We continue with the second chapter of Bikepacking The Continental Divide Trail...
This is a story about thru-riding the Continental Divide Trail. The CDT is not the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, instead, it's nearly 3,100 miles of trail stretching border to border along the spine of the continent.
The story left off in the small mountain town of Chama in northern New Mexico. Like many of the thru-hikers we were running into, we faced the prospect of snow in Colorado. Being early June, we weren't surprised, but we also weren't ready to hike our bikes through endless snowdrifts. Instead, we decided a layover was in order. Durango, and a two-week housesitting gig was our future.
From Cumbres Pass, we followed the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route over Manga Pass and up to Platoro, bypassing the Wiminuche Wilderness area. Instead of dropping into Del Norte, we hung a sharp left at Elwood Pass, dropping down the east fork of the San Juan river, raging from snow melt. Near the bottom, we found a river crossing deemed impossible, leading to a half-mile bushwhack along the river's edge to get to where the road crossed back over. It took us more than an hour but was a grand little adventure that we were eventually glad to be over with.
The next day brought us to Pagosa Springs where the things to note are: Kip's Grill (Try the Estaban tacos), the hippy hot springs (just as good as the pay ones, except free), and the Pagosa Bakery (breakfast burritos are 50% off after noon).
The choice to go to Durango allowed us to bypass the Wiminuche Wilderness that dominates the landscape of southern Colorado. We made up a route of ATV tracks, forgotten trails, hidden hot springs, and a minor amount of highway riding. Two days later, we popped out on the Horse Gulch trails in Durango.
The two-week break was much needed as it:
a) Allowed the snow to melt
b) Let the Big Mountain Enduro Crew cut out the trees on the Colorado Trail from Kennebec Pass down for their race the following weekend. The plan was to take the Colorado Trail for 74 miles from Durango to Silverton and then climb Stoney Pass in order to rejoin the CDT/CT.
Aside from snow and a black bear wandering into our camp, things went smoothly. It was still late June and we were expecting snow, leading to some wet feet and slow travel. Those 74 miles of Colorado Trail are some of the best trail I've ever ridden. Put them on your bucket list!
A brief stay at the hostel in town had us moving early the next day, up the 4,000-foot climb of Stoney into the Colorado alpine. The trail follows ridges so high that you don't see trees in any direction. Beautiful riding, smooth trail, some snow, plenty of hike-a-bike. A high camp at Cataract Lake led to a scenic, if cold, camp at close to 12,000 feet.
Chased by storms the next day over Coney Summit, the highest point on the CD/CDT, we stayed the night at the Friends of Colorado Trail yurt, dropping down the next day for a resupply and night at the Lake City Hostel.
Colorado was an easy state for route planning for us as the Colorado Trail has established mountain bike go-arounds for the Wilderness areas. In the morning, we simply had to climb back up Slumgullion Pass and pick up the detour, headed towards Sargent's Mesa. Sargent's is haunted (and rocky), ask any Colorado Trail racer. We camped just shy of it, determined to make it through in the daylight. As it turns out, when not racing, it's actually not as bad as remembered and we made it out with plenty of time to spare.
We dropped off the CDT on Silver Creek Trail, the end of the iconic Monarch Crest ride, and headed into Salida the next morning. The town vortex struck and we found ourselves among friends for the next four days, watching 4th of July fireworks, parades, and soaking in the river. Salida is a great little town.
It was a mere 3,000-foot climb to regain the CDT on the Monarch Crest. Riding the trail backwards in the late evening was a treat and we saw no one on the most popular trail in Colorado.
From Monarch Pass to Clear Creek Pass, the trail is...trying. The plus side of walking your bike for nearly 20 miles, both uphill and down, is that you get to really enjoy the scenery, which was stunning.
We were back on rideable trail near the Alpine Tunnel, cruising between alpine passes towards Tincup Pass where we once again had to abandon the trail due to a Closed To Bikes sign. 19 new miles of trail had been constructed, but the powers that be had decided to close it to bikes. Major bummer. Instead, we coasted to Princeton Hot Springs for a late afternoon snack before rejoining the Colorado Trail lower down.
