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Of Bears And Things That Go Bump In The Night: The Colorado Trail

Jun 6, 2012
by Dan Milner  

I know Mike pretty well, having shared adventures to far flung places like Morocco with him, but right now I can’t quite tell if he’s trying to be sarcastic. “I didn’t think to pack spiked tyres,” he quips as we pause for another much needed breather in the shadow of a stand of logpole pines. The ferocity of Colorado’s September sun might have driven us to shed layers, but it seems to be having little effect on the couple of inches of snow that is smothering the trail ahead of us. We’re 11,000 ft up on a mountainside in the Rockies and we have another 1,000 ft of uphill ahead of us before the descent even starts. If the previous two days’ experiences are anything to go by, the descent will be worth every ounce of effort we’ve expended in reaching it. It will be a fast rolling, pedal free swoop down a narrow, dusty trail so endless in feel that it would make any bike park trail pale by comparison.

Setting off from Kenosha Pass after a jet lag night sleep in a tent at 10 000 ft isnt the easiest way to ease into the altitude of the CT. It soon becomes worth it though. Photo by Dan Milner
  Setting off from Kenosha Pass after a jet lag night's sleep in a tent at 10,000 ft isnt the easiest way to ease into the altitude of the CT. It soon becomes worth it though.

By the end of today, when we crawl into our campsite, we will have been in the saddle for eight hours or so. By then we will all be sporting sodden footwear and sweaty shorts, will be dehydrated and sunburned and grimy, will have endured a three hour hike-a-bike through snow and ridden twenty five continuous miles of flowing singletrack that never widened more than two feet during the entire day. We will be tired, dirty and hungry, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kenosha to frisco is 33 miles of pure unadulterated singletrack. It DOESN T get any better than that. Photo by Dan Milner
  Kenosha to frisco is thirty three miles of pure unadulterated singletrack. It doesn't get any better than that.

Parts of the CT are definitiely out there. If something goes wrong its a long way home. Photo by Dan Milner
   Parts of the CT are definitiely out there. If something goes wrong, it's a long way home.

We’re on day three of a five day, self-supported ride on the unambiguously named Colorado Trail (CT): a 483-mile long, way-marked path that connects Denver with Durango via the Rockies. Although it incorporates fragmented remnants of wagon trails, Indian tracking paths and gold-rush miners routes, viewed as a single entity the CT is much more than the sum of its parts, requiring the travel logistics of point-to-point rides and the mind-bending realisation that once you are halfway into any one of its separate stages, you feel very, very ‘out there’. Throw in an altitudes of 9,000 too 13,000 ft and you have the recipe for epic riding. The lure to explore the CT came by way of seeing images of flowing ribbons of singletrack weaving off into the distance as far as the eye can see, and much of it is exactly like that. Moreover, with few trail junctions along the way, route finding is perhaps the easiest part of riding the CT; just follow the narrow path that some kind-hearted soul has laid out in front of you.

The CT makes for a nice change from the tech of the Alps with fast flowing singletrack all the way. Photo by Dan Milner
  The CT makes for a nice change from the tech of the Alps, with fast flowing singletrack all the way.

As we boarded our 14-hour flight from Europe to Denver, we all admitted that we’d like to be fitter. It’s not the distances that are causing concern -our day’s rides will be between 20 and 35 miles- so much as the altitude at which much of the CT lies. Armed with the Official Colorado Trail guidebook (from www.coloradotrail.org), we select sections of the CT that sound grin-inducing, especially in terms of being in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a two foot wide trail to lead you to civilization some 30 miles away, but thumbing through the guidebook it’s clear that the rewards of the CT, particularly it’s typically eight-mile long descents, don’t come without some payment, and its usually paid in advance, with climbs preceding the descents each day. In fact each of the sections we have selected to form a single day’s point-to-point ride requires some hefty effort, usually in the form of a 4000 ft climb. Converting that to eurospeak, it dawns on us that we will be riding at the same altitude as the top of the Aiguille du Midi, the highest ski lift in Chamonix, a place you can’t even eat an ice cream without pausing for breath between mouthfuls. Reading up on how to deal with bear encounters on the trail we can do before we go, but we are forced to leave the altitude acclimatisation to the first night’s camping at the Kenosha Pass.

Our first climbs were tackled as slowly as is humanely possible to ride a bike. Photo by Dan Milner
  Our first climbs were tackled as slowly as is humanely possible to ride a bike.

