Today's post is the second in a series about introducing others to the amazing activity of bikepacking. See part one here.
Bikepacking 101 - The First Trip
A few weeks ago my fellow bikepacking buddy, Kevin, and I conducted a clinic for my collegiate outdoor recreation program (Outdoor Pursuits) on the Essentials of Bikepacking. Almost two dozen students were in attendance to learn more about what bikepacking is all about. Kevin and I brought fully laden bikes into the classroom displaying about our various equipment choices and packing strategies. Additionally, we spoke about online resources for getting started (i.e. bikepacking.net, adventurecycling.org, etc.) and about the next steps in the new bikepacking program that is being offered through Outdoor Pursuits. Overall, the evening was a great success with many students staying long after the clinic was over to pick our brains about this whole new way of adventuring and enjoying the natural world. With the interest in such programming strong, it was now time to provide the students with the opportunity to actually bikepack.
The Crew - ready for some bikepacking adventure!
The Monday prior to the weekend of the trip was sign-up day. Having not advertised this particular trip to the masses, but to only those students who attended our clinic, I didn’t know what the interest in the trip would be, or if we would even have enough participants to even run it. Throughout the day though, I heard students venturing into the outdoor center to inquire and sign up for the “super secret bikepacking trip.” By the end of the day I knew my plans for the upcoming weekend…I was going bikepacking with six other mountain bikers. Wahoo!
Given that this was the first trip of its kind for our program, I wanted to ensure that the trip went well and that all had a great experience. Additionally, since fall was upon us in Colorado and the mountains would soon be approachable only by skis, I wanted to ride among the high peaks and take in the splendid fall colors before the weather dictated otherwise. Peering over maps of the local area, I decided upon riding the Aspen Loop: a 40-mile loop on the west side of our home mountain range, the La Platas, that is popular with both ATVers and mountain bikers. I had last ridden the Aspen Loop a couple of years back as part of a training day for my ride of the Colorado Trail. With multiple water sources along the way, a minimal amount of steep climbing, tremendous views of the La Platas, and great riding through golden aspens, the Aspen Loop had the potential to provide a great first weekend of bikepacking.
The Aspen Loop at its finest...
On Friday evening I got the crew together to go through gear and pack up our bikes. Our Revelate Designs Viscacha seatbags had arrived, but we were still waiting on our Tangle bags. Consequently, I began handing out various prototypes of frame bags and handlebar bags that I had made in the past. Before I knew it, the students were packed and ready to roll. The amazing thing was that nearly all of their gear fit on their bikes with very little being carried on their backs. This was going to be a great weekend!
Elliot - packed and ready to go!
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear with bluebird skies. We departed campus a little after 9 AM and drove the hour and fifteen minutes to our trailhead. The aspens were at their peak and the temps were perfect for bike riding. Upon arrival at the trailhead we found it deserted. Where was everybody on this amazing fall weekend? The crew was psyched and we were quickly pedaling our loaded bikes up the gradual climb that would eventually take us to Windy Gap, where great views of Hesperus Mountain (the highest peak in the La Platas at 13,232’), the Sharkstooth (12,462’) and Centennial Peak (13,062’) are commonplace.
Riding towards Hesperus Mountain...
After passing through Windy Gap, our ride took us high above the Bear Creek drainage—a creek known for its amazing trout fishing. Off in the distance we could see Indian Trail Ridge where the distant Colorado Trail traverses above 12,000’ before steeply dropping into Durango. The crew was riding strong with only a few packing adjustments being made as things settled in from the continual bump and grind of the terrain. Before we knew it we were at a possible campsite for the evening - the Gold Run Trailhead. As we rolled into the trailhead there was a group on ATV's taking a pit stop. We quickly heard, “You guys need motors on those bikes.” To which a member of our group, Andrew, deftly replied, “What are motors? None needed here.”
As the ATV'ers revved their motors and departed in a cloud of dust, our team had a quick meeting…it was only 3 PM and we had actually only travelled 14 miles or so - should we make camp for the night or continue on? The group was still feeling good, so it was a unanimous choice…we would venture on around the loop, getting a few more miles in before we lost our daylight.
As we continued to pedal along our search for a campsite with water became the day’s goal. Water along the northern edge of the loop becomes sparse. Before long we had biked just over 20 miles and had yet to find a suitable camping spot with water that wasn’t from a mud puddle. At mile 23 we came to Black Reservoir - which resembled anything but a reservoir…it was a muddy cow pond. Having previous experience drinking out of cow tanks, mosquito infested potholes, and other less than desirable water sources, I felt okay with making camp alongside the “black” reservoir for the night, but it was up to our group to decide. As we all stared into the stagnant water of the “reservoir,” it was soon apparent that we would keep pushing on to the next spot on the map that could possibly yield us water.
At this point an important lesson was being learned by the group…sometimes things don’t go as planned and the day becomes longer than expected. Will you embrace the unknown and mentally push through the tired legs and sore muscles? These moments often define your trip and make it truly an adventure. Our attitudes shape the outcome of such moments.
Soon the group was descending to the bottom of Lost Canyon where we hoped to find flowing water. On the rocky and teeth jarring descent to the canyon floor the fatigue after a day in the saddle began to make itself evident as Andrew seemingly flew from his bike landing unbelievably upright while his bike travelled with a mind of its own until coming to a halting stop. Andrew was okay, but his bike needed a new rear tube. The group was in good spirits, but they were all ready to be off the bike for the day…hopefully, water was going to be found at the bottom of the descent.
Andrew repairing his flat with a smile...
After a quick flat change, we rolled down the last half mile of the descent…to running water. Wahoo! The canyon was tight and rocky so there was not an abundance of flat comfortable camping. After scouting up and down the canyon for twenty minutes we finally decided to make the most of it by establishing a camp in a less than ideal spot. Another lesson learned…when all else fails, appreciate the little things and make the best of the situation. We had clear flowing water, clear night skies, plenty of food, warm, dry sleeping bags, and several bars of dark chocolate. With all of these positives, we could endure a night of sleep on rocky ground.
Elliot and Andrew serving up Spanish rice with chicken and cheese...
Our day dawned clear with a few sore muscles, but otherwise the crew was ready for our climb out of the canyon and the 14 or so remaining miles back to the trailhead. The climb out of the canyon was a good warm up though I had to stop mid-climb several times to replace air from a leaking rear tube valve.
Given that this was the program’s first bikepacking trip and I was responsible for more individuals than just myself, I was carrying more gear than I would normally carry if on a solo mission. To accommodate the larger first aid kit, larger cook set and additional bike repair materials, I decided to make this trip on the beast…the Mukluk. My “utilitarian ride-anything bike” was loaded with panniers, a seat bag, a frame bag, and a handlebar bag. As the leader of the group, I sought to be prepared for anything.
The Mukluk - a beast of burden...
Once out of the canyon we rode some of the sweetest trail of the loop, winding through an endless grove of towering aspens. The final miles of the loop passed easily under our knobby tires and with big grins we soon made it back to our waiting van. It was already over. The loop was completed. OP’s first bikepacking trip was in the books. Plenty of lessons were learned about bikepacking as well as how to deal with the adversity that adventures always present. Overall, it was a great first bikepacking experience for the crew (Devin, Matthew, Luke, Elliot and Andrew) who dared to participate in this first-of-its-kind activity for our program. What a great and rewarding weekend!