537 Miles: Bikepacking the Colorado Trail

537 Miles: Bikepacking the Colorado Trail

The desire to bikepack the Colorado Trail (CT) in its entirety had been strong in me for almost three decades. I spent many weekends during my early years riding in Waterton Canyon and Buffalo Creek on the CT dreaming of continuing on to Durango instead of looping back to the busy city of Denver. Over the years, I even put together a couple two to three night trips between Silverton and Durango, but never made planning a complete through trip a priority. Finally, as I planned my personal goals for 2017, I moved this to the “priority list.” It was no longer a distant dream but something that I needed to make happen. I knew that it would not be difficult to convince my girlfriend, Bettina, to join me. She lives to ride her bike and usually doubles my totals for mileage and elevation gain every year. When the email came reminding Osprey team members to submit their “Keep It Wild” grant applications, it was a done deal. The Osprey Keep It Wild grants provide Osprey team members financial support and additional paid time to follow their passions, explore wild places, and utilize the gear that we talk about every day.

Five hundred and thirty miles, 72,500’ of ascent, an average elevation of 10,000’ with a high point at 13,270’; these were just some of the statistics that would not stop swirling through my head in the weeks leading up our self-supported bikepack trip on the Colorado Trail. I wasn’t necessarily scared of the statistics, more overwhelmed by what they actually meant in terms of physical capacity needs. Neither Bettina nor I are strangers to suffering immensely on our fat tire bikes. Both of us have spent many dark hours in the deepest corners of the pain cave during 12 hour, 24 hour, and marathon Cross Country MTB races, but this felt different. The concerns were more like “what happens if one of our bikes break between Salida and Silverton, do we really have enough food to keep from completely bonking and how do we deal with monsoon rains or lightning storms at 13,000’?”

Nearing timberline on some pretty amazing trail

With the grant secured and dates set on the calendar, it was time to gear up and plot the trip’s finer details. We voraciously read every bit of information that we could find regarding bikepacking, talked with friends who had done the CT, and spent a lot of time in our local bike shops. In the end, we both decided to go full squish and ride our “big” bikes. My steed of choice was my Ibis HD3 and Bettina called on her Santa Cruz Bronson for a comfortably plush ride. Many people choose to bikepack on hardtails or fat bikes but we wanted something that was comfortable and familiar to us so that we could really enjoy the long, rocky descents. Once the bike choices were final, we outfitted them with bags from Bedrock Bags and Salsa. The final steps were filling the bags with our new ultralight gear from Big Agnes, MSR, and Snowpeak. We decided to spare no expense for quality, lightweight gear and feel it was totally worth it to keep the loads to a minimal weight.

Fully loaded and ready to roll

The summer was so busy for both of us with work and travel that the launch date of July 19th kind of snuck up on us. All of a sudden, we went from the daydreaming stage to “go-time.” Our plan called for driving to Salida where my brother would pick us up and transport us to his house in Denver. We would then embark from the Waterton Canyon trailhead the next morning and ride to Salida over five days. From there we would grab my truck, drive back to Salida for some unavoidable work duties and then drive back to our stopping point four weeks later, completing the journey to our doorstep in Durango.

Day 1: Waterton Canyon – Stoney Pass (47.4 miles – 7,103’ of ascent)

To ensure that we completed our miles before any afternoon thunderstorms could turn our adventure in to a survival scramble, we had to start early, but when the alarm went off at 4 a.m. I seriously questioned if it was really necessary. Once the blood started flowing back to my brain, the excitement of finally starting got me moving for a quick breakfast and long shuttle across Denver to the eastern terminus of the Colorado Trail at the Waterton Canyon Trailhead. An amazing sunrise started to light the canyon as we made final adjustments and pushed off with ear-to-ear grins. You could not ask for a better start, with 5 miles of almost flat bike path along the South Platte River giving way to a gradually steepening singletrack through Ponderosa forest. This really allowed us to get a feel for riding with our fully packed bikes and get our legs under us for the difficult sections to come. With the exception of a nasty hike-a-bike waterfall rock section, the miles melted away in the cool morning air. By 9:00am, we were refilling our Osprey hydration reservoirs along the South Platte and launching into a long, exposed climb through the area burned during the Buffalo Creek fire. After lunch and a short rest at the Little Scraggy trailhead, we proceeded onto the familiar singletrack of Buffalo Creek. At this point, we were both still feeling good but starting to weaken slightly from the impact of pedaling heavier than normal loads up the punchy climbs. By the time we got to the mandatory detour around the Lost Creek Wilderness, our smiles were fading but we weren’t cooked until we arrived at Wellington Lake to find all of the camp spots taken. Since we really needed water for our camp, this meant we needed to huff it over Stoney Pass despite an impending thunderstorm. We resorted to pushing our bikes for a while and finally found a decent campsite beside a small stream for our first night.

Amped up and ready to get started at Waterton Canyon

Highlight: The excitement of actually getting started and leaving Waterton Canyon at sunrise.

Lowlight: Arriving at Wellington Lake to find it all private property and the pay-to-camp sites full, resulting in a painful, exhausting effort over Stoney Pass to find a campsite in a looming thunderstorm.

