Seasons of Change in the Elk Mountains

Feb 17, 2018
by stevemokan  



Looking out the window from the mountain towards town, the weather appears to be stuck in Groundhog Day mode: a dusting on the high peaks of Whetstone and Emmons, and a thick fog sitting in the valley. Cold and dreary every morning, but eventually things break and it becomes glorious. If you're willing to wait and deal with the pitfalls of riding in weather like this- bring layers, expect to be cold, clean the mud off your bike every night- the payoff is most definitely worth it.

It's a Catch-22 with spending any amount of time in the high country in late fall: the trails are likely to be in the best condition all year, but you have to figure out the weather if you want to enjoy them. Having been here several times a year for the last decade, we like to think we have things figured out. But then Mother Nature's always one to interrupt a steady diet of fastballs with a sharp curveball.




The four and a half hour drive from Boulder to Crested Butte goes by quickly, especially in the fall. Driving over Kenosha Pass, through the South Park valley, down into Buena Vista, and over Monarch Pass provides a feast for the eyes that you're unlikely to see anywhere else in the lower 48. Time it right in September, and the colors in the Colorado high country seem to be on entirely different spectrum altogether.

We get it, Colorado is becoming more crowded by the year. Hell, by the week. We've lived on the Front Range for almost 15 years, and have been visiting Crested Butte multiple times a year, every year. We remember when you could walk down Elk Avenue in the middle of the day and not move over for a car. These days, you never know what you're going to get in the fall. It's still a bucket-list destination for leaf-peepers, and there are enough mountain bikers that want one last shot of mountain-fueled adrenaline before snow shuts things down until Spring. But despite all that, town is still kind of quiet. The trails seem empty. Maybe it's the weather system that's moved in and made things difficult, but that's OK with us. We'll deal with it for a little solitude.



Despite being right in town, we always look forward to what we'll find the first afternoon when we roll into Crested Butte, gear up, and hit our "warm-up" ride. The combination of Lupine, Gunsight, and the Lower Loops make us giddy. Sure, the terrain is mellow. But the views are out of this world when the weather's right (and today it is), the aspens go on forever, and the downhill sections are the very definition of flow.





With a little moisture and a nip in the air, we have the perfect velvet to ourselves. The ride starts out pretty gloomy but the clouds clear quickly. 15 miles and about 2,000 feet of climbing (and descending) later we roll into town, put our bikes on the rack, and feast on Secret Stash pizza and down a few beers. The perfect start, we say.





The Crested Butte - Gunnison Valley stretches about 40 miles north to south and covers terrain that sits between 7,000 and 13,000 feet. Needless to say, there's a huge variety of trails and terrain, and today Mother Nature is playing nice and letting us pick our favorites. That usually doesn't happen this time of year, we consider ourselves lucky. Sitting just south of town- and up the Brush Creek valley- are Teocalli Ridge and Strand Hill. By themselves both formidable rides, but we always like to combine them into a 20+ mile lung and leg-burner. The initial climb up the four-mile fire road to Teocalli Ridge proper is a great warm-up, allowing us to burn off some of last night's pizza and beer. Once we hit the singletrack climb and head up toward the shoulder, we're wishing we didn't have that last slice of pizza or $3 draft. This climb is legit.




After about an hour and a half of climbing, we get to enjoy the fruits of our labour; the Teo descent has it all from rooty technical sections to tight switchbacks in the aspens to wide open meadow skipping. Over five miles, it convinces us time and again that the climb is always worth it. Once we hit the road and descend to Brush Creek, we begin a short traverse over to Strand Bonus and begin the second big climb of the day, a 40-45 minute grunt to the top of Strand Hill.






We're convinced if Strand Hill was longer, it would be one of the best trails in the US. However, the downhill portion is only about 2-1/2 miles, which means it's over all too soon. But what it misses in quantity, it makes up for in quality. We find ourselves stopping multiple times to take it all in: the beauty of the aspens and the high mountain views literally stop us in our tracks. And the trail itself? A perfect mix of smooth singletrack, rooty technical sections, and steep shots that have you wondering when the last time was you replaced your brake pads.




Remember how Mother Nature likes to mix in a curveball or two? Well, this morning she just painted the outside corner and buckled our knees; we wake up to a hard rain in town and more snow on the peaks. It's time for Plan B. Do we have a Plan B? Of course we have a Plan B.

Hartman Rocks is located in Gunnison, an easy 35-minute drive south of Crested Butte and about 3,000 feet lower in elevation. Hartman Rocks is also known for having a "donut hole" effect, where all the storms seem to skirt the fringes and never really bring anything of consequence to the trail system. That's perfect for today, as we're looking for a big ride and Hartman has just what we need. The trails at Hartman Rocks are entirely different than what you find up valley, with more of a high-desert feel: long tongues of slickrock, soft dirt through fields of sage, and shorter bursts of elevation gain and loss.





