Thursday, September 22, 2016

South Park Mountain Biking: Salt Creek-McQuaid, Gold Dust, and Sheep Creek

I always enjoy exploring new rides on my mountain bike.  While not every ride turns out great, you never know until you ride it.  Last year I read about some of the rides in the South Park area near Fairplay, CO.   Because of higher elevation in South Park, winter comes early and stays a long time.  Last year I waited too long and missed my window to ride the area.  Now as we roll into late summer and fall, I didn't want to miss out on checking out these rides.

There are three rides in the South Park area that I wanted to check out.  The ride that first caught my attention was the Sheep Creek Loop.  This is a 13 mile lollipop not too far south of Fairplay.  The second ride I had on my radar was the 18 mile Boreas Pass/Gold Dust Trail Loop.  This is by far the most popular of the three rides since its just south of Breckenridge.  The third ride I recently stumbled upon when looking up info on the first two rides.  The Salt Creek-McQuaid Loop is a barely ridden 13 mile loop along the eastern edge of the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness. 

Salt Creek-McQuaid Loop
August 30

I finally headed to the area August 30th.  My plan was to ride the Salt Creek-McQuaid Loop.  At 13 miles, the ride seemed a little short for my liking.  The 13 mile loop has you riding a few miles on Forest Service roads before joining the Salt Creek Trail for 4 or so miles, then a few more miles of dirt road before finishing up on singletrack on the McQuaid Trail.  My plan was to extend the ride.  The ride can be extended by riding further on the Salt Creek Trail and using different Forest Service roads to reach McQuaid.  I also considered continuing on dirt roads to combine the ride with the Sheep Creek Loop.

I began my ride about a 1/4 mile from the end of the McQuaid Trail on Salt Creek Road.  Because it was suggested in a trip report, I chose to ride this loop clockwise.  The ride followed Forest Service roads the first few miles until it reached the Salt Creek Trail.  The roads climbed steadily to the trail.  Initially the road traveled along meadows offering good views of East Buffalo Peak.  About half way up the road I startled a coyote that was traveling along the road.

East Buffalo peak and its lower sub peak
Closeup of East Buffalo Peak
I soon reached the Salt Creek Trail.  The Salt Creek Trail is a singletrack trail that travels along the eastern boundary of the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness.  Immediately it was clear that this trail doesn't see much traffic.  There was a trail tread, but vegetation grew into the trail making it quite narrow.  To make matters worse, it apparently rained quite a bit the night before.  As I traveled through the vegetation, it brushed against my lower half, soaking me.  My shoes and socks were drenched within a few minutes.

Despite modest elevation change, traveling along Salt Creek was slow.  The tread was a mix of pine needles and roots that didn't roll too fast.  Since everything was wet from the rain the night before, the roots were treacherous.  They were excessively slick, almost as if they were icy.  The rocky sections had the same slipperiness.  The trail rolled between 10-11,000' climbing and descending small drainages.

View across South Park with Antero Reservoir
and clouds below the distant Puma Hills
At one point in this section I heard a familiar noise.  I was hearing the irritated squawk of a goshawk.  Sure enough a goshawk took a couple fly bys to check me out.  A second goshawk emerged and scolded me from its perch high in a tree.  Goshawks have a tendency to be territorial if you get too close to their nests. 

Another look at the goshawk
Years ago I was backpacking on the Colorado Trail in the Lost Creek Wilderness.  I heard the same squawk.  Next thing I knew I was drilled in the top of my head.  A goshawk swooped down and attacked me, cutting open my head.  The same bird came back for a second attack.  That time I ducked and covered my head, holding my trekking poles.  The bird flew into my poles.  I left before it hit me again.

Goshawk deciding if it should attack me
during a fly by
Even though I wasn't making great time, I extended my ride along the Salt Creek Trail past the Buffalo Peaks trailhead.  After passing the trailhead the trail improved and I made better time.  The skies began to get fairly cloudy by this point.  Eventually the trail crossed Forest Service Road (FSR) 431.  From FSR 431 I connected with a couple more roads to reach the McQuaid Trail.  The riding on the dirt roads was actually enjoyable.  There was a fair amount of quick downhill sections that was a nice break from the slow, pedally Salt Creek Trail.  The roads traveled through open areas and had some nice scenery, including some good views of the 13,000 foot Buffalo Peaks.

