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Colorado's Multi-Day Mountain Bike Tours

Riding the 'fab four' of long-distance 'bike-packing' routes
By Ted Stedman - March 8th, 2006

Editor's Note: 

Adventure journalist Ted Stedman routinely goes to the ends of the earth to bring back his stories. From the jungles of Panama to the glaciers of Iceland, from the coral reefs of Belize to the steppes of Finland, the Denver based writer seeks out the best in modern outdoor pursuits. Stedman's recent stories and photos have appeared in Outside Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, and Backpacker.

It's no secret that Colorado harbors some of the premier mountain bike tours on the planet. But what else would you expect in a state where thousands of miles of trails and dirt roads crisscross the high country other than premium rides? Any purpose built mountain-bike holiday to the Colorado Rockies is going to deliver the goods, but the tragedy is, most people set off on one of the many legendary day trips. Those out-and-backs or loop rides, as great as they are, plunk you back at the car way too quickly. For experienced bikers with a yen for backcountry, rare treasure can be found in these hills.

What you may not know is that there exist in Colorado a unique roster of public-land cross country routes that out-distance and out-climb the rank-and-file trails used by most mountain bike day trippers. We're talking routes for the long-haul, long-winded rides that serve up a gluttonous menu of tasty opportunities for extended multi-day mountain bike tours. We're talking days- and weeks long rides through serious wilderness landscapes. If you want a ride with character, then step up to one of these. After all, why go all the way to Colorado for something less than a memorable, heart pumping adventure, and enough time in the backcountry to enjoy it?

Consider it bike packing - like a hybrid cross between backpacking and mountain biking - where a tent is your mobile shelter, all your provisions are carried on panniers or an off-road bike trailer, and your bike is a vehicle for discovery. You're miles from the nearest towns, and more likely than not, cell phones won't work. You better be ready, because you're going to be on your own for a few days, or even a week or more if you opt for longer routes such as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. But any of these routes is going to make a ride you'll never forget.


But it goes without saying that careful planning is required. So are intermediate or above-average bike handling skills, and experience with basic on-trail bike repairs and predictable physical ailments that might ensue. But if you're psyched for day after day of stupendous trail riding, and can swing the considerable logistical problems, these "fab four" bike tours are some of the most exhilarating rides you'll ever experience.

SAN JUAN HUT SYSTEM
The San Juan Hut System's 206-mile Telluride to Moab tour transports riders from Colorado's cool alpine mountain tops to the fiery deserts and redrock canyons of Utah's Moab. This route retraces the getaway route of gunslinger Butch Cassidy's gang after they robbed a Telluride bank in 1889.


Besides the obvious history and geography lessons, the system is special for its six wooden huts that serve as backcounty shelters for fat tire tourers. The fully outfitted huts relieve riders of the necessity of carrying tents, main meals, campstoves, cookwear, and sleeping bags. The only catch, if you can even call it that, is riders must pay $395 each (up to eight allowed) for the privilege of six nights of food and lodging - a modest price to pay an adventure of this caliber.

Since the huts are destinations in themselves, riders might have to hustle to make each nightly appointment. That's not only because of the energy-sapping altitude (average hut elevation is 9,000 feet), but from the fact that the alpine meadows are choked with all manner of blooming wildflowers. If you're carrying a camera, count on making more stops than a school bus.

The jaw-dropping views, in fact, are a marquee attraction for the San Juan route. With the cloud-piercing, snowcapped San Juans to the south, and the desiccated expanse of the approaching Colorado Plateau to the west, the contrasting landforms are uniquely spectacular and offer non-stop panoramas during the entire six-day trek.


The first day's ride to Last Dollar Hut - a fancy plywood cabin - is just 15 miles, the shortest day ride in the system. But in those few miles there's 2,800 feet of climbing to Last Dollar's lofty 11,000-foot San Juan perch. Riders winded by what's probably the easiest of days should know that the distances grow to an average of 35 miles between huts, and the fifth day's ride encompasses a colossal 4,400-foot climb.

