S2:E4 – The Colorado Mountain Biking Special

Today: a special edition all about mountain biking in and around Colorado. We rank, we review, we get bruised (often).

This episode was written by Paul Olson and Lisa McNamara (but mostly Paul). It was recorded, edited, and produced by Lisa McNamara. Music by mrganso from Pixabay.

Do you have any suggestions for mountain bike trails we should check out – in Colorado or anywhere else? Let us know at info(at)roadtrippinginamerica.com.

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Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia

Transcript:

This is Road Tripping in America, a podcast about life on the road. I’m Lisa and this is Paul.

We’re exploring the US in a pickup truck with a camper – we named our setup The Bobs.

If you daydream about long-term travel or overlanding or #vanlife – or maybe you’re already on your own adventure – join us for some entertainment from the road. We’re in search of off-the-beaten-path adventures and new experiences after a year and a half of standing still.

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Today: a special edition all about mountain biking in and around Colorado. We rank, we review, we get bruised (often). This is series two, episode four: the Colorado mountain biking special.

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I’m pretty new to this mountain biking thing. I love road biking – I like to go fast with little to no effort involved. When mountain biking, at best, I feel like a little kid flying down the hill behind my house, making paths through the woods with my cousins, all thoughts gone from my mind as I swoop around nicely banked corners. At worst, I’m jumping on and off my bike when the going gets too rocky, loose, or steep, bruising my shins with my studded pedals while I push my bike up a hill so steep my feet slide out behind me, or flying down a trail above my skill level, letting out a steady stream of curses, yelps, and ows. Paul’s usually following behind me, shouting out encouragement and helpful tips, which I usually appreciate but sometimes do not appreciate. The thing is, I don’t really want to get better. I just want to have fun.

Paul’s been into mountain biking for a long time, though. When I met him, he owned four bikes and enough bike parts to cobble together a couple more. So Paul’s really into biking.

Paul: good enough? Cool, cool cool. Alright. Well, is this gonna be like a monologue piece or are you going to pepper Lisa in? It sounded like you were gonna pepper Lisa in.

Lisa: We’ve spent the majority of the summer exploring mountain bike trails in and around Colorado and now we’ve visited enough of them to be able to put together our own personal list of the best spots.

Paul: so we weighed two factors the most. One was trails and how near they were to the camping. How easy they were – or hard. And how much fun we had on them. The second biggest piece was the camping. How were the spots laid out, were you on top of other people, was it expensive. Less important were the amenities available, so, were there bathrooms, was there water. None of these places had showers so we didn’t have to worry about that. But some had showers nearby which was nice. And that kind of fell into our other category of – what else was going on, were there bears in the area, were there rodents, did we get chased by animals, that sort of thing. So, trails and camping – biggest categories, everything else we tried to take into account.

Alright, so we had a top three and then we had a bunch of other spots that we went, but the top three really stood out.

Lisa: let’s do this in reverse order and start with our number three favorite Colorado mountain biking spot…

Our number three favorite spot was the Hartman Rocks area outside Gunnison, CO. There the trails were amazing – two of our favorites were Sea of Sage and The Luge. Which were both, I think 100% downhills and were a lot of fun to bomb down. There were trails everywhere. There were a lot of easy trails, a lot of difficult trails. I think the only downside was that there were a fair number of motorcyclists, which is a little loud, but again, not that big a deal. I don’t think we ever ran into one on the trail, we just had them around. Oh yeah yeah yeah, some kids tried to kill us. In a sweet way. So there was that one incident. But the trails were fantastic. And the easy ones were legitimately easy and fun and the hard ones were easy enough to stay away from. We didn’t entirely stay away from them, we ended up on a blue that was very steep and yeah, I screwed up my finger trying to squeeze between two rocks that I don’t think you could physically bike through. Somehow some people make it – I did not make it. Lisa was wise enough to walk. So those trails were amazing.

The camping was all designated dispersed. So there were labeled spots inside this whole area that you could camp at, but you were not supposed to camp between the spots or anywhere else, and there were a ton of them so it was easy to find a spot. It was easy to be separate from other people, other people were able to grab spots that were close to each other if they had a bigger group.

All the trails were pretty close, it was just the spots on the western side that were a little ways from the main stuff, but the western side is where you want to come in. It’s the back entrance and it’s just way less eroded off and rutted and rocky. The main entrance was terrible.

So yeah, the campsites were amazing. Because it was so busy and developed and well-utilized, there were porta-potties at basically every intersection, so every campsite was within walking or a short bike ride to a bathroom, which was nice too.

