Friday, October 24, 2014

Oil Well Flats: Fun Desert Singletrack

A cold sidelined me from any outdoor activities the past couple weeks but I finally felt good enough for some outdoor fun this weekend.  With warm weather, a mountain bike ride seemed like my most appealing option.  A lot of the higher elevation trails are still snowy and muddy so my sights were set on a lower ride.

Originally I planned on a ride near Salida.  I had an errand to run Canon City however .  A fairly new trail system called Oil Well Flats just outside of Canon City seemed to have potential.  Most trail reports of the area had good things to say about the riding.  I decided to combine my errand with a mountain bike ride.

The drive from my home in Howard to Canon City travels along the Arkansas River through Big Horn Sheep Canyon.  Like the name implies, there is a sizable population of the sheep in the canyon.  I have seen sheep several times driving through the canyon in the past.  On my trip Sunday morning, I saw three separate herds with a handful to a dozen sheep in each herd.  I always enjoy seeing the sheep but this time the sheep were lingering in or very close to the road.  The first herd was off the road a safe distance.  I came close to hitting sheep that were in the road or right along the shoulder in the second and third herds I passed.  Because of the windy nature of US 50 through the canyon, wildlife isn't always visible until the last minute.  Unfortunately I wasn't able to get any pictures since I nearly hit the sheep and they ran away.

After my sheep safari, I arrived at the first trailhead at Oil Well Flats, just a few miles north of Canon City.  Canon City sits lower in elevation and is in a warm area.  It is often as much as 20 degrees warmer than where I live in Howard.  The area is also very dry and is basically a high desert.  This makes the area a good choice for riding in the fall or spring and is often free of snow most of the winter.  

My ride followed a suggested route from the Lower Arkansas Mountain Bike Association, the group that builds and maintains the trails at Oil Well Flats.  From the trailhead, at just under 6000 feet in elevation, my ride  followed singletrack trail.  The trail winded and twisted for nearly two miles while gradually climbing on a trail called Tectonic Shift.  The singletrack had nice flow to it with a few sections of rock to keep it interesting.  Cacti was common right along the trail and I had to be careful not veer the trail so I didn't ride through any cacti.  At one point I got a couple of cactus needles in my foot through my shoe from a plant on the edge of the trail.  Another rider at the trailhead managed to crash onto a cactus and was full of needles and not too happy.  After two miles I reached a section of doubletrack that I followed briefly before hitting the next section of singletrack.

Blooming cactus
Another blooming cactus
One of the short sections of doubletrack
I traveled a short distance on a trail called Anticline before reaching Unconformity.  Unconformity had about 3 miles of singletrack that continued to wind through the desert landscape.  Unconformity was more technical than Tectonic Shift and climbed gradually the entire time.  Plenty of pokey desert vegetation lined the trail.  There were more rock features to navigate as I climbed Unconformity.  The trail traveled through scrubby pinon forest part of the time while traveling through an old burn area the rest of the way.  In the open burn area, the views opened up taking in the arid landscape around Canon City and reached as far as the snowy Sangre de Cristo Range.  I passed by interesting rock formations on Unconformity and some of the rocks were incorporated into the trail. I rode toward, then around, sections of cliff rising more than 200 feet.

Scrubby landscape
Riding toward cliffs
Climbing on Unconformity
Singletrack passing rock
Cactus on edge of trail
Another look at the cliffs
The trail meandered through rock formations
Unconformity with dead trees in an old burn area
More scrubby vegetation in the old burn
A short jaunt on another section of doubletrack after Uncormity brought me to a trail called Island in the Sky.  Island in the Sky was the most diverse and scenic section of trail.  The trail was about three miles long and entirely singletrack.  It started winding through forest,  then trail broke out of the forest and began climbing a ridge.  Although it was the steepest climb of the ride, the excellent trail made the climbing fairly easy.  The trail reached the top of the ridge with far flung views in all directions with the Sangre de Cristos in the distance making an impressive backdrop.

Near the start of Island in the Sky
Climbing along Island in the Sky
Nearing the top of the ridge
Top of the ridge
Looking back along the ridge
The Sangre de Cristos in the distance
From the top of the ridge, the most technical riding of the trip began.  The trail immediately became more rocky as I descended.  The slope was in the open and offered nice views of the valley below where my ride began.  As the rocks became more common, I popped out onto the top of the 200 foot cliff I saw earlier on the ride.  The trail followed the top of the cliff no more than 10 feet from the drop at times.  The trail at this point was entirely rock and at times a little tricky to follow with no real tread.  After a short distance the trail turned away from the cliff top and was more trail like but quite technical.  The steepest part of the ride followed and I descended quite quickly over a mix of fast singletrack and technical sections.