By then, the ride has entered the transitional territory that gives way from cool high country to desert. And it's likely the lower-elevation mid-day temperatures will be a good 20 degrees warmer than previous days. The rule says carry as much water as you think you'll need, then double the amount.

Resources: The San Juan Hut System requires advanced payment to use the hut facilities. Mountain bike season runs June 1 to Oct. 1. Contact (970) 728-6935; www.sanjuanhuts.com; or write San Juan Hut Systems, P.O. Box 1663, Telluride, CO 81435. Two good ride guides are "Colorado Hut to Hut" (by Brian Litz, Westcliffe Publishers, 800-523-3692; www.westcliffepublishers.com) and "Mountain Bike America: Colorado" (by Stephen Halwaty, The Globe Pequot Press, 800-962-0973; www.globe-pequot.com).


TABEGUACHE TRAIL
The first challenge of the Tabeguache Trail is to pronounce it (say "tab-a-watch"). The second is to resist the temptation to turn around and repeat the 144-mile ride that many riders swear is the archetype of western Colorado bike routes.

Coursing across valleys, mesas, pinion-juniper forests and remote BLM range lands, the Tabeguache is a snippet of classic Colorado. The trail got its start in 1988, when a fledgling group of resource-savvy mountain bikers calling themselves the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Association (COPMOBA) dedicated the elbow grease to create a contiguous link between Montrose and Grand Junction. By connecting existing dirt roads and ATV trails with 11 miles of newly built singletrack, the Tabeguache was born.

Like you'd expect from any long-distance route, this wild and wooly ride requires excellent map reading skills. COPMOBA has placed strategic trail markers, but between extreme weather, pot-shotting cowboys and toothy critters, many of the markers are illegible. Generally, you can find water in most of the many drainages the trail transects, or atop the vast Uncompahgre Plateau. But later in summer, or after a dry spell, water can be scarce at lower elevations.


Most fit bikers can hammer out the Tabeguache in four days. But there's no need to hurry. The route meanders through at least four distinct eco zones, including desert, woodlands, montane and subalpine zones, each with requisite flora such as scrub oak, pinion-juniper, ponderosa pine, aspen, spruce and fir. Because the Tabeguache tops out at 9,500 feet, lingering snowfield can hamper upper elevations until mid-June.

The region has what wildlife officials believe is possibly the largest population of bears and mountain lions in Colorado, due in large part to the sparse human population and rough character of the land. On that note, COPMOBA discourages riding during the fall hunting season, when hunters descend in droves. If there's any doubt, riders should wear blaze orange tops to visually announce their presence to hunters.

Resources: The definitive guidebook is Bill Harris' "Cycling the Uncompahgre Plateau" (Wayfinder Press, P.O. Box 217, Ridgeway, CO 81432; www.copmoba.org).

GREAT DIVIDE MOUNTAIN BIKE ROUTE
Hikers have the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, fabled long-distance routes that are trophies for intrepid trekkers. Since its completion in 1997, the GDMBR offers mountain bikers a two-wheeled version of the same prize.

The 2,465-mile GDMBR is the unsurpassed monarch of mountain bike trails, the longest designated off-route route in the world, according to Montana-based Adventure Cycling, the non-profit association that conceived and mapped the trail. It roughly traces the Continental Divide from Canadian to Mexico as it passes through five western states (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico).

Colorado's leg of the GDMBR measures 548 miles and holds some of the route's most scenic stretches of Rocky Mountain terrain. But it's the state's elevation that gets the most attention, especially from fully loaded riders lugging 50-pounds of gear into the rarified air.

A typical day might begin on a gentle country road in a lush valley that eventually gives way to an arduous, lung-searing climb across one or more mountain passes. In fact, the GDMBR's highest point - 11,910 feet - is reached in Colorado at Indiana Pass, about 23 miles southwest of Del Norte.


The rhythm of climbing steep passes and negotiating rocky descents dictates the distance you can comfortably cover in a day, which usually averages about 50 miles for the fully loaded bikepacker. If you follow the daily mileage outlined in the GDMBR's official guide book, riding from Wyoming to New Mexico takes 11 days.

