Llama-Packing The San Juans

Llama Packing the San Juans

Llama Packing the San Juans

A San Juan Ramble: Seeking Originality on Two Wheels

Written by Brett Davis

Photos by Brett Davis and Steve ‘Doom’ Fassbinder

A San Juan Ramble:
Seeking Originality on Two Wheels

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties. —Erich Fromm


Some say that there is nothing new left to do, that those before us have done it all. Others state that this is the age of discovery, and that with our current state of technology and the availability of more leisure time, barriers and deep-rooted beliefs can be broken. Both camps are probably right in some aspect. I believe it really comes down to one’s attitude on the matter. 

Personally, I fall on the side that the “age of firsts” is not over, it just requires some creativity—thinking outside of the norm. In this golden age of bikepacking, I struggle with giving step-by-step directions to every route that I plan and attempt. I have a hard time following someone else’s GPX route, knowing that if I dig a little deeper and stare at a map for a little bit longer, an idea will come forth that will inspire me to look beyond the box that we inadvertently draw around ourselves when we follow in others’ footsteps. This past summer’s adventure was a prime example of what can be experienced when we think for ourselves and stray away from what has already been done and published. 

For years now, I have had an idea percolating in the deep recesses of my adventure mind. Living in the picturesque mountain town of Durango, Colorado, I am lucky to have access to one of the world’s most stunning mountain ranges, the San Juans. Encompassing more than 17,000 square miles, the range is a playground for all mountain enthusiasts. I have hiked, climbed, skied, kayaked, and biked much of the range. For most, an exploration of the range begins in the towns of Durango, Pagosa Springs, Telluride, Ouray, or Silverton. The scenic byways of 550 and 160 provide quick and easy access to high alpine lakes, trout streams, rocky summits, and deep gorges. Additionally, because of the bisection of the range from the Durango-Silverton railway and the presence of the famed Colorado Trail, a north-to-south (or vice versa) traverse of the area is common. Few ever think of crossing the range from the other cardinal points of east and west.

The wall behind my office desk is covered by a map of the entire San Juan Mountain Range. Every day the first thing I see when I open the door is the San Juans sprawling across 64 square feet of space behind my chair. Throughout my workday I find myself swiveling my chair around to stare and dream. What is in that drainage? What is that trail like? Do I have the skill to climb that peak? From these mind wanderings, the idea embedded itself in my consciousness…what about traversing the range utilizing human-powered means from west to east, beginning with a climb of its western most prominent peak, Lone Cone (12,618’) and finishing with an ascent of Bennett Peak (13,209’), the tallest peak on the southeast side of the range? Between the two peaks lies 260 miles of some of the lower 48’s most beautiful and rugged terrain. What did those miles look like? What would I see? What would I experience? 

That is the charm of a map. It represents the other side of the horizon where everything is possible. It has the magic of anticipation without the toil and sweat of realization. The greatest romance ever written pales before the possibilities of adventure that lie in the faint blue trails from sea to sea. The perfect journey is never finished, the goal is always just across the next river, round the shoulder of the next mountain. There is always one more track to follow, one more mirage to explore. Achievement is the price which the wanderer pays for the right to venture.  —Rosita Forbes


Upon sharing my idea of the ramble with the usual suspects, Steve “Doom” Fassbinder and Jon Bailey, they both watched eagerly as my fingers traced a route from peak to peak across the entirety of the range. I could tell from their eyes and body language that they were both in—no hesitations or questions asked. This type of journey appealed to their adventure values of creativity, off the beaten path, human powered, some suffering, and relatively inexpensive. This trip would meet all criteria and would be extra affordable given that it would take place in our own backyard. 

Another draw for each of us in not following another’s footsteps, tire tracks, etc., is the planning process to create such adventures. Utilizing various maps of the region, Google Earth, and, I spent hours looking at prospective four-wheel drive roads, trails, and waterways to build a compelling route—something that was plausible and inspiring without being contrived. After each session of following lines across a computer screen or paper map, my mind would drift off in a state of curiosity and wanting to immerse myself into the actual landscape depicted by the maps.

A map is not a journey. —Phyllis A. Whitney

On a beautiful late-July afternoon, the three of us were shuttled with mountain bikes and other associated gear to the Devil’s Chair trailhead of Lone Cone to begin our journey. Standing as a sentry to the western flank of the San Juans, Lone Cone is probably one of the most-viewed peaks in the range. Those driving anywhere in the Four Corners region of the southwest can’t miss its volcano-like stature on the horizon. Despite its visible notoriety, few people aside from locals climb to its summit. During our shuttle drive, the peak was surrounded by the heavy blue clouds of the monsoon season. Given that the mountain was being hit by lightning from every angle, an early evening summit attempt didn’t seem to be in the cards for us. However, once we arrived at the deserted trailhead, the skies had lightened and the race was on to start our ramble.  

The following morning, we found ourselves prepping for the first of two bike segments on the trip. Given the nature of the mountainous terrain, we decided to ride full-suspension bikes with minimal bikepacking gear. Our first three days of riding were almost entirely on singletrack with a few miles of gravel road connectors, so we didn’t want to be burdened by too much equipment or compromise the feel of the trail by riding a hardtail. I wanted to shred on my new Spearfish and enjoy all of its capabilities as an efficient and playful trail bike. 

Soon after snapping the obligatory group shot, we found ourselves ripping down a ribbon of singletrack that none of us had ever ridden. Though it was late July, the forest was still lush from one of the whitest winters we had experienced in recent years. The normally dry creeks were still flowing from bank to bank, providing ample opportunities to cool off with mad high-speed crossings. 

The first segment of riding flew by with the routines of our daily lives quickly falling by the wayside, replaced by the hypnotic metronome of a consistent pedal cadence; the pitter patter of afternoon rains falling on a jacket hood; and the laughter of three men enjoying each other’s company. Life was simple again, and its stresses melted away with each mile. 

After nearly 100 miles in two and a half days, we descended down a high alpine talus field and into the bustling mountain town of Silverton, CO. We were quickly welcomed back into the front country by clouds of exhaust from every conceivable type of ATV and OHV zooming by us as we rode the town’s lone strip of pavement down main street. Though Silverton is one of my favorite towns during the winter months as a sleepy backcountry skier’s paradise, it is anything but that during the summer. The warmer months attract a more motorized crowd who flock from all across the country to utilize engine-powered transports to explore the trails snaking through the surrounding high peaks and long-abandoned mining communities. Needless to say, all three of us were hoping for a quick resupply and transition to the next segment of our journey.

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. –Howard Zahniser

Those familiar with the San Juan Mountain Range know that in its heart lies a wilderness area of stunning beauty. The Weminuche Wilderness is the largest designated wilderness in the state of Colorado, encompassing nearly 500,000 acres. Within its boundaries you’ll find some of the state’s most rugged and steep terrain. As many may know, motorized or mechanical vehicles (i.e. a simple bicycle) are not permitted in a wilderness designated area. One can easily bypass the Weminuche by following four-wheel drive tracks to the north of Silverton or by pavement to the far south near Durango.  

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties. —Erich Fromm