COLORADO: ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

Five prime riding destinations 

By Lane Lindstrom

Yankee Boy Basin is a popular destination for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is the spectacular scenery here. Challenging stretches of trails and several waterfalls are also big attractions. Photo by Donavon Facey

 

 

 

COLORADO: ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

When it comes to describing the amazing scenery Colorado has to offer off-roaders, we quickly ran out of superlatives. The scenery is over the top both figuratively and literally.

Colorado has 58 “14ers”—the term for mountain peaks at least 14,000 feet—more than any other state. With those mountains come spectacular views and great riding. There are thousands of trail miles in Colorado, and almost all with a view of the Rocky Mountains.

Those mountains catch a lot of snow, so higher-elevation trails aren’t passable until July or later. Many trails rise above the tree line for interesting and unobstructed views.

Colorado’s eastern plains, western high desert and rugged hills all have riding. Riding around Rangely in the northwest is scenic and less crowded than some mountainous areas, while around Gateway there are additional mountainous routes not in the Rockies.

One of the best and most useful websites for trip planning is https://trails.colorado.gov/.

While there is riding all across Colorado, here are five areas that should be on your bucket list.

Animas Forks ghost town has several buildings still standing and sits at more than 11,000 feet high, giving it the distinction of being one of the highest mining camps in the United States. Photo by Donavon Facey

COLORADO: ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

Ouray/Lake City/Silverton

Words are not able to describe the jaw-dropping scenery that dominates this area. Towering mountains, snow late into summer, mountain passes 2 1/2 miles above sea level, history around every corner, and views that you must see to believe. It’s all here and accessible from the seat of an OHV.

Some of Colorado’s most famous (and fun) riding areas are located in this section of the Rockies. The names are even familiar: Corkscrew Gulch, Engineer Pass, Ophir Pass, Black Bear Pass, Yankee Boy Basin, Imogene and the legendary Alpine Loop.

Alpine Loop is the crown jewel of trails. The 65-mile trail is more than a loop. It’s a loop with a tail or two. One “tail” leads from Ouray to the loop, while the other “tail” heads south to Silverton. You can jump on the loop in any of the three picturesque anchor towns: Ouray, Silverton or Lake City. The 65-mile figure is the minimum, as you’ll likely end up taking a side trail or two.

You will pass Uncompahgre River Falls and Whitmore Falls, go over 12,850-foot Engineer Pass, pass Lake San Cristobal, and go near or through Animas Forks and Eureka ghost towns and other mining ruins.

Another popular ride is to Yankee Boy Basin, noted for its scenery, waterfalls and technical trails. Turn south off Yankee Boy Basin Trail to 13,114-foot Imogene Pass. This steep and rough east-side trail is described as “more difficult.” The descent is more gradual. You can profitably spend several days exploring the area.

You should: Take your time and explore the history, gawk at the scenery, find trails less traveled and enjoy the small-town friendliness of Ouray, Silverton and Lake City.

Essentials: Ouray/Lake City/Silverton

Location: Southwest Colorado

Riding elevation: 8,500-13,200

Full-service town: Ouray (pop. 998); Silverton (pop. 663); Lake City (pop. 394)

Summer temps: July—78 degrees F

Info: www.visitouray.com; www.lakecity.com; www.silvertoncolorado.com

One of the attractions of northern Routt County—besides the stunning mountain scenery—is the variety of available trails. There are trails that meander through large parks, tight trails in the trees, boulder sections, water crossings and just about every other kind you can imagine. Photo by Donavon Facey

COLORADO: ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

Routt County

Northern Routt County is several miles north of Steamboat Springs. The riding is so good, we thought we would never experience riding and mountain scenery like that again. Colorado is full of similar experiences, but we have a special feeling for Routt County riding. Our guide picked a technical trail, but that is not the only riding available here. The variety of trail offerings are near endless. Many scenic trails are wide and have very little elevation gain. There are creek crossings—some that offer climbing and steep descents, others that cross boulder patches and still other tight, twisty trails with switchbacks. Expect panoramic views of some of Colorado’s most jagged peaks.