From day one, as we set off from our campsite at the 10,000 ft Kenosha pass it is clear that we have a challenge ahead. We eat a hearty breakfast of porridge and fruit but this, or a night in a tent with five other blokes, can’t prepare me for the punishment dished out by the first climb of the trip. The trail is buttery smooth (something that’s characteristic of the CT, we learn) and not particularly steep, but as we meander between pines, I’m soon spinning away on my 34 tooth sprocket. With thirty 33 ahead of us today, and some 115 miles to cover in all, I’m happy to sit back and spin rather than lunge at the challenge. To be honest, the air is so thin and there is little we could done to acclimatise this kind of altitude prior to arrival, so I don’t really have much choice.

When we finally did get to climb out of Copper Mountain we hit the snowline in an hour or so. So far so good. Photo by Dan Milner
  When we finally did get to climb out of Copper Mountain, we hit the snowline in an hour or so. So far so good.

And onward towards Leadville. Luckily although not immediately visible the CT veers around t the right and not over these peaks. Photo by Dan Milner
  And onward towards Leadville. Luckily, although not immediately visible, the CT veers around to the right and not over these peaks.

It s only september winter can wait. Heading towards the descent to Leadville. Photo by Dan Milner
  It's only september; winter can wait. Heading towards the descent to Leadville.

While the CT is no Everest affair, riding any of its sections is an undertaking that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Bear encounters, snakes, forest fires, washed out bridges, and snow are all factors that potentially add an epic element to this ride at any time of the summer, though of course you could ride for a week in splendid sunshine without a single problem. Even though we treat each day as a separate day-ride, we’re prepared for the endurance nature of our endeavor and are each packing three litres of water and fistfuls of energy bars for the sustained energy the day will demand. Along with mini-tools, pumps, tubes and waterproofs this all adds up to a heavier pack than you’d ideally want to be hauling at this kind of altitude, but most everything we carry in our packs finds some trail use at some point during the five days. We’ve experienced blazing sunshine, hail storms and everything in between by the time we reach the top of the first climb, the 11,585 ft Georgia Pass, and stop for a well-earned breather. In 1860 the same pass was crossed by a wagon-trail, used by countless miners flocking towards the latest gold strike, but now the trail is merely a foot-wide crease slicing through meadows of yellowing grass. We stop just long enough to tug closed our pitzips before dropping into an eight-mile long singletrack descent.

Six men one tent. You do the math. Photo by Dan Milner
  Six men, one tent. You do the math.

Any tree is a washing line. Personal hygiene is a must on a multi-dayer. Photo by Dan Milner
  Any tree is a washing line. Personal hygiene is a must on a multi-dayer.

Armed with the Official Colorado Trail guidebook, we’ve selected sections of the CT that sound particularly grin-inducing, rewarding arduous climbs with long descents, while entirely avoiding sections that pass through designated wilderness areas, through which bikes aren’t allowed. To shuttle between sections and transport our weighty camping kit, including our 6-man tipi, we’ve rented a van that each of our group takes a turn to drive for the day. All of our chosen sections, while not long in distance at between 20 and 33 miles, include up to 4,500 ft of climbing.

Classic southern Colorado aspens make great riding. There is a constant evolution of terrain and landscapes along the CT. You wont be bored. Photo by Dan Milner
  Classic southern Colorado aspens make great riding. There is a constant evolution of terrain and landscapes along the CT. You wont be bored.

Inclement weather on day two forces the only main change to our itinery, when we emerge from our tent to find the hills around Frisco blanketed with snow. In September, although unlikely, snow is always a possibility. Twenty four hours later the return of a fiercely blazing sun will convince us to return to the CT route, but for now, with flurries still swirling in the town, we sip on another chai latte before opting to skip the day’s section - one that would have necessitated scaling a 12,500 ft pass in zero visibility - and steer our rental van around to the ride’s end point instead, the ski resort of Copper Mountain. Despite the sleet, the itch to pedal still needs scratching and we spin up a jeep track climb for an hour to the snowline and drop into one of Copper’s three rhythmically gyrating, technical bike trails instead. Patches of snow just add to the fun, especially when confronted by a small north shore section. We return to our warm, cosy condo with tingling knees and that inner warmth you get from riding a great descent in punishing weather at 11,000 ft.