Day 2: Stoney Pass – Kenosha Pass (63.0 miles – 5,991’ of ascent)

The first slivers of sunlight awakened us after a restful night’s sleep, but we were not really looking forward to this section. The epic Lost Creek Wilderness detour would take us sixty-some miles on gravel roads through the Hayman Fire burn area and rejoin the CT near Kenosha Pass. We are both singletrack junkies, and the thought of a full day on dusty washboard roads does not have the same appeal as even the toughest day of riding through the forest on a buffed out trail. Maybe it was this preconceived attitude that resulted in an absolute miserable experience, maybe it would have been miserable anyway, but we really suffered. With hardly a live tree in site for much of the route and hot, sunny conditions, dehydration quickly set in. I normally have no problem riding 63 road miles, but throw in some washboard and never ending “rollers” and it quickly became a battle for survival. The one thing that kept me going was seeing the town of Tarryall on the map. Thoughts of a cold Coke and handfuls of cookies were the carrot that kept me moving. You can imagine my disappointment when we rolled through a few houses with a fire station and post office but no gas station, convenience store, or grocery store. “Was that it?” I kept asking Bettina as we rolled on, convinced that there was more civilization with an actual store to come. Much to my chagrin, that was “it” and I was now faced with more rollers, a brutal headwind, and many miles to camp. We finally found a lunch spot where I laid down and declared that I was done. A combination of Bettina’s pushing and a full on assault from mosquitos and horseflies finally got me back in the saddle and moving, albeit very slowly. About this time, it finally hit me that I had hardly touched my water and was suffering from dehydration. As soon as I started gulping down caffeinated electrolyte mix, my mental state improved and we were back in business. Incredibly, we even came across a completely unexpected bar/café/convenience store in the middle of nowhere. I finally got my cold Coke and handfuls of cookies! We fought through winds that forced us to ride in granny gear even on perfectly flat roads but eventually made it the tiny town of Jefferson for double cheeseburgers and large fries. A couple more miles of climbing brought us to our camp at Kenosha Pass for the second night.

Setting up camp at Kenosha Pass after a hard Day 2

Highlight: Gorging on sodas and junk food at a completely unexpected convenience store just past Taryall Reservoir.

Lowlight: Becoming debilitated by dehydration riding through the Hayman Fire burn zone in the scorching sun.

Day 3: Kenosha Pass – Breckenridge (34.7 miles – 5,289’ of ascent)

We knew that day 3 was going to be a good one. Some of the trail was familiar to us from previous ventures to the area and we had great memories of amazing vistas and stellar trail riding. For the first time of the trip, we donned our jackets and gloves for the early miles descending from Kenosha Pass through thick aspens and patches of misty fog. But it didn’t take long to warm up as the descent was quickly followed by a long circuitous climb from the lush aspen groves to the alpine meadows of Georgia Pass. As we broke out of the trees for the first time, 360-degree views of postcard perfect alpine peaks back dropped by deep blue skies greeted us. This is what I had been looking forward to during all of those daydreams of riding the trail in its entirety. I could have sat in the sunlight enjoying the views for hours but after a quick snack and a few photos, we dropped down the gnarly, rocky, rooty, descent towards Breckenridge. One more hefty climb stood in our way but the downhill section afterward is a local’s favorite. We encountered a large group of riders that were gearing up to drop in but waved us through since they were not quite ready. The competitive side of me came out and I let it all go with no regard to all of the gear strapped to my bike and myself. This is what my Ibis HD3 was designed for and I fully tested its capabilities, leaping off drops, plowing through rock gardens, and blasting around tight switchbacks. Somehow, everything stayed attached and we joyfully cruised the final few miles to the end of the segment and the paved bike trail leading to downtown Breckenridge. We had booked a stay at the hostel in Breckenridge so that we could get our first shower and resupply. We turned up the bike path and headed straight into a brutal headwind. Even though it was only 5 miles with 500’ of climbing, that last stretch seemed to take forever and I had to fight back being angry at the wind, knowing that it would not make things any easier. Once at the hostel, we took the best showers ever and headed out to refuel our depleted bodies. Delicious restaurant food was very appealing after subsisting primarily on freeze-dried food for the past three days. We all know what happens when two starving bikers encounter a menu of tasty choices and they are lucky enough to hit happy hour with ½ price appetizers. Since we could not decide on one or two, we ordered nachos, chicken wings, potato skins, and spinach artichoke dip along with a couple of tall beers. Somehow we managed to crawl our way back to the hostel for a warm, comfortable night in a king sized bed.

Blue skies and alpine peaks rewarded us at the summit of Georgia Pass

Highlight: Breaking out of the trees on Georgia Pass for the first true Alpine ride section and incredible 360 degree views.

Lowlight: The final 5 miles and 500’ of climbing into a headwind that felt like 20 miles and 5000’ of climbing on the paved bike path to Breckenridge.

