Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wellsville Arch- A Quick Outing Close to Home

I don't always write about every outdoor outing that I do.  Sometimes I repeat trips that I already wrote about. Other trips are quick getaways without a lot of scenery to explore an area that doesn't turn out to be too exciting.  I enjoy spending time in nature and will find something close to home just to get a little fresh air or exercise and enjoy some time outside.

I recently took one of these quick trips about 15 minutes from my house.  I travel US 50 from my home in Howard, Colorado to Salida at least three times a week, usually more often.  The road in this area travels along the Arkansas River in Bighorn Sheep Canyon.  At places the canyon walls rise quite steeply above the river.  There is a tiny whistlestop type settlement called Wellsville between Howard and Salida.  If you look over the river to the top of the canyon as you pass through Wellsville, at the right angle, you can see an arch.  I have been looking at this arch for a while now and wanted to check it out.

I looked on several topo maps of the area and online and found no information on the arch.  The only thing I really saw in print of the arch was a homemade postcard sold for fundraising at a local diner with a photo of it with the caption "Wellsville Arch."  With no information to go by I decided to explore the area on my own.  I checked out the terrain as I drove by looking for my best option to the arch.  The river blocked direct access to the arch.  My best option appeared to be parking along the road in Wellsville by a bridge over the river, then follow a set of railroad tracks to a point below the arch.

With brutal wind and windchills in the higher mountains, I decided to finally check out the arch.  I started at the Wellsville Bridge and headed down the railroad tracks.  Much of this area is BLM land though I'm not entirely sure if I was on public land.  After a few minutes I spooked a bighorn sheep. I was in Bighorn Sheep Canyon after all.  The sheep immediately climbed the near vertical wall of the canyon to avoid me.  I have seen bighorns quite often now but this was the first time I have seen one on this terrain.  I had to cringe as I watched it navigate the vertical terrain where a fall would have been ugly but the sheep knew what she was doing.

Bighorn Sheep 
Bighorn sheep looking at me
The terrain where the sheep climbed
After only 10 minutes from my car I left the railroad tracks and headed uphill.  There was no trail to follow.  I just headed uphill in the general direction toward the arch.  The terrain was quite steep and full of excessively loose scree.  Occasionally there would be a short section of solid rock but scree was the norm.  About half way up the slope I finally caught a few glimpses of my target.  The scrambling was much more difficult than it looked from the road.  From what I could extrapolate from a map, I'm guessing I climbed 1200-1500 vertical feet from the river in probably less than a mile.  Since I had no information at all on the arch I just made my own path.  As I neared the arch I crossed a rough jeep/ATV path no more than a couple hundred vertical feet from the arch.

A look at the arch from below
Getting closer to the arch
Because the arch was at least 1000 feet above the river there were some good views from the top.  Looking up the river valley were good views of the upper reaches of the canyon and the southern Sawatch Range.  Across the canyon, the northern Sangre de Cristos stood tall.  On the backside of the ridge I could see the road that would have made my trip a lot easier.

The Sangres in the vicinity of Bushnell Peak, Twin Sisters, and Hunts Peak
Sangres close up
Looking up the Arkansas Valley
Close up toward Salida
Mt. Shavano
The arch itself was interesting, sort of a small scale arch that you would see in Moab.  From below the arch looked quite large as it stood on top of a 100 or so foot ledge. From behind the opening was not that large but became quite a bit bigger in the front as the front opened up to the 100 foot cliff.  Looking through the arch was a good framed view of the valley and canyon with the lower Sawatch Range, particularly 14er Mt. Shavano and its neighbors in the view.

Another look from below
Immediately below the arch
Looking at the arch from behind
View from above
Looking through the arch up the Arkansas Valley
Close up of southern Sawatch Range through the arch
One last look through the arch
I returned down the steep scree slope to the river.  The road would have been easier but quite a bit longer.  Keeping control on the loose slope was a little bit of a challenge.  From start to finish the entire hike took only an hour and twenty minutes.  Heading down the steep slope from the arch to my car only took 20 minutes.