Through Buena Vista the next day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner before we finally left town, and to the base of Hope Pass by the ghost town of Winfield, the turnaround point for the Leadville 100 running race. A 2,500-foot hike-a-bike greeted us in the morning over Hope Pass, only to be rewarded by a screaming descent on some of the best trail imaginable. Following the CT to Leadville was pure joy through endless aspen groves.
The Leadville Hostel: Go if you get a chance. We met a family of four that were bike touring. The seven-year-old son was riding independently and could ride 35 miles in a day as long as there were breaks to throw rocks in rivers and chase butterflies.
We met up with Cjell Money of Tour Divide fame for the ride over Kokomo and Searle Pass to Copper Mountain. The whole section from Tennessee Pass where we were able to rejoin the CDT/CT after the Mount Massive Wilderness to Copper Mountain was a pure joy to ride.
Summit County didn't treat us well with our first encounter with death mud, but an early start the next morning got us over Argentine Pass, a 13,100-foot high "pass", that is entirely unridable for the final 2,000 or so vertical feet. We rolled into Georgetown on the other side just as the rain unleashed. Monsoon season in Colorado had started and a motel room never felt so good.
Another early start got us up Herman Gulch Trail and on to ridgeline singletrack headed towards Jones Pass. The clouds stayed tame as we negotiated the trail and the giant snowfield at the end, having bailed off the CDT for the Vasquez Wilderness, instead sharing the road with cars going over Berthoud Pass. We found a thru-hiker at the top, pondering his options. "I'm so sick of getting hailed on," he lamented. "I would do anything for a forest road to walk right now." We gave him a Mountain House meal and some Fritos and wished him well before dropping down the road to Winter Park, stopping at the resort for crepes and milkshakes.
Colorado is decadent.
A few days of visiting with my family later (Winter Park is where I learned how to mountain bike), we headed north, rejoining the trail at High Lonesome Trail, leaving it again, gambling (and losing) on a trail called Caribou (don't be fooled by the first mile, it's terrible and non-existent) and eventually ended up in a hostel high on a cliff in Grand Lake. Things to check out in Grand Lake: The hostel. There's not much else.
Some Wilderness detouring found us on actual mountain bike trails. What a treat! We danced along well-built mountain bike and then ATV/moto trails. While hikers lamented seeing motos, we knew that the only reason the trail was clear of trees was because of our motorized friends. Sharing is caring.
The next day brought a giant push-a-bike over Peakview Mountain and a tundra free-ride descent down the other side where there was no trail. Once back in the trees, we spent the rest of the day picking our bikes up and over trees.
Our bikes finally paid dividends when the trail dumped out on a road the next morning. 12 miles of dirt road later, we found two thru-hikers. "It's a 13-mile highway walk to Rabbit Ears Pass where we get on the trail again," they said dejectedly.
"Yep." We covered the distance in an hour and half on a mostly deserted road. Picking up the trail at the pass, we rode a few more miles before descending Fish Creek Trail. Steamboat isn't known for technical trails, and in our attempt to avoid a 600-foot climb to descend smooth resort trails, we accidentally chose the rockiest trail in town. We walked. A lot. Ooops.
Avoiding the Zirkel Wilderness took us into the front entrance of the Strawberry Hotsprings and on a trail out the backside. In between, there was soaking to be had.
After the Clark store, well known from the GDMBR, we got back on the CDT riding beautiful singletrack and ATV trail all the way to the Wyoming border.
With breaks, Colorado took us the better part of a month and a half with lots of vertical, lots of hike-a-bike, and lots of trails that everyone should ride. Still, I couldn't wait to get into Wyoming where the hills would be smaller and there would be less rocks, and in theory, travel would be faster.
Photos by Scott Morris
TO BE CONTINUED…
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When Eszter Horani was in second grade, living in Tucson, Ariz., her dad bought the entire family Schwinn mountain bikes; she’s been riding ever since, dabbling in racing disciplines from road, to cross, to track and mountain biking. Most recently she’s loving adventurous long rides, bikepacking and exploring the world from two wheels. zenondirt.wordpress.com