I was driving home from the Salsa HQ in early May and decided to give Brett a call. We caught up with our day-to-day lives and then discussed our next adventures. Brett is a guy who is always planning adventures and mapping out routes. If you get annoyed by the guy who is always telling you about his last awesome trip, don’t be friends with Brett!
He had just received his Salsa Colossal Ti and was excited to ride it. He had a bikepacking route planned made up of 240 miles of pavement and dirt roads that went over nine mountain passes and climbed 22,000 feet. The ride would begin and end in his hometown of Durango, Colorado.
My mind was swimming with images of tall mountains and pine covered valleys as he was describing it. Brett said he was planning on doing the trip over Memorial Holiday on his newly built Colossal using Salsa/Revelate Designs bags. At this point I was staring out at the evening city lights of Minneapolis racking my brain for how I could join him. I knew my wife would be gone for a long weekend in June and that might work out perfectly for me. We talked two days later and the trip was on! I would be doing a quick out-and-back from Minneapolis to Durango but I knew it would be worth it. Ever since last fall I had been wanting to do a road bikepacking adventure and this fit the bill perfectly.
The drive out to Durango went as fast as a drive across the Great Plains can. I highly recommend books on tape. The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain kept me entertained across most of Nebraska. I hit one nasty section of golf ball-sized hail in Sterling, Colorado but thankfully I was getting gas so I just hung out under the awning until it passed. On the back of the car I had a brand new 2015 Colossal Ti bike to ride. It looked like it was ready for the mountains with its HED Belgium+ rims and Hutchinson Sector tires, set up tubeless. The HED rims make the tires measure a bit wider around 30mm and the tubeless setup rides like a tubular. More importantly, I liked the idea of having tubeless sealant inside in case of a puncture. I actually didn’t have that much experience with road tubeless but I loved the idea of it. I’m usually not the guy who likes to experiment with gear on a bikepacking trip but the idea of going road tubeless just made sense to me. I talked it over with Brett and he too liked the idea, enough to do the exact same thing.
I arrived in Durango in mid-afternoon and was glad to see Brett and be done with the drive. It always amazes me how just sitting down in a car can make you so tired. We looked through gear and talked bikes and then headed down to Velorution Cycles. I’d never been there or met the guys but Brett had only great things to say about them, and I was not disappointed! If you are in Durango go visit Velorution! It's a great shop and they are incredibly genuine when it comes to getting out and riding. These guys are the real deal; both Joey and Cody had well-used personal bikepacking setups. A big, highlighted map on the wall was even more proof of the many rides they had done in the area. They are very down to earth and I got the sense that they just love helping people get out there on their bikes. Joey and Cody had organized a Bikepacking Seminar that night at the shop. It was great to have more than 40 people from the community participate and talk bike adventures. We finally wrapped up the evening across the street at a local eatery with beers and burgers. Finally Brett and I headed back to his place for a late night of packing and gear checking. Our experience with this helped and we had everything packed up and ready to go in about an hour. I could rest easy now knowing I had brought everything I had on my list! I highly recommend making a good list of all that you need for your bikepacking trip and then fully packing, unpacking, and repacking your setup at least two times. I’ve found this helps me remember all that I need and validate if I really need it or not.
We awoke the next morning to perfect temps and bluebird skies. Both of us were excited to start. There is always something relieving in those first few pedal strokes. I think it’s just the culmination of knowing that it is all coming together and that you’ve done a proper job of planning. We were all smiles as we pedaled the quiet farm roads that parallel the “Million Dollar Highway” (550) going north out of town. The first day of the loop would have us heading north on 550 over Molas Pass into Silverton then onto Ouray. We decided Silverton would be a good place for lunch unless we were really making good timing, in which case Ouray might be the better choice. Brett was already talking about the amazing milkshakes we could get in Ouray so I was motivated to make good time.
A general theme of bikepacking is the mass amounts of food you can eat and put to good use by eating large quantities of ice cream, snack cakes, milkshakes, cheese burgers, and other varieties of greasy food. Overall on my trips I probably eat more healthy foods than “bad” food but the healthy stuff isn’t any fun to talk about. People want to hear about the pint of Ben and Jerry's you ate in one sitting, not the strawberry salad with vinaigrette dressing.