Walking along the river at the end of the trip
Even though I don't normally write about such short trips, I thought this outing was interesting enough to share.  You never know what you'll find when you explore a new area and that's part of the fun.  Even though I know there is a road and easier approach to the arch, traveling the steep slope made the trip more interesting.  I got to enjoy some time in nature, saw some nice scenery, visited a new place, and enjoyed watching a sheep scramble up the cliff.  I'll call that a good outing.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rainbow Trail by Mountain Bike- Bear Creek to Kerr Gulch

As you can see reading this blog I enjoy the outdoors.  While I like to get outside to hike, bike, ski, or do anything in the mountains, not every trip is a winner.  Sometimes I encounter unexpected conditions and have to abandon a trip because of a thunderstorm or other reason.  I usually don't mind these trips too much because it comes with mountain travel.  Hiking I don't normally have too many trips that stand out as an unpleasant outing.  One that does stand out was a trip on Vermont's Long Trail a few years ago where it rained days on end on top of an already saturated trail and my feet were destroyed from the never ending moisture.  I ended calling it quits after 190 miles.

I am more likely to have a less than stellar trip it when mountain biking.  Most any trail can be hiked, but not so much mountain biking.  An excessively muddy or poorly riding rocky trail can really put a hamper on my fun.  My most recent ride was one of these rides that I didn't have a great time.  Part of the reason was the trail itself wasn't what I was expecting.  Another reason was this section of trail paled in comparison to the last 6 or so rides I have ridden.

The Rainbow Trail runs nearly 100 miles along the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Range.  The Rainbow Trail has been the closest riding to both of my houses that I have lived in since I moved to Colorado.  Before I moved here I heard about riding the Rainbow.  I find the riding on it hit or miss, mostly miss.  The northern most stretch of trail near Salida from the Bear Creek trailhead to the northern terminus features fun and flowy singletrack most of the way with just enough technical riding to keep it interesting. On the rides on the Rainbow south of here, I haven't had much luck finding a good ride.

I live just below the Rainbow Trail section that runs from Bear Creek to Kerr Gulch.  I never rode this stretch of trail but wanted to try riding it since the Kerr Gulch trailhead is only a few miles from my house.  The section north of Bear Creek sees a fair amount of traffic and for good reason.  It's a fun and fast stretch of singletrack.  I thought some of this fun trail would continue south of Bear Creek.  I was terribly wrong.

My ride started a couple miles below the Rainbow Trail on Fremont County 49.  For nearly the first 3 miles I followed this progressively rougher dirt road uphill to the Rainbow Trail.  While the road gets rougher, it never is too difficult.  The road ends at the Rainbow trail.  I took a left and headed south toward Kerr Gulch.  Almost immediately the rocks began.  Most of the rocks were at least baseball size or larger and very loose.  It was difficult to hold a line and get enough momentum to muscle through the rocks even though the trail wasn't too steep.  The trail climbed for the most part for at least 2 miles before topping out on a ridge.  This was nearly 5 miles of climbing from the start.  The climbing itself wasn't that severe despite a decent elevation gain by this point.  It was the rocks and ruts of the trail with absolutely no rhythm that made it difficult.

View of the Sangres near the trailhead
Start of the riding on the Rainbow Trail
Loose rock early on the trail.  This wasn't an uncommon sight on this ride
I was looking forward to the descent after the rough climbing.  The descent was much worse than the climb.  The descent was much steeper than any of the climb.  The trail was extremely washed out and rutted.  There were more rocks and much looser.  There was no line to follow.  Since the rocks were loose, they moved as you hit them causing me to bounce quite a bit and sending me on an even worse line.  One section was so rocky, steep, rutted, and washed out that I had to walk down it.  My hands cramped from riding the brakes downhill to maintain speed.  I have mountain biked for over 20 years now down some substantial descents but this was about as ugly as I have seen.