Day 4: Breckenridge – Leadville (52.7 miles – 5,935’ of ascent)

It was really hard to get out of the deluxe bed before sunrise on day 4 but knowing that we would be spending a big chunk of time above timberline and there was the potential for afternoon thunderstorms provided enough motivation to get the show on the road. Within minutes of awakening, we were pedaling our way back down the Breckenridge bike path. Unfortunately, an active forest fire had closed the section of the CT between Breckenridge and Copper Mountain so we stayed on the paved path all the way to Copper Mountain. Even though it was a bummer to not get to ride this section, internally we both looked at it as a blessing since we had done part of it a previous year and it was really, really hard even without fully loaded bikes. Since we were able to make good time on the bike path, we arrived at Copper Mountain ski area early in the morning and starting the long, switchbacking climb up Searle Pass.

Very slow going on the upper sections of Searle Pass

The trail was in amazing shape and the scenery was to die for, making the arduous climb actually very enjoyable. Once we were above timberline, the trail became much more difficult and we pushed our bikes through steep rock gardens to the top of the pass. A long section of beautiful alpine riding through wildflowers and alpine grasses to Kokomo pass led to a descent back into the trees on a brake-scorching drop to Camp Hale. This section was so steep that I literally fried my brake rotors into a psychedelic blue and copper color. The lowlight of the day came at a stream crossing near Camp Hale where we needed to refill our hydration reservoirs. The water filter didn’t want to cooperate and the refill took 10 times longer than it should have which gave the bees and horse flies plenty of time to attack the only living flesh that they had seen in a while (me). The next objective was Tennessee Pass, which meant another couple thousand feet of difficult climbing. On its own, the climb probably would not have been terribly taxing but with all of the previous climbing miles sitting heavy in our legs, it bordered on pure torture. Eventually we reached the summit and broke out into the parking lot near Highway 24 as the skies darkened and thunder rumbled in the distance. We stopped for a snack and quick assessment of our available options. It took all of 30 seconds to abandon our plan to camp there and make the decision to push on a few additional miles to Leadville for a hot meal and dry hotel room. Some may call this cheating but we were not on this trip to impress anyone, and if we wanted to avoid a wet, uncomfortable night of camping in favor of some weatherproof accommodations, then so be it. Our choice was quickly validated as the skies opened up for a solid 12-hour deluge and thunderstorm.

Still all smiles at the top of Kokomo Pass

Highlights: Amazing buffed out single track from Copper Mountain to Searle Pass. The long alpine section from Searle Pass to Kokomo Pass.

Lowlight: Struggling with the water filter while being absolutely slaughtered by bees and horse flies during a mandatory refill near Camp Hale.

Day 5: Leadville – Buena Vista (45.9 miles – 3,504’ of ascent)

Rain was still falling and the 14,000-foot peaks surrounding Leadville were completely socked in as we ate breakfast and prepared for the fifth day of our journey. We debated about what to do and eventually landed on decking out in rain gear, start riding, and play our cards as they unfolded. Miraculously, five minutes into the ride, a small window appeared in the clouds directly above us and we stripped off the rain gear. It was the strangest thing as that tiny window of clear skies followed us through 46 miles of riding even while thunderstorms and black as night skies surrounded us in all directions. This really was amazing riding as we rolled up and down buffed out singletrack through dense tunnels of aspen trees. Although there were some climbs, none were the soul crushers that we had been experiencing on previous days. Just when we thought we’d had enough, a long winding downhill would reward and rejuvenate us to continue onward. Time almost stood still as we ticked off miles of pure enjoyment. Finally, we dropped steeply from the upper reaches of the Collegiate mountain range to the highway for another wilderness detour. After so much enjoyment and feeling of isolation on the narrow trail, the highway was our worst nightmare. Truck after truck buzzed by us at high speed as we pedaled furiously to reach our turn off back to dirt roads. The weather around us was still rumbling but our fingers were crossed that we would at least make it to our friend Tom’s house in Buena Vista where we could reassess the plan to head for Salida. Our weather window did indeed follow us all the way to Buena Vista but that was where our luck ran out. While we were wolfing down sandwiches and playing with Tom’s new Australian Shepherd puppy, the clouds released ridiculous amounts of water. The roads instantly flooded and visibility dropped to almost nothing. There was no way we could feel safe continuing in these conditions, so without overthinking the situation we declared “no mas.” Tom shuttled us to my truck in Salida and we reveled in the ups and downs of our trip during the 4 hour drive back to Durango.

Enjoying our weather window as storms rumbled all around us

Highlight: More beautiful singletrack and tunnels of aspen trees between Mt. Massive and Twin Lakes.

Lowlight: Sharing pavement with trucks going 80 mph along Hwy 24 from Clear Creek Reservoir to the County Rd 371 turnoff.

Overall, we considered the trip an overwhelming success. The weather had been our biggest fear and it had mostly cooperated. Many of the miles were extremely hard but we persevered and got through the dark times. We met a lot people who were also on the trail to challenge themselves or escape their everyday lives. All of this left us ready for more and excited to take on the remaining challenges.

Stay tuned for part 2 as we finish the journey from Buena Vista to Durango through the most remote sections of the Colorado Trail.