Brett and I rode on until we were just below the first major climb up to Coal Bank Pass. We refilled water bottles, shed a layer, and then got the wheels spinning. We started the climb and I enjoyed it more and more as it went on. Even though I’m a bigger guy (if you consider a tall, lanky guy big) but I love climbing. I think it comes from my days growing up in east Tennessee. The climbs aren’t as long as in the Rockies but there are some great climbs in the Smoky Mountains. We climbed and climbed and I couldn't believe how good the weather and traffic were. No one gave us any problems and we made it up to Coal Bank Pass rather quickly. I stopped to get photos of Brett climbing up and enjoyed the views. The scenery back towards Durango was amazing. The Animas River had done a great job so far cutting its way through the San Juans, making the whole scene an iconic Colorado image. It continued its work far below us as we descended down to Lime Creek and then back up to Molas Pass. We stopped at Molas Pass for an eating opportunity before the descent down to Silverton. It was fun to look up at Engineer Mountain, Twin Sisters, and all the other peaks knowing a year ago I had seen them as Ryan and I were doing the Colorado Trail. I was glad to be fresh for this ride compared to the sore day-seven person I was while doing the CT.
Silverton greeted us with the famous Durango & Silverton train steaming into town dropping its load of tourists off like cattle to the stockyard. Brett and I considered our options in Silverton. We had made good time and the restaurants were busy so we continued pedaling towards Ouray. Highway 550 out of town continued at a very friendly gradient until reaching the leftover mining town of Chattanooga below Lookout Peak. On the way up Brett pointed out several high peaks and talked about his backcountry skiing exploits. It sounded like a blast, especially when describing the late Buddy Davis (Brett’s dog of many years) and how he bounded through the snow after Brett when skiing. The mountains were big here and skiing looked like it could be amazing. As we began the real ascent up to Red Mountain Pass the clouds were building, threatening a heavy downpour. Thankfully, it just ended up being good shade and a light sprinkle. It was like skirting someone’s yard sprinkler as you were riding past and I couldn’t have planned it better myself. Near the top the road was narrow and even washed out in spots. The sheer drop off was incredible! Not a time to be day dreaming whether a cyclist or driver. We arrived at Red Mountain Pass and I was already becoming very satisfied with our bike and gear choices. Mine was disappearing underneath me and only on the steepest of grades did I feel the extra weight of my gear. I loved having almost nothing on my back and nothing on the handlebars either. With all of my gear in my Tangle bag and Viscacha seat bag it was just perfectly placed - centered and low. I was also looking forward to giving the road tubeless a real test on the descent. Combined with the Ti frame and new Colossal Carbon fork the ride felt silky smooth. I hoped the “big” 30mm tires would give some nice bite on the slightly wet descent.
The descent into Ouray was amazing as I’d forgotten how long a true mountain descent can be! Brett and I cut and curved all the way down and were grinning ear to ear. Near the bottom the mountains seemed to come together and I couldn’t believe a town was down there. I couldn’t see it yet and started wondering where they put Ouray. We cut through a tunnel and came around a sharp hairpin to reveal the town below us. It was positioned right in the mountains if ever the term were true. The town ends at the base of sheer cliffs that rise thousands of feet above it. I wanted to just stare at the town but I didn’t want to die either, so I decided to keep my eyes on the road. We finally came to a stop on Main Street and surveyed our food options. Brett knew of the famous burger joint "Maggie's Kitchen." We stopped in there for green chili burgers and then headed next door to the Ouray Brewery for a cold one. The combo with fries was incredible! Brett is always one to make friends. He was talking and laughing with some tourist to our right when the bartender asked if anybody wanted cheesecake. He then told the story of the friends who dropped off a Texas $70 cheesecake every year to him as a gift. Not ones to be rude and turn down a gift, Brett and I said “Of course.” The cheesecake was good, but honestly, I don’t know about 70 dollars good. We finally headed out to get milkshakes because you never pass up good food on a bikepacking trip; especially when you know you’ll probably end the night with ramen noodles cooked on an alcohol stove. We left Ouray content and ready for a nap. Our way out of town was an old dirt road that ran parallel to the Uncompahgre River. This dirt road would take us straight to Orvis Hot Springs.
We arrived at Orvis Hot Springs ready to soak. We also hoped to camp here too, but the place was full. We found Webster RV Park about a mile away with a patch of grass for our tent. We unpacked, changed into swimsuits, and then headed back to the hot springs. The soak was awesome and quite a few people were enjoying the naturally fed hot springs that evening. After an hour-and-a-half we finally decided to head back and call it a night. I called my wife and wished her a good night and then headed to bed.