Top of the first ridge
First descent and best view of the ride.  The trail got nasty as it descended deep into the woods.
This was the norm for most of the ride.  Occasionally the trail would level out on a beautiful stretch of singletrack but it never lasted too long.  When the downhill ended I would reach a creek and climb up and over the next ridge to the next creek.  While most of the trail was rideable,  There was no flow at all to the trail.  It was long climbs with loose rock and ruts followed by bone jarring descents. Because the descents were so rough, I really didn't have much speed coming down them.  The trail was singletrack and there wasn't room for error with all the rocks and trees.  The trail often followed a steep side cut so a fall could have been disastrous, especially since this section of trail is remote and doesn't see much traffic.

One of several creek crossings
More rocky uphill
From the trailhead, the conditions mellowed some after 7 miles or so.  This is where I hit the occasional section of nice singletrack.  The total ride on the Rainbow Trail was a little more than 12 miles.  I don't think I had more than three miles of enjoyable riding and the little bit of nice riding wasn't worth the rest of the trip.  I was amazed at how different the trail conditions were on this side of Bear Creek.  The few flat sections of trail were surprisingly smooth.  I don't know how the climbs and descents had so many rocks.

One of the few fast flowy sections
Maybe 2-3  of 12 miles looked like this on the Rainbow Trail
Another brief nice stretch
Then back into the rocks for several miles
This section of trail wasn't rocky but I put my bike
in the shot to see how deeply the trail washed out.
The trough in the middle of the trail is nearly two feet deep.
Finally after 14 miles, I reached the Kerr Gulch Trail that descend away from the Rainbow Trail. Although less than a mile, this was just as bad as the Rainbow.  It dropped quite steeply and was extremely littered in loose rocks the size of baby heads.  The last 5 miles or so descended quite quickly down Kerr Gulch Road.  Kerr Gulch is fairly steep dirt road, dropping a couple thousand feet in 5 miles.  Because it gets quite windy and has some gravel on it, I had to keep my speed in check to maintain control.  I was cramping in my wrists and forearms from using my brakes so much especially since I am not riding discs.  With my hardtail, my upper body was somewhat stiff from absorbing the rocks on the 4700 feet of descent on this ride.  

I finally reached US 50 at the end of Kerr Gulch after riding 19 miles.  It took me over 3 hours. Before I got to the fast descent on Kerr Gulch Road, my average speed was less than 5 miles an hour. This ride climbs nearly 3500 feet but it doesn't seem like it because the 4700 feet of descent was so long, rough, and drawn out I forgot about the climbs.

With so many great rides close to Salida, I wouldn't recommend this ride.  Stay north of the Bear Creek on the Rainbow Trail and you will have a blast.  This was a rough ride and the rewards were not worth the unpleasantness.  There were some nice views of the Sangre de Cristos, but to be honest, you can get better views driving along US 50 through Howard than the short glimpses of the peaks that I got on this ride.  If you want solitude, you'll find it on this ride but I have found solitude on much more worthwhile rides around here.  If you want a relentless technical ride with no flow, by all means check out this trail section.  My local riding guide seemed to give this ride a little more hope but perhaps the trail has deteriorated since the books printing 6 years ago.

One of the views of the Sangre de Cristos along the trail
There wasn't enough scenery to make up for the lackluster trail
My other rides further south on the Rainbow Trail have been similar.  Riding the Rainbow feels like riding a dry riverbed with its rocks followed by rather short sections of decent riding and then more relentless rocks.  Much of the southern Rainbow is ridden by ATVs and the entire Rainbow is used by dirtbikes.  Some areas are quite heavy with their traffic.  I'm guessing  they add some to the trails deterioration.  As a mountain biker, I recommend leaving the southern sections to the ATVs and dirt bikes and enjoy the Rainbow's nice sections north of Bear Creek.

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.