Geology through Bikepacking

Editor's note: Sponsored rider Kurt Refsnider takes a bike to work. A professor at Prescott College in Arizona, he takes students on bikepacking trips into the nearby mountains as a part of class. Three weeks prior to this latest excursion, only a couple of the students had done any multi-day bike trips. Now they were seasoned bikepackers up for anything--and they could tell you the geologic story of every landscape through which they had ridden.


My groggy brain gradually registered the sound of raindrops falling heavily on the tent. Steady rain. Without yet opening my eyes, I had to recall exactly where I was. Then there was laughter sounding through the rain from somewhere nearby. Ah, yes--as I opened my eyes to the bluish light inside the tent, my brain sputtered awake and placed me squarely in the mountains above Crested Butte with a delightful crew of Prescott College students.

The steady rain returned to the forefront of my brain. Then I wondered why some of our students were already out in it, and laughing at that! I looked over at Kaitlyn, who was staring up at the tent. Her expression clearly showed her concern, one that I was beginning to recognize. It was a cold morning. It was raining hard. We had a long descent to start our day, followed by a long climb back up to nearly tree line at Reno Divide. With steady rain, ample mud, high elevation riding and what seemed like a good chance for some snow, the likelihood of our riders getting dangerously cold was quite high. And it seemed certain that morale would plummet in such challenging conditions. Beyond that, geology lessons along the way were pretty much out of the question.

And yet, outside the tent, laughter continued as the students were getting ready to ride, bouncing about in their colorful rain gear. Kaitlyn and I talked contingency plans over hot coffee in the tent. Glancing outside, freshly fallen snow blanketed the peaks not high above us. The cold rain continued to fall, and I was disappointed that we had such beautiful weather on our warmer desert rides. We decided to follow our route down into Crested Butte and then plan the rest of the day from there.

A spray of muddy water chased everyone down the dirt road as we descended out of one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve seen in the West. Red rocks, verdant green meadows, yellow aspen and a dusting of white snow capping the high peaks brought grins to all our faces. Everyone seemed entirely unphased by the rain.

A scant 30 minutes after we began riding, though, breaks in the gray clouds showed us glimpses of the bright-blue sky hidden above. Groves of aspen emanating a golden glow above the sloppy road had everyone chattering away like a raucous family of acorn woodpeckers. Then the rain stopped, and Crested Butte came into view. It wasn’t far to coffee and bagels in a hopping mountain town. Then a giant slump in the Mancos Shale across the valley captured our attention. The day just kept getting better!

Our group rode proudly into town atop their muddy loaded bikes and reveled in the questions they were asked about where we had been and where we were headed next. Three weeks prior, only a couple of the students had done any multi-day bike trips. Now they were seasoned bikepackers up for anything, even if we told them that there might be a fair bit of hiking along the way. And they could tell you the geologic story of every landscape through which we had ridden. It was an inspiring transformation, to say the least.

Before long, we were cruising down the highway out of town with a strong tailwind, headed toward the high peaks of the Sawatch Range to the southeast. We already had studied the Cretaceous part of the geologic story, marveled at the Elk Mountain Thrust Fault that bent and slid older rocks up onto younger rocks. And now it was time to experience the results of the Laramide Orogeny (the modern Rocky Mountains) and the recent glaciations up close, and what better way to do so than to travel through them by bike?

Once again, the opportunity to teach this class and the amazing students that we had the pleasure of teaching (and learning from) humbled me, and I’m excited to see where some of the students will ride to next on their own. We also have to thank Salsa Cycles, Revelate Designs and Fenix Lighting for supporting the course by helping us outfit everyone with superb bikepacking gear.


In the coming days, we’ll share a few different stories from these students ... read Kellen Shaver's here and Daniela De Guzman's here.

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Kaitlyn Boyle Kurt Refsnider

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Kurt Refsnider

Kurt Refsnider

After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous west. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country, enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. When driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity. [url=][/url]


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