A nicer stretch of the Salt Creek singletrack
Buffalo Peaks from the trail
Faint tread along the Salt Creek Trail
View from FSR 431
Cruising through meadows
Another look toward the Buffalo Peaks
The singletrack McQuaid Trail rode much better than Salt Creek.  Initially McQuaid travels through an open park with a barely visible tread.  Once the trail left the park it entered a mixed forest.  Majority of the McQuaid Trail travels gradually downhill and it has decent flow.  The trail runs only 3 miles though and the fun was over quickly.  I made it too the end of the McQuaid Trail having ridden about 18 miles.  Rather than wrap up my ride I rode a couple miles back up the dirt road that I began on to take another look at the view of East Buffalo Peak.  By the time I returned to my car, I had ridden 22 miles.

The McQuaid Trail was barely visible
as it traveled through the park
Cruising through sparse woods
Getting into the nicer singletrack
on the McQuaid Trail
Nice singletrack on McQuaid
The Salt Creek-McQuaid Loop isn't a ride I'm in a hurry to revisit.  It wasn't a bad ride, it was just okay and there are just other places I'd rather go.  If the Salt Creek Trail wasn't so wet, it may have been a better experience.  The wet roots made for tough traction and I didn't enjoy having soaked feet the entire ride, especially since it was only in the 40s at the start of the ride. I nearly lost control a couple times descending through sections of wet roots. The singletrack sections of the ride offer solitude with a wilderness feel and there was decent scenery on the ride. 

If you do decide to check out the area, I recommend visiting in the last half of September.  The trees in the area are predominantly aspen.  The area would be quite pretty during foliage season.  I also recommend traveling clockwise.  There are a couple hills that would be nearly impossible to climb traveling the other direction on the Salt Creek Trail.  Traveling clockwise, pretty much everything would be rideable if not for the wet roots. 

Boreas Pass-Gold Dust Trail Loop
September 8

I headed back up to South Park September 8th.  This time I had my eyes on two rides.  I was going to ride the Boreas Pass-Gold Dust Trail Loop, then when finished, head over to ride the Sheep Creek Loop.  I was looking at roughly 31 miles of riding, a longish day, but well within my ability.

The Boreas Pass-Gold Dust Trail ride begins in the town of Como.  Since I had two rides planned for the day, I was on my bike rolling at 730AM.  The first part of the ride leaves Como and travels along the dirt Boreas Pass Road.  The road was originally a railroad grade.  Despite climbing 1500 feet or so to the Continental Divide at nearly 11,550', it never gets too steep, and is graded so that any car can travel on it with ease.

Como sits at nearly 10,000' in elevation.  Because of this elevation, the mountains surrounding it are relatively high alpine peaks.  Even though the Boreas Pass Road is a 9-10 mile dirt road climb, the big views of the surrounding mountains make the miles go by quickly.  Because of the gentle grade, I was able to spin at a pretty good cadence most of the way up.  The higher you climb the better the views, until cresting right at treeline on the Continental Divide with continuous alpine views.

Immediate views on the Boreas Pass Road
Another shot lower on the Boreas Pass Road
Looking into South Park
Mt Silverheels
Getting closer to the pass
The views are nearly continuous
About half way up the road something caught my eye.  I saw movement ahead.  Looking into a section of aspens I saw a moose staring back at me.  Having lived in Maine for 8 years, I've seen probably close to 100 moose.  This was the first one I have see since living in Colorado, a state with far less moose.  The moose was a fairly small cow and she stayed somewhat hidden in the aspens.  Nonetheless, it was nice to see a moose for the first time in over two years.

The moose in the aspens
The Gold Dust Trail turns off the road about a 1/4 mile below the actual pass.  I decided to ride the last little bit to the pass.  At nearly 11,500', Boreas Pass stands right at treeline on the Continental Divide.  It was a clear day and I wanted to enjoy the scenery.  There are good views of 13,000 foot mountains on either side of the pass with 13,829' Mt. Silverheels being the highest in the immediate area.  To the north, the Ten Mile and Gore Ranges are visible and the vast expanse of South Park is to the south.

The high point of the ride
I believe this is Red Peak
The view north from the top of the pass into Summit County
In addition to the views, the top of the pass has historic buildings and interpretive signs.  There is also an old train car.  The route that I rode is an old rail grade from the mining boom days.  The buildings and signs detail this history and are worth checking out.

The Boreas Section House
Outbuildings on the pass 
Interpretive sign with some history
After looking at the building at the pass, I began my short descent back down to the Gold Dust Trail.  After nearly ten miles of climbing, the real fun was about to begin.  The Gold Dust Trail travels more than 8 miles while dropping nearly 1800 vertical feet.  I was ready for my downhill reward.

The start of the Gold Dust Trail
There are several distinct sections on the Gold Dust Trail.  The first section features the steepest part of the descent.  The trail follows a nice ribbon of singletrack and speed builds quickly.  Make sure you don't let your speed build too much.  There's just enough rocks on the narrow trail to keep it interesting.  It was only around 40F when I started my ride.  After my long climb, I worked up a pretty good sweat.  My rapid downhill cooled me down quickly.