Starting to descend
The trail follows the top of the cliff with 200 foot drop
Looking back across cliff
Another look back at cliff and rocky stretch of trail
View toward Canon City
The trail is still rocky but more mellow as it leaves
the cliffs on Island in the Sky

I had my only incident on this section of the ride.  I cut a turn tightly and brushed against a harmless looking bushy tree.  The bush however wasn't very forgiving.  A stick from the bush wedged between my frame and chain and stopped me dead in my tracks with the stick jammed in there pretty good.  It took some work to get it loose.  In the process, my lower leg got pretty scratched up and bled a bit.  It was nothing serious.  It looked worse than it was until I had a chance to clean up the scratches and blood.

At the end of Island in the Sky I followed the Fire Canyon Trail shortly back to the start of Island in the Sky.  From there I retraced my route to the trailhead following Unconformity, Anticline, and Tectonic Shift.  In reverse the ride was almost entirely downhill and a blast to ride.  The ride was about 14.4 miles and I think all but a half mile or so was singletrack.  I don't have the exact elevation gain but I'm guessing it was more than 1500 feet of total climbing.  The total ride took me just under 2 hours.

Even though it was a relatively short distance, this was an awesome ride.  The trails were nicely laid out and a ton of fun to ride.  The Lower Arkansas Mountain Bike Association (Lamba) has done a great job building these trails and continues to expand the system.  In general I would consider it intermediate riding but there are definitely a few sections that I would consider advanced, particularly the descent on Island in the Sky. Canon City tends to be quite hot in summer so I wouldn't recommend this in the summer.  This trail system probably has the one of the longer riding seasons in the Front Range and I highly recommend riding it.  On a nice, sunny Sunday with temperatures in the mid 70s I saw only a handful of other riders on the trails.

The Sangre de Cristos can be seen from many sections on the ride
There is a kiosk at the trailhead with a map and all the trails and roads are signed.  I highly recommend getting a new map if you do ride here.  The map I have on the link below is current.  Nearly every website with Oil Well Flats trail descriptions uses the old trail names.  Even the kiosk had the old trail names.  Most maps I have found online list Tectonic Shift as Pebbles and Bam Bam.  Unconformity was called Ms Spike and Island in the Sky was called Cat's Pajamas.  I didn't have trouble route finding with the old map.  I just want to throw this out there as a heads up to anyone that might ride Oil Well Flats.

Click the link below for the map of my ride.  My route followed the black arrows on the map.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Mountain Biking Lookout Loop and the Crater

Puma had to go to work for a few hours while I had the day off on Tuesday.  I was looking for some outdoor fun close to Salida while she was working.  There are numerous mountain bike options accessible from town in Salida that I could ride.  Recent snow fell on the higher summits so I wanted a ride with views of the higher peaks.

From my local cycling guide, a couple of trip options came to mind.  The first is a ride into the Arkansas Hills east of town called the Lookout Loop, which as its name indicates looks out over the Arkansas Valley.  Another trip of interest is a ride to the Crater.  The Crater, while not actually a crater, is an interesting geographic feature that I wanted to see.  From downtown Salida the Crater is visible as a section of white rock in an otherwise reddish background.  The ride to the Crater starts along the Lookout Loop trip so I decided to combine the two rides.

I dropped Puma off at her work in Salida and started my ride from there.  I had a couple miles of easy riding through town to reach the start of the Lookout Loop.  The loop starts on Country Road 175 and follows it for about 6.5 miles.  The first two miles are paved before turning to dirt.  The dirt road is well maintained and quite windy as it climbs more than 1500 feet before reaching County Road 181.

