Pass after riding 3.5 hours and covering 24 miles.  The ride was a good workout gaining and descending close to 3500' of elevation.

A final look back at the mountains
This was a fun ride with nice scenery.  Although there are some technical spots, the obstacles are never overwhelming.  Considering the fair amount of elevation gain, the climbing to the Continental Divide is never too difficult.  Using the West Jefferson Trail to descend allows for a nice loop and offers a little solitude.  Although this ride gets a fair amount of traffic from both bikers and hikers, it's worth checking out for riders from the Front Range and the mountains.  If possible, I recommend riding during the week to avoid the busy weekends.