The monkey eye view. Riding near Leadville. Photo by Dan Milner
  The monkey eye view. Riding near Leadville.

We quickly learn many lessons, including the fact that a five hour ride anywhere else becomes nothing short of eight hours on the CT. Technical sections and steeps leave us gasping for breath and for most of the climbs we form perhaps the slowest peloton in the world; it’s in direct contrast to the vigor with which we attack all the descents. Somehow the dust and the hardpack of the trail begs it to be ridden ‘no holds barred’ fast when the profile points downwards and inevitably each descent becomes a race as mile upon mile of flowing descent is lapped up. This is perfect intermediate rider’s terrain, while rollers and snaking bends make a great playground for riders more used to tech stuff. I find myself hanging onto Jez’s rear wheel ahead of me, sprinting out of each bend and launching over the roots and step-offs to finish another twenty-minute descent out of breath and with aching thighs; perhaps not the ideal state to begin another climb. The CT brings out the kid in us all, and a pattern soon emerges for our five days: riding climbs at a speed you never attempted since that slow-bicycle race in the school playground, followed by adrenaline pumping, bar-tilting descents. We’re so tired it’s all we can do to lift a mug of tea at the end of each day.

We wondered what had happened to the last set of europeans to have ridden the CT then came across this. Photo by Dan Milner
  We wondered what had happened to the last set of Europeans to have ridden the CT, then came across this.

We finish our riding near Salida and then venture South to check out Silverton, an old mining town with a frontier feel, tucked away in the rugged San Juan mountains. Although we’re out of time, we can’t help but marvel at the peaks around us, knowing that they conceal the last few stages of the Colorado Trail. Looking back on our five-day epic, we’re collectively blown away by how, crossing the Continental Divide back and forth, a constant evolution of vegetation and landscapes has kept us fed with eye candy. In fact the only constant on the CT seems to be the trail itself, the ribbon of buff singletrack that beckons ever onwards through aspens and fir trees, into the unknown: a playful, rollercoaster ride through the mighty Rockies that, despite the altitude, dishes out far more rewards than it does punishment.

Most sections of the CT can be accessed at each end by vehicle. Nothing beats having your team van waiting for you with a cooler of beers when you hit the dirt road after 8 hours in the saddle. Photo by Dan Milner
  Most sections of the CT can be accessed at each end by vehicle. Nothing beats having your team van waiting for you with a cooler of beers when you hit the dirt road after 8 hours in the saddle.


Need to know
The CT can be attempted as a multi-day supported ride, or dipped into as single out-an-back day rides. The first section starts only 20 minutes drive south west of Denver. Try section 6 (Kenosha Pass to Frisco), section 11 near Leadville, and section 14 near Salida.

We stayed at basic Forestry Service campgrounds ($6 per tent at the trailheads). Although few sections of the CT start and stop at towns, hotel accommodation is never far away if you have a vehicle, avoiding the need to take a tent and camp gear. Camping adds a sense of adventure, but you need to be aware of bear hazards and get wise to the precautions. Mobile phone coverage can be scant along the CT, but it’s worth taking one just in case. Arm yourselves with the right numbers for emergency situations and go equipped for mountain weather and accidents. August and September are ideal months to ride the CT with the temperatures typically between 20 and 30 degrees C..


All photography by Dan Milner. You can see more of Dan's incredible work on his website.

Did you enjoy reading about Dan's undercover adventure? Let's hear what you have to say in the comments section below.

Author Info:
DanMilner avatar

Member since Feb 11, 2011
55 articles

40 Comments
  • 16 0
 I feel I would start this as a man and end up like the car in the photo.
  • 5 0
 I agree with you triple 6. Roughing it to the max but its all good because life is much to short. I gotta put an adventure like that on my bucket list man!
  • 14 0
 When I do the math on 6 men and 1 tent, I calculate a deficit of tents.
  • 5 0
 A few years back two buddies of mine rode the WHOLE thing self-supported in I believe 2 weeks. They had sleeping bags tied to handlebars and minimalist ground pads around the top tubes. After breaking my tib-fib this past year, I've been drawn back to my roots of riding big mtn xc, and this just made me drool. Sure I want to go back to whipping Crabapple, but these types of experiences are in a league of their own. Great article and pics!!! CHEERS to adventure!!!
  • 1 0
 Damn.. the whole thing eh? Thats a mission. Big issue is the wilderness sections that dont allow bikes.. I have heard about people carrying their bikes through these sections to get around the law, but lets face it we didnt fancy carrying for miles and miles. But good on them.
  • 2 0
 Great write up. Epic tales and trails.