In the town, at the main town park, you can fill up your water jugs and you can bring in plenty of water, because there’s no water inside the area, as far as we can tell. So if you’re gonna camp a few days, bring a few gallons because it’s pretty hot. We were able to fill up our big jug after we got it from Walmart and had plenty of water the entire time we were there, which was pretty nice.

We didn’t figure out showers in Gunnison – maybe there’s something. The other thing is that Gunnison has an Ace Hardware store that sells rodent repellent, which is a recommended thing to bring along, because – this is why I wasn’t as big of a fan of it. This is one of Lisa’s favorite spots to be, but I got a little turned off by the rodent that tried to live under our engine, and I had to fight it off a couple of nights to get it out of there. We eventually got rid of it with the rodent repellent, and we will always have those from now on, but it was pretty infuriating having a pack rat basically trying to tear apart our truck. ‘Nuff said.

The other thing I liked about Gunnison was that they had that cycling themed bike shop/coffee shop.

Lisa: Double Shot Cyclery – they also had great t-shirts and drinks at night. Very fun place.

That was really cool. So if you wanted/needed anything for your bike, you could get it there, but you could also just get a great cup of coffee and hang out and use their wifi and take in the scene. Gunnison’s got kind of a cute main street and that coffee shop is definitely worth stopping at.

Lisa: OK – what was our number two favorite Colorado mountain biking spot?

Our second favorite spot was the Thunder Trail system outside Norwood, CO. There were fewer trails – there was 20 miles of singletrack and a gravel road that you could kind of piece things together with. There was more singletrack on the other side of the town that we didn’t get to, but we ran into a ranger and he recommended it, so we’ll have to go back there and check it out. But those trails were fun as well, and if you biked up into the area farther, you could generally take the singletrack downhill and ride uphill on the main road. There are two sides of the loops – one was more along the cliff into Naturita Canyon, and those trails were much rockier. I rode more of those than Lisa – we kinda just bailed on the one that we tried. The other side, the inland side, is just more fun and you could ride it all day. You can ride it uphill and downhill, and maybe not run into anybody, because we didn’t run into anybody at all. We saw some cows, there were other people using the trails – we saw them, but we never encountered anybody on the trails. We really just talked to that ranger guy, who was super friendly, and talking about de-fueling the area, which took us a cycle to figure out what that meant – or at least me – he’s gonna light some stuff on fire! You can cut all that out if you want.

So those were the trails. They were also really well labeled, and they had super nice maps at every intersection, so you could see where you were and if you wanted to veer off your planned route and check out something else. There were a couple of really tricky sections, but some of them even had bypasses, and in general it was just really pleasant, fun singletrack.

So Norwood had designated dispersed campsites too – again, free – Gunnison was free too. So that just means that six sites where labeled, hey, you can camp here. After that sixth site, you could keep going up the dirt road and try to find another site – we only found one or two – and we stayed at that other site two nights and then we stayed at an official site two nights, and they were both nice. The nice part about the designated areas is that, if you’re close to the trailhead, you can bike over to the trailhead porta-potty and use that, and that was the only toilet in the area, for miles.

But all the sites were very well spaced, they were very private, they were wooded and beautiful, and so when you were camping, again, nobody was there, but even if other people were there, I don’t think you would have seen them, because there’s just so much space between each site, they were really nicely laid out. They had fire rings, they had clear areas for tents and probably enough room for little trailers. The only thing about the camping is that the road in is kinda rough, kinda like the Gunnison main path in, it was fairly washboarded. But not anything you couldn’t do, it was just not super pleasant.

With amenities – again, there was no water at the trailhead – even in town, water was in short supply. It seemed like they were all sold out of gallon jugs at the grocery store, the parks didn’t really have anything that we could find. We ended up going to Telluride one day and getting a shower at their aquatic center. We also filled up our water there. We were gonna camp in the area and then we decided – meh – let’s go back to Norwood. And so we went all the way back to Norwood, and I think that’s kind of a good mood, if you want to spend a bunch of days there, break it up, day trip over to Telluride, get lunch, get a shower, and check out that town. Lisa mentioned this a couple episodes ago where Telluride is just mobbed right now, there were just crowds of people. Everybody’s enjoying this stuff right now. And maybe that will change in the fall when people go back to school, but when we were there, it was insane. And I think that was kind of the main downside too, and that was that, if you wanted that stuff, you had to trek over to Telluride, which I think was just under an hour. In that immediate area of Norwood, there’s not a lot of that stuff. Norwood’s a very small town. There’s a grocery store and a gas station, and not a ton. There’s like two streets. It’s very quaint and cute and not a lot of backup stuff. But it’s cute, and the rangers were really nice. The ranger we talked to was really nice, I don’t remember his name, do you remember his name?

