Sawatch Colorado Trail Biking

Last weekend I took three days and did a tour along part of the Colorado Trail, around the Sawatch Range in central Colorado. The Colorado Trail is the premier long distance trail in the state, nearly 500 miles winding through the Rockies from Denver to Durango. Usually people backpack it, but it can also be biked, except for several places where it passes through wilderness areas (where you can’t even possess any mechanized equipment, whether a bike, ATV or wheelbarrow). The wilderness areas can be detoured around though, and within the next couple years I want to bike this extended route, which would take about two weeks.

This trip was in effect a shortened version of that longer trip, to experiment with mountain bike touring and see what things could be drawn from my experience with road bike touring and backpacking (which MTB touring seems to really be a fusion of). Before coming to Colorado, I’d only done a single overnight by mountain bike, in central Nevada back in February. That was a nice trip but had too much gear, bad weight distribution, and the biking wasn’t very fast or comfortable. For this trip I cut a fair bit of gear, mainly removing cooking stuff and just eating cold food, and moved a lot of weight from my back to the bike itself. This helped a lot and I was comfortable pulling very long days; will be using this setup on future mountain bike tours.

The route I took started near Buena Vista, at the campground I’m staying at this summer, joined the Colorado trail west of town, then followed it for 96 miles to the Cochetopa Hills before turning north to Gunnison and a bus back to Buena Vista. The Colorado Trail (here and elsewhere) is almost all singletrack, and the extra 50 miles of biking I did was about 35 miles on pavement, 15 miles on dirt roads. Elevation gained on the trail was about 15,000 feet, with another 1,000 or so gained off of it.

View Buena Vista -> Gunnison in a larger map

Each day of the trip had a distinctly different character. The first was more of a setup, winding through forests over smooth track, skirting the mountains west and southwest of town as I made my way south. Pleasant riding, nothing terribly exciting, going through forests with the occasional view hinting at what was coming later.

After 35 miles on the trail it crossed Highway 50 into the Fooses Creek drainage, where I spent the first night. After an early start the next morning, followed the creek back and climbed 3000′ to get above treeline and reach the Continental Divide. For much of the next 15 miles the trail stays above treeline or in meadows, offering up great views of the surrounding hills and mountains.

For the rest of the day the trail hugged the Continental Divide very closely, staying between 10,000 and 12,000 feet, with occasional views, some smooth sections of trail and lots of really rocky sections (not a lot of dirt right on the divide it seems). After getting up at 5:30am, biking 35 miles and gaining about 7,000′ total over the day, I got in to Baldy Lake about 8:15pm. Tiring! Worth it for the nice atmosphere at the lake, and also good to have more than a dribble of water. Very few streams accessible from the divide, and with the dry winter many weren’t running at all.

The last day was a good deal more relaxing. I had another 10 miles of up-and-down following the divide, after which I reached the Cochetopa Hills and more rolling terrain. Fast, smooth biking from here, really great stuff. Left the trail near the end of segment 18 and followed the road as it ran next to Cochetopa Creek, past some small and scenic reservoirs and then joining up with route 114 to wind through the creek’s canyon most of the way back to Gunnison. Nice way to end the trip.

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