I really like how the story maintains the pretence that there are bears in the USA. For over three years I spent a great deal of energy worrying about hiking and riding in bear country and packing food into bear barrels and storing them away from campsites and waking up in the middle of the night wondering if that noise outside the tent was a bear (it never was) I never saw a bear. I saw lots of signs telling me I'm hiking in bear country, I saw videos in Yosemite Valley of bears opening up cars like tin cans, but I saw exactly zero bears.

I had to fly to Canada to finally see a bear - Whistler delivers, yet again!

Smile
  • 1 0
 I know what you mean modelperson. I've been to Colorado, canada, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and the Svalbard Arctic (polar bear land) and more and bears always elude me, damn them. Actually as part of this trip I shot a story for Mends Health and during the follow up when I had to contact a Colorado Wildlife Ranger for a quote he told me that bears wouldnt have been the issue.. it was cougars/mountain lions that we should have been wary of.. So remember that if you're heading to the CT.
  • 1 0
 Killer article! Frisco/Keystone section of the CT is my home trail. Definitely check it out if you're looking to do a single section. Tons of other good riding in the area too!
  • 3 0
 The CT is right in my back yard as well. It is a truly amazing trail. There are so many great sections. Colorado is a true single track Mecca. It seems no matter where I go in the state there are great trails and friendly people to get you going in the right direction.
  • 2 0
 Moved to CO two years ago and there's not a bad trail in the state. So much good riding every where.
  • 1 0
 I hear ya. I finally got to Fruita this spring. Epic. Combine a CT trip with a few days west in Fruita and you're in 7th heaven.
  • 2 0
 awesome looking trip- but to clarify , a self supported trip means you are carrying everything on your back!
  • 1 0
 Oops I meant to write SHELF supported.. in that all our groceries and supplies came off shelves. :-) I guess what I meant was self-guided. But then hang on we had a guide book to look at... Oh, damn.. whatever we rode it and did it our way :-)
  • 1 0
 Really nice article and pictures, this is exactly the kind of things I enjoy reading about MTB. Too bad the pictures are too small to use them as wallpapers :/
  • 1 0
 Very nice ! (and also very ueful information since I plan to ride there this September).
  • 1 0
 CT is amazing! Segments 23-24 = Hands down, the best single day ride i have ever done!!!
  • 1 0
 What year was this ride? Because that snow did not exist this past September.
  • 1 0
 Now if we tell you this, we will have to kill you. You are too observant. The powers that be dont like observant people. They cause trouble. As mentioned in other stories of mine on PB, these stories have been in print in the UK at some point, though are still relevant and current, but the politics of magazines and print rights mean they cant be used elsewhere until a certain delay.... we can thanks PB though for bringing them to the world.
  • 2 0
 This article ended too soon! Good write up. Sounds like a great trip
  • 1 0
 The trip ended too soon.
  • 1 0
 That guy must have a good saddle.... mine hurts after 2 hours...
  • 1 0
 More a good ass. WTB silverado or new Volt suits my bum on these trips. Light but comfy.
  • 1 0
 Nicely told and depicted!
  • 1 0
 @ cholla: CTR Website, but has good maps and elevations...
  • 1 0
 Sweet photos, and even sweeter b/c it was shot with a Leica!
  • 2 0
 Hellz yeah
  • 2 0
 Yee Colorado bro brahs
  • 1 0
 aaaaand now I feel like a wimp
  • 1 0
 Gooood! An attached map will be helpful too
  • 1 0
 you can get all the info you need from the Colorado Trail org website.. maps and profiles of the stages, plus order the guidebook. Go do this ride. Its epic. www.coloradotrail.org
  • 1 0
 Kenosha Pass to Breck is such a quality ride!!!
  • 1 0
 What bikes were you riding?
  • 1 0
 3 Yeti 575's, a Specialized Stumpy and a Marin Rift Zone.
  • 1 0
 The Buffalo Creek section is awesome too! Rado!
  • 1 0
 If all six men spooned each other, they would fit.
  • 1 0
 You got it.
  • 2 1
 wonderful pics
  • 1 1
 should have a awesome photoshop photo day ...
  • 1 0
 What does this mean?







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