In the weirdness of 2020, I found normalcy on the Colorado Trail. For 11 days, I traded the anxieties of our pandemic world to concerns of a more basic sort — where is the next water source? And when we find it, will the filter actually work against cow manure? Does this Ramen have enough calories?
And, what is making that noise outside of the tent?
If you have a bikepacking bucket list, the Colorado Trail is probably on it. For over 500 miles, the mostly-singletrack route runs down the spine of the Rockies from Denver to Durango. There are myriad ways to tackle the 72,000 feet of climbing: some race it (either during the late-July Colorado Trail Race or as an independent time trial a la Lachlan Morton); some take it slow, seeking out detours like hot springs and bakeries (of which there are many); and others, like my friends and I, thought we’d do something in between.
What we found was the most challenging and rewarding way to travel between two Colorado cities, bodies that were capable of turning the pedals in spite of days of sleeplessness and profound fatigue, and minds capable of both plummeting to the depths of despair and reaching new heights of joy.
I already can’t wait to do it again.
Day 0, my backyard
It wouldn’t be fair to not show a ‘before’ picture. This is Sophie. She came from New York to join my friend Lani and me on the CT. The day she flew in, we gear exploded in my backyard, and I had to be the bad guy that said ‘no’ to many of the toasty (bulky) layers of clothing that she brought (she thanked me later).
Day 2, Wellington Lake store
Water certainly isn’t scarce along the Colorado Trail, but depending on the time of year you ride it, there are certain sections where you have to be cognizant of how far apart your sources are. Here, we had planned to filter water from the lake, but when we saw that the gate to the store/campground was open, we seized the opportunity for the ease of a hose.
Day 2, Lost Creek Wilderness detour
The Colorado Trail traverses through five Wilderness areas where bikes are not allowed. The first comes only 40 miles into the trail and takes you on a 78-mile detour around a 14-mile section of trail. The detour would be an outstanding gravel ride on its own; it sidles along the Wilderness area through the Buffalo Creek Fire burn zone, where neon-green aspen trees have crept up the crevasses and scars left by the fire and flooding in 1996.
Day 2, Stagestop Store and Saloon, Jefferson
Beer and homemade lasagna, oh my! The Stagestop has legendary status among Colorado Trail Race participants; the owner Pat is an avid ‘dot watcher’ who’s been known to open the doors in the middle of the night to feed racers passing through. If we weren’t trying to make it to Kenosha Pass that evening, we would have taken this little guy up on his offer, “Pat lets people camp out back, even during the coronavirus.”
Day 3, Miner’s Creek Trail
It was eerily coincidental that our first rain shower of the trip began to fall while we rode through yet another burn zone. So much of Colorado’s forests are characterized by the too-close-for-comfort stands of lodgepole and ponderosa pine that have been ravaged by the Mountain pine beetle, making them more susceptible to out-of-control wildfires.
Day 4, climbing up and over the Tenmile Range
This was the first legit hike-a-bike of the trip, heading up and over the Tenmile Range toward Wheeler Pass. As someone who also likes to spend time in the backcountry when it’s covered with snow, I had a realization shortly after this point that I was pushing my bike along the same ridge where I’d suffered through a ski mountaineering race a few years before.
Day 4, Wheeler Pass
After a few miles on this ridge, the trail takes a sharp right-hand turn and drops nearly 3,000 feet down the steep and stupid-fun Wheeler Trail where Sophie’s fork-mounted bottle cages rattled off her bike, and I’m pretty sure I burned through both sets of brake pads.
Day 4, Searle Pass
The stretch of trail from Copper Mountain ski resort to Tennessee Pass outside of Leadville is arguably one of the best and one I’ve ridden many times as a single-day outing. Like much of the CT, it’s debatable which direction rides better, but I love climbing up the ski resort to the tundra, then bombing down to Camp Hale, a decommissioned U.S. Army training facility for the 10th Mountain Division whose soldiers were trained in mountain climbing, Alpine and Nordic skiing, and cold-weather survival.
Day 5, City Market, Buena Vista
It was easy to forget about the pandemic on the trail, yet each foray into a town reminded us that nothing had changed while we were out.
Also, junk food.
