Ten Takeaways From Bikepacking The Colorado Trail

Throughout my years of riding I have completed 100-mile mountain bike and gravel races, 12-hour solo mountain bike races, and a handful of double centuries on a road bike. When considering my next cycling challenge I knew I wanted to try a multi-day bikepacking trip.

I originally considered the Great Divide Route but realized this likely meant I would be doing it solo and this would not play well with my extraverted nature. This led me to conclude that the Colorado Trail, or CT, might be a good option both in terms of length and in the chance of finding a riding partner. The CT consists of 485 miles and 70,000' of elevation gain winding through the Rocky Mountains between Denver and Durango. It is partly made up by approximately 300-plus miles of singletrack at elevations ranging from 5,500' to a gasping-for-breath 13,200'. The course record on the CT is just under four days but from the research I did, most mortals were able to complete the trail in seven to ten days while still stopping to sleep each night. This trail seemed like something I could complete as a first-time bikepacking trip, while still providing plenty of challenges along the way.

With a course in mind, my next step was to find a partner to slay the monster CT trail with me. Last fall I ran the idea by my good friend and Salsa engineer Sean Mailen. Sean and I have put in hours upon hours of time together on the bike, so I knew our personalities, fitness level, and riding styles would be very compatible for a week-plus trip. Not to mention that Sean has tons on bikepacking experience from completing the Tour Divide Route two years ago. Sean liked the idea, but had to make sure he could free up the time at work and at home. As Sean waited to get the go ahead for the trip, I started compiling the gear I would need for the CT and continued planning my adventure. Later that winter Sean said he was in and I knew it wouldn’t be long until we set out to conquer the Colorado Trail.

In planning our trip, I had more concerns about my gear than I did about my training and fitness. Over the past year I had hardly done any races, but as a year-round commuter, I typically log between 6,000 to 8,000 miles annually. Add that up for ten years, and I was confident I would have enough base miles to make it through the CT.

On June 22, 2013 Sean and I loaded the car and headed west. After a 13-hour drive we arrived in Denver where we spent the night at a friend’s place. The next morning we had a casual breakfast and then loaded the car again to head to the Waterton Canyon trailhead. Our plan for the CT was to put in a full day of hard riding and then set up camp each night. The goal was to finish the CT in seven days. Once we hit the trail it didn’t take long for both Sean and I to realize the elevation was really going to affect our riding. Going from approximately 700’ elevation in Minneapolis to a starting elevation of 5,500’ in Denver was like racing while breathing through a straw. By the end of the day one we peaked out at just over 8,200’ and only covered about 55 miles. Our goal was to average 65-75 miles per day.

On day two we started to realize there was going to be a lot more hike-a-bike on the CT than we had anticipated. At the end of day two we rode through Breckenridge and Copper Mountain, peaked out at 12,400’ and had only covered another 55 miles. We knew day two was going to have a lot of climbing so we stayed optimistic and looked forward to day three. By looking at the CT Databook day three’s segments led us to believe we could make up ground from days one and two.

At the end of day three we had covered 45 miles and started to question if our goal of finishing in seven days was realistic. Still in good spirits and good health we set up camp again, and looked forward to another day of breath-taking views and elevation. 

Days four, five, and six continued to be slow going with a lot of pushing our Spearfish bikes over one summit after another. Finally on day seven we were able to put some real miles in. This was due to the La Garita Wilderness reroute (bicycles are not allowed in Wilderness Areas) and a mandatory reroute due to recent forest fires around the West Fork Complex. At the end of day seven we arrived in Silverton around 11pm, after riding for over 12 hours and covering close to 90 miles, still 70-some miles from Durango.

In Silverton we got our first hotel room, took our first shower and rinsed our clothes for the first time on the trip. When we were all cleaned up we discussed our options for finishing the final miles. Our options were to either put in a 20-plus hour day, riding through the night, and finishing in Durango in the early morning of day nine…  or we could break the last of ride up into two days, and finish in the evening of day nine. The decision was easy for us; split up the 70 miles and enjoy our last two days on the trail.

Days eight and nine were a bit shorter than the previous seven days but still consisted of lots of hike-a-bike and also rewarded us with some nice singletrack and fast rocky downhills. Each day was also filled with mixed emotions. Happy thoughts of finally completing our goal and finishing the CT, but also some sad thoughts that our time in the Rocky Mountains would be coming to an end. Finally around 5 PM Monday, July 1, we rolled into the Junction Creek trailhead in Durango. The ride ended just like it started. No start or finish line, no crowd cheering us on, just two friends out to fulfill a goal of, do some camping in the mountains and have some fun on our bikes.

My time on the CT was an awesome experience and something I will cherish forever. The trail tested me both mentally and physically, and taught me a lot about bikepacking, all of which has given me confidence and inspired me to look for new opportunities to explore the world around me on two wheels.

Ten Takeaways From Bikepacking The Colorado Trail

1. The CT is a hiking trail that allows mountain bikers to use it too. There is A LOT of hike-a-bike on the trail.

2. Carrying the most recent Colorado Trail Databook is a must, despite the trail being marked very well. You can get away without using a GPS, but they are still nice to have. 

3. Hydrate…and then hydrate some more. The air is thin and dry so you need more water.

4. Set a timer and be diligent about eating every hour. You will go into a calorie deficit, so consuming calories regularly will keep you energized.

5. When riding the CT fully loaded, a 180mm front rotor would have been nice for added confidence on the long descents.

6. Bringing extra brake pads may give you good peace of mind on the trail.

7. Carrying an extra 2-liter (or two 1-liter) Platypus water container is useful around camp, and as a backup reservoir if your hydration pack gets a leak, like mine did.

8. Get to know the Little Debbie selection at your local gas station. These things are like gold on the trail.

9. Change out of your riding clothes first thing after you stop for the night. Change back into your riding clothes first thing in the morning.  This will help you get on the trail faster in the morning.

10.  Don’t overeat when you stop at a restaurant. If you can’t finish your meal, have it wrapped up in tinfoil and bring it with you.

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ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER

Bikes have always been a part of my life, from growing up with half-pipes and dirt jumps in the back yard, to working at a bike shop in college, and now commuting to and from work each day and the occasional weekend race. For me, riding is an extension of who I am. I like the company of riding with friends. I like to go fast, get a little out of control now and then, and try to get rad when the opportunity presents itself. For me, not all rides have to be an epic tale of survival, but I have found testing my limits on the bike has made me a stronger rider and a stronger person in life.​

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This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Guest Blogger Mountain Biking Overnighter Spearfish Split Pivot Touring

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