Lisa: I think his name was Eric. He really loved the trails and was torn between wanting to share them with others and wanting to keep them a secret so they don’t get too busy.

Oh! The other thing – I did have one more thing about Norwood. If you go in the other direction of Telluride, you can go up through Nucla to Gateway, and you can get to a really cool resort area that looks spectacular, and is the entirely opposite end of the comfort spectrum of what you are experiencing at the Thunder Trails dispersed camping. There’s red rocks and beautiful vistas and on a whim, I looked it up to see if we could maybe swing a night there, and I think it was like three or four hundred dollars – so we didn’t do that this time, maybe next time. But again, a beautiful area of Colorado that is very quiet and kind of undiscovered, it feels like. We felt like the only tourists in these towns sometimes, as opposed to when you’re in Telluride and you’re like, I can’t believe anybody actually lives here, it’s entirely the opposite if you go west out of Norwood or east out of town.

Lisa: so that’s spots three and two – Gunnison’s Hartman Rocks recreation area and Norwood’s Thunder Trail system, respectively. We’ll get to our number one favorite Colorado mountain biking spot – after the break.

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Lisa: Welcome back! OK, so what is the number one spot? Are you ready?

Alright, so number one – this is definitely my number one and Lisa’s grudgingly number one.

Lisa: No, don’t say grudgingly!

Well, you definitely liked Gunnison. Top three for both of us, my undisputed number one, Lisa’s very close to that position. Wait, what was the area called? Chicken? Turkey?

Lisa: Turkey Springs Trail System!

The Turkey Springs Trail System outside Pagosa Springs. So – again – dispersed camping, lots of mountain bike trails. The trails were fantastic. Like Gunnison, they were almost endless, so you could ride for days and never go down the same trail, you could piece together different loops and have all sorts of variety.

I thought it was Turkey Springs? Or Chicken? Alright, Turkey Creek.

Lisa: Turkey Springs.

Turkey Springs. I thought it was Turkey Creek?

Lisa: No!

I thought I looked it up – one sec. Where is it? Turkey Springs? Is that what you said?

Lisa: Yes!

Yeah, you were right.

Lisa: No shit!

Alright: Turkey Springs outside of – what was I saying? Oh, the routes. Yeah – virtually endless loops, the trails weren’t too bad, the blues were – I think we ended up on a couple blues and they weren’t insane, they were just a little rockier. So, tons of trails. The trails are also open to OHVs, so, Gunnison had motorcycles allowed, in Pagosa Springs you could drive a side by side or a four wheeler on the trails. Not on all the trails – they definitely had some trails. That comes into the camping situation maybe more, because of the noise factor.

The camping around Turkey Creek was dispersed just like the other spots, just not designated, so as long as there was a pull-off and a fire ring, you could grab that spot and camp for free for 14 days. We camped in two areas: one along the main road, where we ended up along an OHV trail, which was a little bit noisy and a little bit annoying, but still very peaceful at night, it just meant that during the afternoons, people would kind of buzz by, but not the end of the world. We also camped down a spur, so a little side road, and that spot was kind of creepy-silent almost. One person walked their dog by in the morning and another person drove by and I think that’s all we saw. So, potentially a little bit more peaceful on the spurs, if that’s what you want.

The trails were close to a lot of the spots too, so you were always a short little ride from an intersection – it was either just down the road a little bit or you’d be across the street from a trailhead. Our first spot, I think we were about 400 yards from a trailhead, which was awesome. So, tons of spots, very peaceful.

This place had zero bathrooms – not even at the trailheads. No water, tough to get water in town, just like Norwood. That was during our early days, when we were kind of reliant on jugs from the market, and that was a flawed strategy. So we ended up chasing around Pagosa Springs and looking at options. Because we weren’t able to get jugs from the grocery store, we looked around at parks and tried to find water fill spots. There’s a great park in town that seemingly had everything, but their fill station was broken. There were a couple baseball fields where the water was locked up. We eventually found a park that had a spot where we could fill up some water and we filled up three or four gallons there. But it wasn’t as easy as Gunnison, but I think going forward, we’ll always just bring tons of water – we’ll bring extra. We travel now with ten gallons. That was kind of funny – it’s Pagosa Springs, it’s a water town, but water was tough to find.