Day 6, somewhere along the Sawatch
It was misty all day as we sidled along the flanks of the Sawatch Range. The range extends roughly 80 miles from north to south, and its mountains in general are high, massive, and relatively gentle in contour. 15 of the state’s 54 fourteeners are nestled in the Sawatch; a few years ago, Lani and I capped off a four-day bikepacking trip with a ride up and down Mt. Elbert, the state’s highest. As we passed the turnoff for the Elbert trailhead later this day, we thought, “yea….nah.”
Day 6, Sawatch Range
Between Leadville and the Monarch Crest, there are a hundred or so miles that look exactly like this. Some of the trail is flowy and fun, and much of it is littered with just enough soccer-ball sized rocks at inconveniently-spaced intervals to make consistent riding nearly impossible.
Day 7, somewhere between Gunnison and Saguache
This was one of those instances where we tried our hardest to keep pushing to find a campsite near water, but we didn’t bring lights to ride in the dark. Somehow, Lani scared up a few liters from a trickling stream a few miles before we made camp, but with all the cows around, the quality was sketch at best.
Day 8, La Garita Wilderness detour
I have to admit, I’m a sucker for the Wilderness detours of the Colorado Trail (must be all that gravel ridin’ I do). At 56 miles, this was the second longest Wilderness ride-around, and it travels through a part of Colorado that few visit. This is where we began to see thousands of cattle and consequently had to think differently about filtering and boiling water. In a trip that had been largely devoid of wildlife sightings, it was somewhat pleasant to have some other forms of life in our midst.
Day 8, just above Spring Creek Pass
That’s snow on the ground.
Day 9, segment 22
We knew that doing the CT in late August/early September would give us some chilly mornings and evenings, but I was fairly confident we were too early for snow. Our camp at 11,400 feet elevation the night before ensured that we got a small dose of it during a windy and wet storm. If you’re questioning bringing rain pants, bring them.
Day 9, above Lake City
Before doing the CT, I had been warned that nearly 100 of the 545 miles would require hike-a-bike. I thus chose my shoes (Five Ten Guide Tennie approach) and pedals (flat) accordingly. One of the best surprises of the trip was that I don’t think we pushed anything near that distance. Were there some gnarly sections where I was cursing my heavy, cumbersome bike and scrawny, mild-muscled arms? Definitely. But sometimes it felt nice to take a break from pedaling.
Day 9, the high point
Segments 22 and 23 between Spring Creek Pass and Silverton showcase some of the most unique terrain on the trail. All of the riding is above 12,000 feet, and it’s an endless roller coaster of small dips and climbs with epic alpine views all around. Being so exposed to the elements is much of what makes this bit so challenging — we started this day in the quickly-melting snow and rode under brisk winds and piercing sunshine all day. I think this is the day when I began to fixate on never again riding without gloves or sleeves or sunscreen (and booking a facial as soon as I got home).
Day 9, Cataract Lake
We were running low on food this day, and knowing that we were Silverton-bound for dinner, decided to splurge and have a hot lunch along the trail. We became Ramen connoisseurs along the CT, and my top choice was the Indomie Mi Goreng Instant Stir Fry Noodle variety. In addition to the sweet chili-based sauce, these noodles also come with a crunchy fried onion garnish to go on the top and soy sauce to add to the mix. Lots of small bits of trash, total pain in the *ss, totally worth it.
Day 9, Cataract Range
Hard to be annoyed by how long these segments took us with views like those.
Day 10, between Molas and Kennebec Passes
If you only have two days to ride any part of the Colorado Trail, you would be hard pressed to find a better bit than what lies in the San Juan mountains between Molas Pass and Durango. It’s hard to ride the CT around there and not think that it was purpose-built for mountain biking; it’s that good. But, it’s also challenging AF, and I was so beat by this point that I found myself already wanting to come back, next time.
Day 10, Blackhawk Pass
I fell in love with this piece of trail last summer when I did a five-day bikepacking trip on the CT. It’s a short push up to the top and a screaming fun descent on the other side. Knowing we were close to the end, we made an early camp about 10 miles past here and enjoyed the lazy sunset and the rest of our snacks. That night, we saw the pinpricks of a few riders’ bike lights bombing down the descent under the full moon.
Day 11, Junction Creek trailhead, Durango