CR 181 marks the beginning of the ride to the Crater.  Upon reaching CR 181 the route becomes slightly rougher.  Just over a mile on CR 181 you pass CR 173 and split from the Lookout Loop route and continue toward the Crater.  By now the route reaches 9000+ feet, 2000 feet higher than the start of the ride, and the views begin.  While the first 7 miles were all uphill, the ride features a lot more up and down riding on the ride to the Crater.  About 2 miles from the 175/181 junction the route turns on to CR 181A.  CR 181A is even rougher than the previous roads and feature sections of loose climbing.  The views are far reaching along most of the road ranging from the Sangre de Cristos to the south to the peaks of the Sawatch Range outside of Buena Vista.
Views along CR 181
(Clicking on photos will enlarge them and make them easier to see)

The vegetation is scrubby in the Arkansas Hills
Big view of the northern Sangre de Cristos
wearing a new coating of snow
After riding almost 4.5 miles from the 175/181 split, The summit of the Crater is reached.  Without a trail guide or someone familiar with the area, the route to the Crater can be tricky to follow.  From CR 181A, there are a couple more turns and the junctions aren't marked.  Without a cyclometer to measure mileage and the guidebook, I'm not sure I would have found the Crater because not all of the roads were on my map.  I actually took a wrong turn that ended at gated private property and added nearly 2 miles to my trip and a couple hundred more feet of elevation gain.  The last road became quite rocky and the final ascent up the Crater is quite steep and eroded and mostly unrideable.  Even if you can climb it, I recommend walking it to eliminate further erosion to the loose trail.

The backside of the Crater doesn't look like much
The final pitch up the Crater is steep and nasty
The Crater is an interesting place.  It isn't really a crater from a volcano or meteor.  It is more of a bowl that is open on one end.  Three sides are surrounded by steep terrain, while the side facing the valley is open.  Most of the area is red soil but the rocks that make up the back of the Crater's bowl are white, which makes the area stand out from the valley.

Looking over Salida from the Crater
Another view near Salida from the Crater.
Salida airport is visible in the bottom right corner.
From the Crater, at 9200 feet, the views are quite impressive.  The entire sweep of the upper Arkansas Valley from the northern Sangre de Cristos to Sawatch Range above Buena Vista is visible.  The city of Salida sits some 2000 feet below.  Some of the higher summits just barely touched the clouds, while some were obscured.  All of the higher mountains wore a fresh dusting of snow from the day before.  It was quite windy as I stood at the Crater.  The thermometer on my cyclometer read 50F, but with the wind it felt much cooler.  I enjoyed the view while eating a snack before heading back toward CR 173.

View across the Crater with some of the white rock in the foreground.
From town, the white rock around the Crater is visible some 2000 feet below.
Another look across the Crater with the
Sawatch Range in the background barely in the clouds.
A close up of the Sangre de Cristos from the Crater
The ride back retraces the same route.  The elevation profile for the Crater ride resembles an EKG chart.  The entire out and back is less than 9 miles and gains more than 1000 feet in elevation in a series of continuous ups and downs.  Even though it travels dirt roads, the ride fairly technical at places with sections of rock, loose trail, and washouts.  Most of the time however there are views looking at the 14ers of the Sawatch Range.

Looking into the scrubby Arkansas Hills
from the backside of the Crater
The Sawatch Range on the return from the Crater
Close up of Sawatch Range toward Shavano and Antero
Instead of returning to CR 175, I turned down CR 173, which continues the Lookout Loop.  CR 173 starts as a somewhat rough dirt road.  While it mostly descended, there are some sections of climbing.  The further I traveled on CR 173, the rougher it became.  It eventually changed from a dirt road to rough double track trail.  It descended steeply in places and became quite rocky.  It descends between Dead Horse and Cottonwood Gulches, crossing numerous washes along the way.  As the trail got lower in elevation and closer to Salida, it became quite gnarly and technical in places.  A beginner mountain biker might be intimidated by some of the rough rocky stretches on the lower reaches of CR 173.  Eventually the backside of Salida's S Mountain comes into view.  CR 173 eventually skirts the north side of S Mountain before reaching CR 176 and finally CR 175 to close the loop after 8+ miles.

Another nice look at the Sangres from the top of CR 173
CR 173 often rides along the rim of the gulches
View over the valley toward Sawatch Range
(This one looks better if you click to enlarge)
Close up of  the Sawatch Range toward Shavano and Antero
CR 173 gets quite rough and rocky as it gets lower
Solid layer of exposed rock on CR 173
CR 173 is a fun downhill.  The only thing it is missing is sections of singletrack.  At the lower reaches of CR 173, I could have accessed the Salida Mountain Trails system and had my singletrack fix but I was running short on time so I stuck to the main route  There are great views of the Arkansas Valley and the mountains surrounding the valley at many points along the ride.  The views into the gulches surrounding the route are quite interesting as well.