When I awoke at 2 a.m. I found I was lying on the ground. This was inconvenient considering I had inflated an air mattress which should still be holding air. It wasn’t. I inflated it again but knew at the rate in which the air exited I would probably find myself on the grass fairly quickly. I re-awoke to find myself on the ground at 3 a.m. and knew it was no use. Thankfully the grass was pretty thick and the temps weren’t that low so I didn’t get cold. We awoke soon after sunrise and made breakfast. The RV park dogs began to make their rounds to see what was stirring. Since most humans were in RVs and still asleep we were the most interesting thing going. Just as one dog was walking around our stuff Brett looked at him and said, “I bet he’s going to pee on my sleeping bag.” He didn’t pee on Brett’s bag because apparently mine looked more appealing. As soon as he began to lift his leg I “cautioned” him not to do that! Brett laughed and I was relieved to find my warning to him was quick enough to avoid the mess. Brett and I soon finished breakfast and headed out. We rode into Ridgeway to pick up breakfast, two frozen burritos from the gas station. We headed out on highway 62 up to Dallas Divide. The Sneffel range was sprawled out ahead of us like some castle wall guarding Telluride. The morning light shone brightly on them leaving few shadows on the mountains. The climb up Dallas Divide was another friendly pass and we were soon at the top. The burritos were slowly being warmed in our jersey pockets and we decided to continue on our dirt road detour before consuming. We took a left on Last Dollar Road and climbed through aspen groves. Occasionally the Sneffels would poke through the trees as we climbed in the shade. We ascended up to the Last Dollar Ranch and our eyes were given a feast of amazing views. We stopped and ate burritos since views don’t get much better than this! After eating the best Don Miguel's had to offer we continued on. The road was made mostly of fresh gravel but the tubeless Sector tires handled it impressively. We finally came to our turn off onto Sawpit Road. The road looked as if it just dropped into the abyss below. I suddenly felt as if we were doing some incredibly old Swiss Alps mountain road and I knew we would be doing a good test our brakes. We flew down but constantly had to scrub speed. I must say the BB7s and 140 rotors handled the descent flawlessly and we finally arrived down to Highway 145 which would take us up into Telluride. I took a sigh of relief and realized how stiff my upper body had become during the descent. The climb up to Telluride was uneventful and I was glad for this since the shoulder was non-existent. We finally made it up to the edge of town and you could see Bridal Veil Falls dropping down into town; amazing.
We rode into town and Bret asked some locals for a good sandwich shop. We ended up at The Brown Bag and I was happy with my Italian sandwich choice plus white chocolate and macadamia nut cookie. Brett and I absorbed all the food we could and headed back out of town. The climb up to Telluride Mountain Village was fairly steep and for the first time during the trip we could feel the heat. I was able to get a little bit ahead of Brett and found the only patch of shade along the road for miles. I had just enough time to grab a bar and get a quick photo of Brett as he spun past. I caught back up to him and we leveled off for a while and took in the views. We had already seen some huge mountains at this point but for some reason the peaks of the Lizard Head Wilderness just looked massive. I felt like my field of vision wasn’t big enough to take it all in.
We descended down to Howard Fork Gulch and then began the climb up to Lizard Head Pass. Lizard Head Pass sits below the San Miguels and Mt. Wilson. The San Miguels made a beautiful bowl down into Trout Lake. Several cabins and log buildings sat around the lake dotted with overturned canoes. I took a picture or two but I knew I just wouldn't be able to capture the 1950's postcard type photo I was thinking of. We made it up to Lizard Head Pass and were glad to get off the bikes to stretch. Lizard Head Pass was our last big climb of the entire trip and I was sad to see it go. I just don't get to do as much climbing as I would like to in Minnesota. We knew it was hot enough that afternoon that no extra layers would be needed for the descent so we started heading down. It was a long descent of old pavement that would take us straight into Rico. The top of the descent had several smooth switchbacks and then we were greeted with a long, straight section. We both got in our best Tour de France aero position to take full advantage. We hovered around 50-plus mph giving us a slight adrenaline rush. At this point I was confident in the wheel setup and the bike was tracking true. No cars would be passing us here. We finally hit some canyon turns and found we had quickly come to the bottom. All of a sudden we were almost in Rico and hard braking found us stopping quickly so we wouldn't miss our last hot springs soak. The Rico Hot Springs are very unofficial; just a hole in the ground with hot water bubbling out and then another spot where people had let a Jacuzzi get buried under layer and layer of hot springs minerals. Several people were enjoying the springs that evening including some grad students who were getting field data in the area for a scientific report. Everybody enjoyed hearing each other’s' stories as we all let the hot water soak our sore muscles. Brett and I also got some good info about where to get food in Rico.
We pulled into Rico under the setting sun and found the liquor store and country grocer. We grabbed a couple beers each and then shopped for dinner. Brett and I decided to get two more frozen burritos from the country store, an extra package of Ramen, and then headed down Highway 145 to camp. Fifteen minutes later we found an unofficial campground of RVs. We headed down to a slightly less used campsite right next to the Dolores River. We unpacked our stuff and in-between getting water and eating my burrito I began to figure out how to fix my leaks in the air mattress. It was the same air mattress I used on the Colorado Trail so maybe I was just asking for this to happen. I had a decent amount of duct tape and found what I thought was the only hole. I patched it up and found no sign of leaking air. I decided to hop into bed as there was nothing much else to do and the temperature was dropping quicker than the previous night since we were next to the river.