On the other side, the showers were amazingly easy. There were showers right in town, right at the main community center right near all the springs and the river. So if you wanted a shower, you could go to the town center, you walk up to the front, and it was like $4 for an unlimited, locker room shower with hot water.

The other thing that Pagosa Springs has going for it is that it’s a hot springs town, so if you wanted a hot springs soak, you can find a spot in the river and kind of – commando’s the wrong word – it’s like – what is it? Off the grid? Or – how would you describe that? Rustic. You can just go into the river, rustic-style and soak in some hot water, or you can go to a fancy resort and pay $20 or $40 or $50 and get a fancier experience. You could go into the river, get a $4 shower afterward, you’re golden. That’s what we’ll do next time.

Lisa: The trails at Turkey Springs weren’t as well signed as the trails at Gunnison or Norwood, though. No maps on every intersection, trails that weren’t on the trailhead maps…

We got a little lost, actually. They were not signed as well as the other two, but they were fairly well signed once you kind of figured out the way they did things. And they did things, basically at main intersections things would be pointed out, so that you kind of knew where you were going, even though a couple of times when we thought we knew where we were going, we started going the wrong way. Not the end of the world, the trails were pleasant. And I don’t think we got in over our heads there, really? We were going to bike all the way to the ridge, because it looked like we could have an overlook of the town. We ended up losing a lot of elevation and thinking, halfway through, that this is going to turn into a much longer ride than we were trying to bite off, so we turned around.

That’s probably where we used the Mountain Biking Project app the most. So, get that if you’re in the area. Everybody there though was nice and would seemingly help you – a couple people asked if we were in need of directions, but we had our app, which was totally unnecessary in Norwood and not needed at all in Gunnison.

So: Pagosa Springs, our collective ranked choice number one spot. I can say it like that. But yeah, I loved it. All three of them were amazing, I would love to go back. If we go back to Pagosa Springs, the one thing that I also noticed is that they had tons of food options. Norwood had, like, a restaurant. Gunnison had a fair number of restaurants. But Pagosa Springs had cool options, there was a Hmong place that we both wanted to go to that we just saw too late, so we’ll be getting that next time too.

Alright, should we do other spots?

Lisa: yeah!

Other spots that we liked a lot but that weren’t quite top three material: the Buffalo Pass trail system outside Steamboat was awesome. The trails definitely tended to be more difficult. The trickiest one is probably the one that just bombs down from the top into town – it’s like seven or eight miles of downhill, kind of the expert-level trail in the area. Looks like a lot of fun – maybe one of us will do it next time? You definitely want to ride it downhill because you lose a lot of elevation and it’s actually a one way trail – there’s two trails next to each other, one is a two way and the harder one is dedicated down.

The camping in that area is a little trickier – there are some dispersed spots but they were very unlevel and kind of just on the side of the mountain. The better spot to camp is in the Dry Lake Campground where it’s $10 a night, which is pretty cheap, but in the campground there’s an active bear. We saw it. When I was riding I came across some very fresh bear poo – I was in one of those areas where it’s very difficult to see into the forest, what’s around you, so it spooked me pretty good. There were bear tracks on the trail, for the next quarter mile or so, so I don’t know if the bear was in front of me or if it had passed through early in the morning, but there were no bike tracks on top of the bear tracks until mine rolled through, so that was a little exciting. Kind of a minus one for the trails there. Just the whole area around Steamboat was crazy with bears. Right in town, there was bear poop along the river, all over the place. So you kind of have to be comfortable with bears in that spot.

So the Happy Jack trails, outside Laramie, WY, are another cool spot where you can camp and bike in the same area. There are dispersed spots, there are also developed campgrounds. I think there are three: one’s called Tie City, the Vedauwoo campground is close, but it’s more on the hiking side of things, but that’s the nicest campground in the area. Tie City’s $10 a night, there’s another $10 a night one that’s pretty exposed. We ended up staying at Tie City hoping that the weather would be nice, and it ended up not nice, so we kinda bailed on the area because the forecast was for rain for the foreseeable future. But in the past, when we’ve biked there, the trails are amazing. They’re kinda swoopy and fun and not too crazy. So another great place to visit if you want to camp and bike right next to each other – bike in, bike out.

