Denver to Durango

Over the last week and a half I did a mountain biking trip following the Colorado Trail, starting in Denver, finishing up in Durango and traversing the width of the Colorado Rockies.

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In all, this was 461 miles of biking, with 287 miles on the CT itself, almost all of it singletrack, 107 miles of dirt roads and 67 miles of paved roads. The total climbing was 60,000′ or so. I started 6/26 at 5pm and finished 7/5 at 12pm, for a trip length of 8 days and 19 hours. Tons of great riding and great scenery, an awesome and grueling trip.

Overall, I was super happy with my performance. Last year I did the middle portion of the trail in a few days and estimated doing the whole route would take closer to two weeks. Coming in well below that was due to several factors:

– I was able to sustain long days on the bike. I usually started a bit after 6am and finished a bit before 8pm, biking and hike-a-biking with few breaks in the interim. I was able to maintain this pace throughout the ride.

– I had great weather for almost the entire trip. I was trying to time the trip to be early enough to mostly avoid the monsoon, yet late enough that most of the passes would be clear of snow. This worked out well.

– Only about 2/3 of the Colorado Trail can be biked. The remainder passes through wilderness areas where bikes or other mechanized equipment can’t even be possessed. These wilderness areas need to be detoured around on dirt and paved roads, which are much faster riding than singletrack.

– When I went through the west fork complex fire had forced closures of two rideable segments of the trail, along with several segments in wilderness areas. The detour I made, over Cinnamon Pass, was a long, tough climb but still a good deal easier than the trail being detoured around, and reduced the percentage of the trail I rode to 60%.

Except for the detour over Cinnamon Pass, I was following the route used last year in the Colorado Trail Race, a self supported time trial held each July. Had I been doing this I would have finished near the back of the pack and more than twice as slow as those at the head. Doing well in this race requires extreme determination, skill, strength, and sleep deprivation, racing nearly 24 hours a day, and only about half of those who start end up finishing. I’m not cut out for this kind (or any kind, really) of racing — these stresses and risks hold no appeal, and I’m happy just to finish in a timely fashion.

Logistically, the lead up to the trip was complicated but went pretty well. I’d been staying in Durango the first three weeks of June, so a couple weeks beforehand had a shop in town (Pedal The Peaks) tune and box the bike, shipped it to another shop in Aurora (Adventure Cycling) to reassemble it, flew in to Denver, took a taxi to the shop and biked the remaining 28 miles to the trailhead.

The eastern trailhead is at the bottom of Waterton Canyon on the south side of Denver, right at the base of the rockies. The first portions of the trail are comparatively mellow. After seven miles of dirt road the trail narrows to singletrack, which it follows for 34 miles before requiring a detour around the Lost Creek wilderness to Kenosha Pass. At 10,000′ this is a relatively low pass, but from here the trail stays above 9,000′ almost the entire way to Durango. Late in the second day, shortly after Kenosha Pass:

For me the trail didn’t really begin until 12 miles after Kenosha Pass, when the trail first climbs up to the Continental Divide. This is at Georgia Pass, which at about 11,900′ is also the first time the trail stretches above treeline. The alpine sections of the trail are my favorite parts, wide open with great views of mountains and, later on at least, many wildflowers. Looking back up the trail towards Georgia Pass, on the descent:

Except for a pretty rocky section on the descent, Georgia Pass is pretty friendly, with a nice gradual ascent and smooth, fun descent. After some miscellaneous minor climbs and riding the trail crosses route 9 between Breckenridge and Frisco, then climbs up and over the Tenmile Range. This is one of the toughest parts of the trail, with 3700′ of climbing to reach a pass at 12,500′ and, for me at least, almost everything above 10,000′ being hike-a-bike.

The San Juans around Durango had a very low snowpack and were clear even above 13,000′ when I started the trip. By contrast, the Tenmile and other parts of the Front Range apparently got some late season storms and were still holding a lot of snow in places. Going over the Tenmile was the snowiest part of the trail, maybe a dozen spots where I had to walk or wade across fingers of snow. Fortunately this never got excessive. Despite my concern at seeing some surprisingly huge cornices lining the range, the trail did a remarkable job of threading up between two impassably snowy areas. The folks who laid this trail out really knew what they were doing. Sighting down the crest of the range:

The Tenmile Range made a good contrast with the next day’s riding. Starting at Copper Mountain, the trail again does a long, 3000’+ climb to reach Searle and then Kokomo Passes, both around 12,000′. This is a wonderful ascent, with beautiful views the whole way up and very little hike-a-biking. Between Searle and Kokomo is one of the prettiest parts of the trail, many streams and abundant wildflowers:

After Kokomo is a first rate, 4.5 mile, 2300′ descent, dropping through the tundra, aspens, forest without interruption. Overall, this climb and descent together was my favorite part of the trip. Looking down from Kokomo:

Another 10 miles on the trail touches Tennessee Pass before reaching the second detour, through Leadville and around the Holy Cross and Mount Massive wildernesses. Past here, I’d done almost all of the next 150 miles of riding last summer. Going through again was nice, retreading some great sections of trail with a new and in some ways very different perspective. I really like the trail around the eastern Collegiate Peaks, there aren’t any big climbs and so much of the route is great, mellow riding. Some sections through Aspens I could never get tired of:

Passing by the Collegiates had the only inclement weather of the trip. Some rain in Leadville when I stopped in town was a prelude to an hour or two of pretty torrential rain the next afternoon when I was south of Buena Vista. Not knowing when this would stop I kept riding through it, still making good progress as the sun eventually came out.