Mt Silverheels from the top
of the Gold Dust Trail
Continuing down Gold Dust
Small bridge
After the steep stretch, the trail crosses a dirt road and enters the flume section.  The flume was even better than the steep downhill.  The flume is a stretch of relatively smooth singletrack with great flow that trends downhill.  Much of the flume is banked and bermed as well.  Through the flume it's easy to maintain good speed without braking using the banks and berms.  The flume section lasted about two miles and was a blast to ride.

Fun singletrack along the flume section
The lower part of the flume section
After the flume section the trail crosses the road and then Tarryall Creek, taking on a different character.  A short, punchy climb after the creek leads to more technical terrain with numerous small ups and downs.  The rockiness builds until reaching a small rock garden.  The rock garden is the most technical part of the ride.  The rockiest stretch is only a 1/4 mile or so long.  Most of the terrain is rideable but not necessarily in one clean run.  Having earned my mountain bike chops growing up on Pennsylvania's rock infested trails, I didn't find this section too bad apart from a couple spots I was worried about banging up my rear derailleur or big chain ring.

The view from Tarryall Creek
Getting into the rocky stretch
One of the rockiest sections
After the worst of the rocks, the trail gradually became less rocky and began to flow back downhill more consistently.  The trail traveled on sections of tread covered in pine needles at times where the trail was a little difficult to see.  Finally the trail made its final downhill push on some fast singletrack back toward Como.  The aspens dominated the last stretch of trail.

Slowly leaving the rocks
Awesome singletrack in the aspens
just before Como
Not long before reaching the road in Como, I stopped to take a photo.  When I started to pedal, I popped my chain and it was wrapped up pretty good.  I got my chain resituated and pedaled downhill. As I went to shift, my derailleur clicked, but nothing happen.  I took another look and realized my derailleur cable snapped.  Luckily I was only a half mile from mile car and it was basically a downhill coast.

At least the broken cable came at the end of the ride.  Unfortunately, it put an end to my plan to head over to the Sheep Creek Loop.  I attempted to get the cable replaced in Fairplay, but the multisport outdoor store in town didn't have a bike mechanic on duty.

I wrapped up my day covering over 18 miles.  There was a lot packed into that 18 miles however.  Great scenery, a long climb, a fantastic downhill, fun singletrack, just enough technical terrain to keep it interesting, and even a moose, this ride has a little bit of everything.  This is definitely a ride I would revisit.

I managed to hit this ride just a couple weeks before the leaves were at peak color.  There is no shortage of aspen trees on this loop and it would make an even more fantastic ride at peak fall color.  The leaves were just starting to change when I rode it with small flashes of color.

Sheep Creek Loop
Bonus: Weston Pass Hill Climb
September 20

After a couple weeks passed and I made my way to South Park yet again to tackle the Sheep Creek Loop.  As I made my way north I noticed vast swaths of yellow mixed in the forest.  I was hitting the area just in time for the local peak of fall foliage.

The Sheep Creek Loop is not too far south of Fairplay off of the Weston Pass Road.  Since the last 1/2 mile or so to the trailhead is on a rough road, I parked right at the forest service border, adding 1/2 mile on either end of the ride.

I learned about this ride last year.  It seemed to be a local secret until the past few years.  Several mountain bike websites now have info on this ride as well as a local riding guide.  All of information on the ride sounded good and I was eager to check it out.

The official ride begins on the Sheep Creek Trail.  I started with a fairly steep climb, a 1/2 mile lower, to avoid traveling the rough road in my car.  Before I reached the trail, I was already impressed. From the start, this ride was fantastic.  The forest was ablaze in yellow aspens.

The start of my ride
Views came quickly of the Buffalo Peaks
 along the road and lots of color
Looking into a sea of aspens
This is all in the first half mile
I would of been happy with the foliage just along the road
Soon I reached the actual trail and the great foliage continued.  The Sheep Creek Trail consists of beautiful singletrack lined with aspens.  The trail was more down than up to start with nice flow.  When not in the aspens, the trail passed through meadows that offered nice views of the Mosquito Range as well as distant color.
One of the first meadows along the Sheep Creek Trail
Crossing another meadow
Into the yellow aspen tunnel
Cave Creek
The vegetation is very autumn-like
I quickly reached Twelvemile Creek and the junction for the Twelvemile Trail.  The Twelvemile Trail had a more wild feel to it.  The trail crossed several creeks and featured more rocks.  Although never steep, the trail climbed a fair amount as well.  The travel was slower on the less defined tread.  The trail traversed several meadows with nice views of the surrounding Mosquito Range peaks.