I slept great until 1 a.m. when I finally awoke to a rigid, rough mattress of ground. The air mattress once again refused to hold air. My patch was holding fine so it was now forcing air out of another hole. I found that hole and patched it. At 2 a.m. I found this patch had worked and now was forcing the air out of another hole. Brett awoke to see me sprawled out rather awkwardly looking as if I might start making out with my mattress at any time. He laughed at me and I couldn't help but laugh at myself and my predicament. Bikepacking has definitely taught me a new level of resilience and the needed ability to laugh at one’s self. I was tired and couldn't find this third hole so decided to blow it up again and just sleep as much as I could. I awoke about every 30 minutes since I was missing a major piece of comfort and insulation but I knew the dawn was now quickly approaching. When there finally was enough light I got up to eat breakfast and pack the bike because I knew I wasn't going to sleep.
Brett and I enjoyed a quick snack but we planned on getting our real breakfast in Dolores. We headed up into the sun and I was glad to be finally getting warm. The ride down to Dolores made us feel like super-heroes because it was a constant negative two or three percent. We cruised easily at 24 to 25 mph all the way into Dolores. As we entered town Brett got the only flat of the trip. I checked the tire to see where the cut or puncture was but found none. I checked the valve and sure enough it was just slightly loose, just enough to let a rush of air out. We tightened it and then started inflating. Sealant came around the valve and did its job and we finally got the tire up to pressure. We hopped back on the bikes and saw a busy parking lot at the Ponderosa Restaurant. The packed parking lot was a good sign, and we learned Sundays meant an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet! Brett and I chowed down on pancakes, waffles, scrambled eggs, hashbrowns, skillet potatoes, gravy, biscuits, jam, French toast, and whatever else we could get our hands on. It was a gift from heaven and bikepackers dream! We left very full and confident we’d gotten every penny’s worth.
The ride continued on and we took Highway 184 into Mancos. We had a tailwind the whole way and the road had been freshly paved in the last year or two. I was really starting to believe this bikepacking trip, compared to my last few, was more pleasure than pain. It almost felt like we were cheating! As we headed into Mancos, Brett already knew the destination and said we could do a quick stop at the local bakery. We arrived to find Absolute Bakery & Cafe closed early on Sundays but the front porch gave us a nice respite from the heat. We were able to fill bottles at the gas station and I knew it was time to buy my traditional Little Debbie Honey Bun for the trip. I stuffed it into the back pocket for future snacking and we began the climb up Highway 160 over Mancos Hill. We climbed in the heat but it wasn't too bad, although I didn't enjoy the semi-truck smog as they geared down on the climb. At Hesperus we did our final stop at the convenient store. We filled our bottles and I ate my Honey Bun with great satisfaction. From here Brett said it was a quick descent into Durango and he wasn't kidding. We topped the hill and flew down the valley into Durango. It may have been a construction area but Brett and I used the wide shoulder to hit mid-50's as we dropped like falcons.
We rolled into Durango and Brett had one last stop before trip’s end. A local ice cream place, the Cream Bean Berry, had setup a little mobile cooler for selling their ice cream right next to the Animas River in town. We pedaled over and both got three scoops of their mint chocolate ice cream. It was a fitting end to such a great trip. Brett saw some friends he knew and began talking with them. I sat back in my lawn chair and began to reflect on the trip.
This was one of the shortest bikepacking trips I had done but riding primarily on paved roads had let us cover a lot of ground quickly. Our Colossal bikes had performed flawlessly and I enjoyed how simple my setup was. I loved my previous Tour Divide and Colorado Trail setups but it was nice to be so lean and simple this time around. I also appreciated these previous experiences because they allowed me to get my gear choices just right and carry only things I used on the trip. I usually don't like to focus on gear and setup, but when they work well and make a trip possible I do think they should be applauded. The only thing that let me down, literally, was my air mattress and this will be replaced. In the end, I was really happy with our Colossal bikepacking trip. There are so many paved or partially paved routes possible it has me dreaming up options for more adventures. I encourage you to dream some up for yourself as well.
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Sean 'Mailman' Mailen
I was born and raised in the hills of Tennessee. I decided in high school I wanted to design the best bikes and parts possible; I’ve been following my dream ever since. I love about every possible mode of cycling, mountain biking is the most fun, but if I’m on two wheels I’m happy.