View over Salida from the lower part of CR 173
The back of Tenderfoot "S" Mountain and Salida
(much clearer if you click to enlarge)
By the time I got back to my car, I rode more than 28 miles and was on my bike nearly 3.5 hours.  I could have shaved off several miles if I parked downtown and didn't take the wrong turn.  Despite following dirt roads most of the time, this ride was more challenging than I expected.  The total climbing on the ride was substantial between 3500 and 4000 vertical feet.  The lower reaches of CR 173 are quite technical at times. Nonetheless it was a fun ride with plenty of nice scenery.  I plan on riding parts of Lookout Loop again soon.  There are sections of singletrack trail through Cottonwood Gulch as well as the Salida Mountain Trail System around S Mountain that I will explore in the future.  

The Lookout Loop and the Crater ride don't have to be ridden together.  I would probably classify both as intermediate rides.  Riding them together I would consider it an advanced ride with the distance and elevation gain involved combined with sections of technical riding.  I wouldn't recommend CR 173 to anyone uncomfortable with technical riding however.  By itself, the Lookout Loop trip is about 18 miles and the Crater ride is just under 9 miles. Lookout Loop however climbs more than 2500 feet compared to 1300 on the Crater ride.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mountain Goats on Mt. Antero

When I first looked into climbing Mt. Antero, it didn't sound like an impressive hike.  The standard route to the summit involves a 16 mile round trip from the two wheel drive trailhead with majority of the route hiking on jeep roads.  The area is popular with four wheel drives and experienced Jeepers can drive within a half mile and only 400 vertical feet of the summit.

After looking over a map, I discovered a couple of possible alternative routes.  A little research confirmed an alternative route from the east that avoided majority of the jeep trails.  The route I chose started from the Browns Creek trailhead between Salida and Buena Vista. I arrived at the trailhead in the dark.  After eating a quick breakfast, I began my hike about 625AM.  There was just enough light that I didn't need my headlamp.

From the trailhead, I started at an elevation around 8900 feet.  Almost immediately there were views of alpine summits.  After a little more than a mile I reached the Colorado Trail.  I followed the Colorado Trail  for only a 1/4 mile before turning onto the Little Browns Creek Trail.

The views start early 

Start of the Little Browns Creek Trail

The Little Browns Creek Trail makes for a pleasant hike.  The trail stays close to Little Browns Creek most of the way, often within sight of the water.   The trail climbs gradually and is never steep.  Although sections of the trail get rocky, most of the time the path is fairly smooth.  I had to pay close attention a few places where the forest blended into the trail and it was a little harder to follow.  Just before the trail left the forest for good, there was a stretch with several blowdowns.  Most of the blowdowns were easily bypassed however.

Another early view along the lower reaches of the trail

Easy hiking in the forest

A short rocky stretch of trail

Interesting rock along the trail

Small waterfall on Little Browns Creek

After leaving the trees the trail broke out into a nice alpine meadow.   13er Mt. White dominated the view along the meadow.  After several days of rain earlier in the week, Little Browns Creek flowed strongly  through the meadow for late Septmember.  Part of the way through the meadow the trail eventually crossed the creek.

Rocky lower slopes of Mt. White

Emerging from the trees

Little Browns Creek tumbling through the alpine meadow

Looking up the alpine meadow

After crossing the creek, there are a couple of route options.  The main trail continues after crossing the creek until it meets a jeep trail.  A right turn on the jeep trail ultimately leads to the summit ridge of Antero.  There is an alternative and somewhat shorter route to the summit ridge.  I traveled a short distance after crossing the creek when another trail came into view on the opposite side of the creek.  This trail followed the creek a short distance before climbing  toward Antero.  I followed this trail that gained elevation fairly steeply.  This trail reached the Antero jeep trail as well but at a higher elevation.  For a short distance I followed this jeep trail that ended at the start of Antero's summit ridge.

Looking toward Tabeguache

View over the alpine meadow

The short stretch of jeep road

The last half mile of climbing follows the summit ridge.  The ridge is fairly rugged and the most technical part of the hike although it is no more than class 2 difficulty.  There is a trail to follow most of the way.  The narrowest part of the ridge ended before climbing more steeply.  As the climb became steeper the trail became less distinct.  There were several faint paths along the last stretch to the summit.  Generally, if you just follow the path of least resistance going up, you'll reach the summit.  About 10AM ,after hiking 7 or so miles, I reached the summit of Mt Antero at 14269 feet.  I had the summit to myself.