Twelvemile Creek
The first meadow along Twelvemile Trail
Yet another meadow along the creek
A closeup of the leaves on the distant hillside
A rockier section on the Twelvemile Trail
A good view of the Mosquito Range
The Twelvemile Trail ends at Forest Service Road (FSR) 173.  Traveling quickly on FSR 173 for just over a mile brought me to FSR 175.  After a quick stint on FSR 175, I reached the northern end of the Sheep Creek Trail.  This is where the real fun begins.

The next three miles of the Sheep Creek Trail are the best part of this ride.  The trail initially starts following its namesake creek, traveling just a few few feet from the bank.  After crossing the creek, the trail continues through the aspen forest.  The trail leaves the forest for sage brush meadows.  I then returned a mixed aspen forest with mixed with sage brush.  The entire time the trail was generally downhill on awesome, flowy singletrack that you wish would never end.

Following Sheep Creek
Fun singletrack
Entering the sage meadow with the distant Buffalo Peaks
A sea of aspens below the trail
Transitioning from sage to aspens
An odd mix of sage brush and aspens
Unfortunately, the downhill ended back at the junction of the Twelvemile Trail.  The last few miles I retraced my route to my car.  Despite traveling the same trail, heading in the opposite direction was like a brand new ride.  Crossing the meadows in the opposite direction gave me great views into the 13,000' Mosquito Range Peaks that were at my back when I started.  Once I left the trail, the steep downhill to my car was a nice finish to an awesome little ride.  Most places list this ride as 13 miles.  My computer showed 12 miles and change. (I just put new batteries in it and it may not be calibrated correctly)

Looking toward the crest of the Mosquito Range
It's like a new ride on the way back
Descending toward Cave Creek in
a nice patchwork of colors
Back in the yellow tunnel
Transitioning from a meadow back into the aspens
My only complaint with this ride is that it was too short.  I wasn't quite ready to call it a day.  I did what any sane person would do.  I went down Weston Pass Road (FSR 22) a few miles and started climbing toward Weston Pass.  There isn't much glamour to hill climbing.  They are long, tiring uphill slogs, and this one is no exception.  I climbed nearly 2000' vertical feet over 5+ miles up the dirt Weston Pass Road.  The road is generally well graded but has few section that are washboarded and loose.

The climb is a grind, especially since I already had at least 12 miles and over 1600 vertical feet of climbing on my legs for the day.  Despite the slog, the scenery was good enough to keep my focused.  The road follows closely to the upper reaches of the South Platte River headwaters.  The river flows through an open meadow making way for good views to the higher alpine terrain.  Just above the pass is 13,572' Weston Peak.  Eventually the road broke out above treeline and I had continuous views of the alpine terrain around me.  Higher on the road are the remains of several old cabins.

High up on the Weston Pass Road
Old cabins
The climb took me about an hour and ten minutes to reach the top of the pass.  I felt fairly drained by the time I reached the pass.  It was also noticeably cooler and breezier at the higher elevation.  I worked up quite a sweat on the climb and it was a bit chilly.  I didn't linger very long and began my descent.  What took me about 70 minutes to climb, I descended in 17 minutes.  Even though it's a road, the steeper sections in the upper reaches were quite washboarded.  A few stretches would have been a little more forgiving on a full suspension bike.

Finally reached the pass
The view on the descent
While not a favorite of most people, there is something to be said for hill climbs.  In Colorado, a climb to the top of a pass, usually means a good view.  Despite the tough workout during the climb, you feel great once you reach the apex.  And of course, going back down is a great reward in itself.

Colorado has no shortage of great places to mountain bike.  The South Park area isn't exactly on the radar of most riders.  The Gold Dust Trail may see a fair share of riders with its proximity to the outdoor playground of Summit County.  From what I can tell Sheep Creek is just starting to see some growing interest.  There were some previous tracks when I rode it and several mountain bike riders listed in the trailhead register.  The Salt Creek-McQuaid area I'm guessing is rarely visited.  I recommend checking out these trails.  Gold Dust and Sheep Creek in particular are great rides.  I think Salt Creek would have been better had it not been so wet.  All three of these rides travel through forests that are heavy on aspen trees and would make great rides during the beginning of autumn as can be seen in the pictures above.  I rode all three of these rides during midweek and never saw another person on the sections of singletrack.  And for one more ride that overlooks South Park, check out the ride on the Colorado Trail from Kenosha Pass to Georgia Pass (Click Mountain Biking the Colorado Trail: Kenosha Pass to Georgia Pass)

A very fall-like view
Another shot through the yellow tunnel
Another shot above Cave Creek
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