Steamboat Springs, Kremmling, Breckenridge, Silverthorne, Salida, Del Norte and Platoro are the larger towns en route where riders can find lodging and a decent offering of supplies (beer and burgers will probably come to mind). Sprinkled in between are small towns and off-the-map general stores, so riders are never more than a couple days away from civilization and supplies.

Resources: Order GDMBR maps through Adventure Cycling (800-721-8719; www.adv-cycling.org). "Cycling The Great Divide" (by Michael McCoy, The Mountaineers, 800-553-4453; www.mountaineersbooks.org) provides complete trail descriptions.


COLORADO TRAIL
Cutting a swath across the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Durango, the 471-mile CT is a wild, daunting, epic undertaking for mountain bike touring. And it's probably the most scenic - and technical - multi-day ride offered in the southern Rockies.

Seven national forests, six wilderness areas, eight mountain ranges and five major river systems are traversed by the CT, a trail that owes its existence to volunteers and leaders who envisioned a recreational corridor linking existing trails with numerous access points.

In 1973, the Colorado Mountain Trail Foundation was created to shepherd the CT project along. When funding hit a snag, the Colorado Mountain Club's Gudy Gaskill stepped forward to continue organizing volunteer efforts and gain public support. Gaskill's efforts prevailed, and the CT was officially christened in 1987. In the years since it's become a rite of passage for serious Colorado hikers, who make up the majority of trail users, and a growing contingency of mountain bikers.

Mountain biking is allowed on most all segments of the CT, but their use is prohibited from designated wilderness areas. The detour routes steer riders to 4WD roads and occasional pavement that skirt around the wilderness areas. There's also a handful of suggested optional detours that loaded bike tourers should heed. Several sections of extremely rough terrain makes it almost impossible to ride a loaded bike, which usually forces riders to haul their bikes by hand.

The CT is a wild trail that's not so developed that you can't get lost. Side loops and trail splits demand good map reading skills. And unlike other trails, the CT often keeps you remote for days on end. The Cochetopa Hills section southwest from Marshall Pass, for instance, has no convenient supply point. Saguache, the closest town, is 33 miles away. The area also hugs the Continental Divide, making access to water a concern. In short, you plan ahead and don't underestimate your ability on any section of the CT.

Resources: "The Colorado Trail, the Official Guidebook" (by Randy Jacobs, Westcliffe Publishers, 800-523-3692; www.westcliffepublishers.com) has trail descriptions of the entire CT, including mountain bike detours. The series of 29 topographical CT maps can be ordered through the Colorado Trail Foundation (303-384-3720; www.coloradotrail.org).

BEFORE YOU GO . . .
Anyone considering jumping into fully-loading cycle touring - on or off-road - should contact Adventure Cycling Association (800-755-2453; www.adv-cycling.org), the country's preeminent cycle touring organization. At the very least, check out their web site. It's loaded with "take to the trail" pointers that will save you hours of logistical hassles. And for a yearly membership fee of about $32, you'll get the complete skinny on all of touring's essential "how-to's." Adventure Cycling provides newsletters, magazines, discounts on bike tour-related gear and travel, and has a complete library of maps compiled by its bike touring staff. Use Trails.com to learn more about Colorado Mountain Biking destinations and more!


Comments

San Juan Hut Systems

Hi! We wanted to give you the most current information for San Juan Hut Systems Bike Trips.
We now offer 2 different routes -- in addition to the original 7 day/6 night Telluride to Moab ride, we also offer a more challenging 7 day/6 night Durango to Moab route with more single-track options. Each of those trips is $850 per person, and we do offer group rates and fall specials (check out our blog or our Facebook page for fall specials each year). This rate includes all food, sleeping bags, water, and route logistics.
After many requests for shorter trips, we're also offering 5 day/4 night trips on both routes. Call us (970) 626-3033 and check out our website, sanjuanhuts.com, and visit us on Facebook and let us help you plan your "Adventure without the Weight".

Posted on May 25, 2011 - 9:59am
by Visitor

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