Summit ridge

Fall color from the summit ridge

Like any summit above treeline, Antero's peak had fine views in all directions.  Mt. White dominates the view to the south with the 14er pair of Shavano and Tabeguache standing beyond White.  The length of the Sangre de Cristo Range to the southeast.  The Arkansas Valley is to the east with the Arkansas Hills in the background and Pikes Peak visible in the distance.  South Park is visible beyond Buena Vista.  The views of Mt. Princeton and Chalk Cliffs are quite a sight with the endless line of Sawatch Range peaks heading north with its numerous 14ers.  The Continental Divide lies to the west with Centenial 13er Cronin Peak dominating the view.  After a quick lunch, I headed back down the mountain.

Mt. Princeton

Chalk Cliffs

Looking down Antero's north ridge
Cronin Peak

Tabeguache and Shavano

Looking over Mt. White

Sangre de Cristo Range

East ridge of Antero

Even though the summit of Antero is the highest elevation of this hike, it was not the high point of my trip.  As I neared the end of the summit ridge on my descent, my attention was focused on the terrain as I traversed over the rocky terrain.  So when I heard movement ahead, I was somewhat startled.  I looked toward the noise and saw a handful of mountain goats climbing up the side of the mountain.  When the goats first saw me, most of them retreated down the mountain a short distance while a couple climbed higher away from me.  I stopped and watched them for several minutes and took pictures.  I wasn't moving much and the goats seemed to lose their fear.  They began walking towards me.  As I sat, many more goats continued to come into sight.  The goats continued toward me, walking on either side as if I was in their way.  Eventually they surrounded me as they passed by me.  Some of the goats were no more than 15 feet away from me as they walked by.  By the time the all the goats came into sight, I counted 21 in the herd.  Among the herd, I saw numerous kids born this year and at least one large buck.  After taking numerous photos and observing the herd for a fairly long time, a couple people that rode up the jeep trail came close and the herd started to wander away.  A few from the herd, higher on the slope, lingered a little longer.

First sighting of goats

Goats running away

Buck and doe

Buck deciding if I'm a threat

Goats hanging out while I watch them

Goats coming toward me

Goat carefully walking toward me

A pair of kids

I have seen a lot of wildlife over the years on hikes and bike rides.  I had never seen a mountain goat before this however.  Mountain goats were high on my wishlist of wildlife sightings.  I couldn't have asked for a better sighting of mountain goats.  Not only did I see one, I saw 21, and at close range.  They all had their full winter coats and looked impressive.  Those that know me personally, know I raise goats, and seeing wild goats in their natural environment was quite a treat for me.

More goats climbing toward me

Another pair of goats

The main herd passing by me

More goats passing by me

Goats heading to more rugged terrain

The rest of the hike went quickly.  After leaving the jeep trail, the route is never steep and the trail is mellow most of the way back down the Little Browns Creek Trail. The trail seemed a little trickier to follow on the way down more so than it did on the hike up.  I never lost the trail but I had to pay close attention a few spots, especially when the trail turned.  The sun was higher in the sky and the yellow aspen leaves really popped against the bright blue sky.  I reached the trailhead just after 1 PM.  Despite hiking 14 miles and gaining 5350 vertical feet, the trip took just over 6.5 hours.  Occasionally I will jog some of the easier sections of hikes, but I did not on this trip and still made quick time.  I was surprised at how quickly I finished this trip, especially with my time watching the goats.

The view heading back down the meadow

Fall color along the trail

The mountain goats made this a particularly nice hike.  Even without the goats the trip was still pleasant.  I highly recommend using the Little Browns Creek approach for climbing Antero.  I never hiked the standard route following the jeep trails but I don't find road hikes that impressive.  The Little Browns Creek route is a nice trail through the forest.  The hike through the alpine meadow was particularly nice as it followed the creek.  Only a short stretch of the jeep trail needs to be followed on this route.  My only regret on this trip is forgetting sunscreen.  I forgot it in my dark car in the morning.  With bluebird skies at 14000+ feet, I got a pretty good sunburn on my neck and face.  Hiking during the week allowed me to have the trails nearly to myself.  I passed a group of backpackers near the trailhead early on the hike and saw a few people on ATVs and Jeeps on the jeep road. I enjoyed having the rest of the day to myself.

Mountain goat buck

Tabeguache and Shavano from summit ridge 

Looking up the meadow over Little Browns Creek

It has been a while since I took a self portrait.  
Tomcat on Antero with Mt. Princeton in background