I wanted to get as early a start as possible up Fooses Creek, the climb back up to the divide that marks the end of the Collegiates. Much of this is very nice, before getting steeper and steeper and requiring me to hike the last 1000′ of vertical. Getting to the bottom at noon got me to the top close to 4pm, with sun but an unsettling mix of clouds in most directions:

Along the Monarch Crest shortly afterwards, such an iconic part of the trail:

After leaving the Monarch Crest I was able to make it past some rocky sections to get to Tank Seven creek at dusk. This is a great camping site and left me in a good spot for the next day. Shortly after Tank Seven, from the top of Sargents Mesa to the Cochetopa Hills, was the gnarliest section of the trip. Rocks and more rocks, then rocks plus steep loose hills that I had to hike both up and down. I remembered this as being bad last year but not this bad, maybe breaking this section up by camping at Baldy Lake made it more tolerable.

After more than half the day working through this I made it out to route 114 and crossed for 12 nice easy miles before leaving the trail for the last, long 98 mile detour. At this point I was pretty determined to get to Silverton before things closed up the next day — groceries, real food, beer. Silverton is nearly at the end of the detour and with some massive climbs in the way, so I pushed hard to get as far as I could and leave myself as much leeway as possible. I left the trail around 4pm and continued to bike another 30 miles with 2000′ of climbing to gain Los Pinos pass, reaching it at dusk and coasting down as night fell (below). I camped in what was basically a ditch by the road at 9pm, and set an alarm for a 5am start the next day.

The early start let me finish the first climb, 2500′ up to Slumgullion Pass and highway 149, by 7:30am. All of the detour up to this point was mandatory — it skirts around the trail’s segments that go through the La Garita wilderness. Heading a few miles south on 149 would bring me to Spring Creek Pass, the start of 33 miles of the highest altitude riding on the trail, with all but the first 9 miles above 12,000′ and the highest point on the entire trail at 13,271′. I’d really been looking forward to this section as it seems full of great alpine scenery and is supposed to have some of the most challenging parts of the trail (though apparently not as tough as the area after Sargents Mesa).

Alas, this section was closed due to the fire mentioned earlier. Despite the fire continuing to grow with little containment, this and the other closed parts of the trail were reopened a couple days after I finished the trip, and the closure may have been entirely arbitrary. Grumble. I’ll have to come back and either bike this section or backpack it in combination with the La Garita or Weminuche wildernesses on either side.

In any case, I headed north on 149, descending to Lake San Cristobal to continue the detour up to Cinnamon Pass. The pass is at 12,640′ and the highest point I hit on the trip, with a 20 mile, 3500′ ascent from the lake that took about five hours. The road up to the pass is very nice, but had a very different tone from the other dirt roads I’d been riding. Rough in spots with a need for 4wd, which would usually keep traffic low, but the Alpine Loop byway runs through here and being July 3 the road was thick with Jeep and ATV traffic. This was generally fine (excepting occasional dorks screaming by on ATVs with dust masks on, throwing up clouds in my face) but I much prefer the quiet of the Colorado Trail itself. Looking back, from near the top of Cinnamon Pass:

And me at the top of the pass, before the 3500′ descent to Silverton:

After a couple hours of much needed R&R in Silverton, I climbed another 1800′ up to Molas Pass to finally resume travel on the Colorado Trail. From here there is still 70 miles of singletrack before reaching Durango. At this point I was pretty worn down and having difficulty with the tougher sections, and yet this had some of my favorite riding on the trail. Lots of smooth singletrack, great views and flowers. Looking up at Blackhawk Pass, about 28 miles in:

The last big obstacle on the trail is Indian Trail Ridge, four or so miles above treeline with a good bit of up and down and lots of hike-a-biking. I wasn’t able to make it through before dark so camped at the last group of trees. Below is the view at dawn. Pleasant time finishing up this section in the morning and riding down to Kennebec Pass.

From Kennebec Pass the trail makes its final descent to Durango, over 20 miles and with a loss of nearly 5000′ in elevation. Except for an annoying 1000′ climb in the middle this is essentially uninterrupted, descending from the alpine (below) with a thick aroma of flowers through to forests, dense and jungle-like around Junction Creek, then out from the creek and down into town. Quite a coda for the trip.

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