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

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