We also were on top of the Grand Mesa outside Grand Junction, where there are a ton of trails. I only rode one bigger one. The big trail that’s opening in the near future is called the Palisade Plunge and it’s like 30 miles of downhill that goes from the top of the Grand Mesa all the way down to Palisade, the town just to the east of Grand Junction. So that’ll be really awesome. Sections of it are open now, but it’s not officially open. That’s one where you probably want a shuttle, that’s not one where you maybe leave in the morning and bike back in the afternoon, because that would be – it would be a hell of a ride.

But there is a service in Palisade that has a shuttle that will take you up to the open part, drop you off, and send you down. You can even rent a full suspension mountain bike from them, so if you are in the area and you just catch the bug to ride 30 miles downhill, probably braking the entire time – it’s one short bike rental away.

I really want to do it, but it seems terrifying, because not only is it downhill and steep the entire way, you’re like on the side of a mesa, so it’s exposed. And rocky. Bring your full-face helmet.

Another spot – I don’t remember what the Buena Vista trails were called.

Lisa: I’m not sure the trail system had its own specific name – the trails are part of the Four Mile Recreation Area. The trails themselves have fantastic names like Fistful of Dollars, Broken Boyfriend, Bacon Bits.

Outside Buena Vista, CO is another great place where you can camp and bike. The trails actually start in the downtown area and you can go from the main drag, through their riverside park, onto a singletrack trail and bike all the way up to an area where you can dispersed camp. There aren’t a ton of spots that we saw. The road in is a little rough – I mean, it’s nice at first and then it just gets worse and worse. But there are a handful of spots right in the beginning that are totally accessible. Not a ton of amenities – there’s a porta-potty at the trailhead, there’s water and there’s supposed to be showers at the park too, which we didn’t see. The town’s got everything too, like a cute bakery and a couple of fun restaurants. But weirdly, like no old-timey western bar. I don’t know what the deal is with Buena Vista, but they don’t have like a cool saloon like Leadville. That’s one of the things that’s not worth talking about! Like I think only I care about that. I just think that every town should have an old-timey saloon. Especially a western town.

So the best thing about the Buena Vista trails is just the views. When you’re up on the trails, you’re across the valley from the Collegiate Peaks, so you have these amazing views of perfectly formed, exactly how you would draw them mountains. The Collegiate Peaks are beautiful mountains, and you have wonderful views of them from the trails. The trails themselves are kind of tricky. Not a ton of easy trails. But the intermediates were a little – intermediate. I mean, they were maybe a little bit – they were tricky, but still fun. I think they were kinda at like, my max level and maybe just a little beyond Lisa’s, so Lisa didn’t have as much fun.

What else? We have a couple of spots that are on our list of places we want to go. One is Leadville. We’ve passed through Leadville a couple of times; we’ve camped in the area only one night. It seems like a high potential spot. We really like the town itself and they have the perfect old-timey saloon called the Silver Dollar Saloon. And it’s what every western town should have, or should aspire to have. So yeah, we want to ride more in Leadville. The tricky thing about Leadville is it’s at 10,000 feet so you’re just way up there, and we’ve definitely seen that the higher elevation spots are tougher to bike in, just because there’s less air. And even though we’ve lived in Fort Collins for a number of years and we’re kind of used to some of this, it’s still tough when you’re up at like, 8 or 9,000 feet, trying to bike up to 9 or 10,000 feet.

The other spot is outside of Cortez – there’s an area called Phil’s World, which has supposedly really cool singletrack. I’ve wanted to ride there for years, but we’ve just never quite hit it right, and we don’t have the camping figured out in that area, so we might have to set up camp a little ways away and drive over to the trailheads, which is not as convenient as Hartman Rocks or Turkey Creek or Thunder Trails, where you could camp right next to the trails. Phil’s World is very popular, though, so I don’t know if that would even work, but we’ve gotta get there sometime. The other tricky part about Cortez and that area is that it’s just very hot. So when we were in the area, it was over 90, I think it was getting into the hundreds some days, and it’s just tough at that temperature if you are in a camper that the sun holds all the sway over the temperature inside it. We can open the windows and fight off some temps but we don’t have air conditioning and biking when it’s a hundred is tricky anyway. So, we’ve gotta come back in the fall or the spring and check out Cortez.

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Lisa: Do you have any suggestions for mountain bike trails we should check out – in Colorado or anywhere else? Let us know at info(at)roadtrippinginamerica.com.

Next time: we really will get to the budget update and our days spent roaming around Dinosaur National Monument that we promised last time.

Until then, check out our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com for more. If you are enjoying this podcast, please share it with a friend who’s also into travel, overlanding, or vanlife – or mountain biking, this time! Thanks for listening!