After exploring must-rides like Top of the World, Josie's, and Graceland, we find an amazing link-up to finish the day: Rattlesnake to Beck's to Collarbone Alley. The combination of these three trails pushes us to our technical limits, finds out how fast we like to go, and ends with a slopestyle-like descent that has us laughing all the way to the van. Beers were well-earned today; we're psyched on being able to have a day like this despite the nastiness we can see up valley. Hartman is always worth the trip.





Even with a day's worth of rainfall and snow at higher elevations, there are still ways to link up epic rides in Crested Butte. Running from north to south, you can always connect huge rides with link trails or short segments of fire roads. It's another frosty morning, but we know what's in store for today so we roll out of bed, grab a big breakfast and layer up.

Two of the more well-known rides in the Crested Butte area are Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadman's (RFBD) and Doctor Park. Today, we plan on connecting the two to give us a huge day with almost 15 miles of descending, a couple of big climbs, and some of the best singletrack around. All it takes is a quick 30 minute shuttle up Spring Creek Road to the reservoir and we're in business.




The first half of the ride goes swimmingly, with intermittent flurries and a few light showers, but the mostly-passing weather provides more scenic eye-candy than it does harm and it makes the trail surface near-perfect. The descents down Flag Creek and Bear Creek are long and exhilarating, and other than our crew there's not a soul in sight. We hit the final rocky descent of Deadman's Gulch and cross the creek a few times before getting spit out onto Spring Creek Road, just below the start of the Doctor Park climb. And that's where things get interesting.




The flurries and light rain from this morning quickly turn to an almost white-out with sleet, then snow, and finally rain. The dirt road climb becomes damn near impossible; the mud sticks to our tires like the Bentonite Clay in southern Utah, and our bikes soon weigh 50 pounds each. Normally the climb is a 30-minute suffer fest, but now it's become a struggle just to figure out how to reach the top. Knowing there's nothing we can do about it, we laugh and consider it an adventure. And now we have a story to tell.




The 6-mile descent down Doctor Park really needs no explanation of why it's on everyone's bucket list. You get wide open, high-alpine meadows. Then you get super technical, high-speed chunk. Then you get the Jedi Woods, a section of aspens so pristine you think you're riding a speeder bike alongside Luke and Hans. And finally you get some loose, rocky technical fun before you're spit out right above the Taylor River. It's a proper way to end a proper trip. And we wouldn't have it any other way.






34 Comments

  • + 13
 You passed Salida on your way. The riding is long-since over in CB (and months away). Everything around Salida below 9,000 feet is still open for business. That includes the entire Arkansas Hills Trail system. Check it our for winter riding. If you encounter snow in town, you can ski at Monarch instead. Salida rules!!!
  • + 1
 Amen. The Cottonwood tour has some of the best trails in the state. Also, Rockbridge rules (I went to Mizzou).
  • + 8
 I am also from the front range, Golden to be exact. We love making this journey and riding the epicness that is CB. Your article is spot on, and written so well. Thanks for the reminder of whats to come in several short months. Cheers.
  • + 5
 Josie's... awesome... named after my dog.. she loved Hartman's more than anyone that ever roamed this earth.. Thank you County Commissioner Jonathan Houck for representing J-Dog.. and all that you do for Gunnison County..
  • + 7
 Good to see The Singletrack Sampler making an appearance on PB.
  • + 2
 Agreed
  • + 5
 Those are some great shots buddy!! I need to venture down and come hang this summer!!!
  • + 3
 Thanks dude! Come on down and I'll show you around!
  • + 1
 I think my daughter has an eye appt down in Denver this summer. I will be in touch! I forwarded this to Kazimer to see if he'd put it on the front page for you.
  • + 3
 Crested Butte Chainless, love that race. Its usually still snowy up high so I dont get to ride much offroad in CB, but still, its a beautiful place to be Smile
  • + 2
 I live across the street from Hartman Rocks and its a very special place for me. Thanks for giving it the credit it deserves!!
  • + 1
 Of course... Hartman’s is always a super fun time!
  • + 2
 I'm so stoked to ride CB this summer! I'm in Golden for a few years for work and didn't get there last Fall before the snow set in.
  • + 3
 Two Star Wars related corrections. Gunsight is now called Lando Calrissian and Han never rode a speeder bike. Wink
  • + 3
 Beautiful pics and excellent write up of trails to sample Mountain biking we can all relate to
  • + 2
 Super article and photos, but Colorado isn't going to get less populated because of it!
  • + 2
 Awesome job, Steve! Great write up and pics.
  • + 2
 Looks amazing! Thanks for the great write up and stunning photos.
  • + 2
 I think we’ll be seeing these in 2018 photo of the year contest!
  • + 1
 Salida conditio s are all time right now
  • + 1
 Great shots, I think I’ll be visiting Colorado soon enough
  • + 0
 Haha , singletrack sampler is in those photos. The Jesus of mountain biking.....lol I enjoy his YouTube videos
  • + 1
 Beautiful. Somewhere I have wanted to ride for years. Maybe this year.
  • + 2
 Absolutely stunning!
  • + 1
 great article. counting the days until I'm back there this summer
  • + 1
 same man, same
  • + 1
 So motherfucking awesome
  • + 1
 Hey I live here!
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