We parked at 8,500 feet and gained another 2,000 feet. Many motorized trails in Eastern Routt County offer magnificent views of the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness.

One of our favorite parts was crawling up “boulder patch” through tall pines and underbrush.

This is just one of the many water crossings in northern Routt County. Some crossings are high-mountain streams, while others are large puddles that cross the trail.

We saw magnificent views of Hahns Peak (elevation 10,839 feet). Another favorite trail is to the top of Farwell Mountain (10,824 feet), an ascent of 1,350 feet from the main trail. Once on top of Farwell, you have a 360-degree view. You see Pearl Lake and Steamboat Lake. Turn a little north and you view Hahns Peak. To the East is Mount Zirkel Wilderness, including the Sawtooth Range. To the south and east are the mountains where Steamboat Ski Resort is.

Parts of the riding are on the Continental Divide Trail, also known as the Wyoming Trail, which runs north and south through Colorado.

You should: Plan your ride time carefully. Too early or too late and you’ll be battling with snow. We’ve had one October trip cut short, but fall is a beautiful time in the Colorado Rockies.

Essentials: Routt County

Location: North-central Colorado

Riding elevation: 8,100–10,800 feet

Full-service town: Steamboat Springs (pop. 12,928); with some services near Steamboat Lake and in Clark

Summer temps: July—81 degrees F

Info: www.steamboat-chamber.com

Early in the riding season, snowmelt and the resulting runoff can flood the trail along the edge of Mirror Lake. Riders should use common sense when deciding whether to attempt to cross this section of water.
Tincup ghost town is a great lunch stop when exploring the area. There are several well-preserved buildings in this ghost town, which dates back to 1879.Photo by Donavon Facey

COLORADO: ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

Taylor Park

This west-central Colorado riding area could be known by a lot of names, but perhaps Taylor Park is best. It’s centrally located in this part of the Colorado Rockies and provides access to trails that lead in all directions. Nailing down a specific central Colorado Rockies riding area is difficult, because many trails interconnect with other riding areas. But for our purposes, we’ll say this riding area is loosely bordered by the ghost town of St. Elmo and/or Alpine Lake on the east, Spring Creek Road/East Cement Mountain on the west, Gold Hill on the north and Old Monarch Pass Road in the south.

Within those imaginary boundaries is everything from wide, easy mountain roads to technical trails that test the best suspensions.

There are abundant trails, but we do like the Old West history, so we like the abundance of ghost towns and mining sites. And, with the many 12,000-plus-feet mountain passes that scrape the sky, the views go on forever in every direction.

A great history and ride combo is to start in the ghost town of St. Elmo, head west and up and over Tincup Pass (elevation 12,154 feet), down past Mirror Lake to the ghost town of Tincup. St. Elmo is one of Colorado’s most famous and best-preserved ghost towns. Early in the season portions of the trail along Mirror Lake are under water.

Another great historic ride is to the Alpine Tunnel National Historic District. Head south out of St. Elmo or hop on the Alpine Tunnel Trail out of Pitkin. Touted as the first tunnel built through the Continental Divide and still the highest railroad tunnel (highest point: 11,523 feet) in North America, there are buildings in various states as well as a restored train station. The ride along the old railroad grade is scenic and not for the faint of heart in some spots. Coming from St. Elmo, you cross spectacular Hancock Pass (12,140 feet). The Williams Pass Trail bypasses Hancock Pass and connects higher up on the Alpine Tunnel Trail, but is only open during August!

On the area’s northern end there are off-shoot trails from Cumberland Pass Trail between Tincup and Taylor Park Reservoir, and then between the reservoir and Taylor Pass on the Taylor River Trail and Taylor Pass Trail. Most are worth exploring.

You should: Take your fishing pole, buy a fishing license and hit the many rivers, streams and lakes in the area. If you’re a history buff, find out more about the mining towns, ghost towns and other notable places. You can ride to most of them.

Essentials: Taylor Park

Location: West central Colorado

Riding elevation: 9,100–12,000 feet plus

Full-service town: (east side) Buena Vista (pop. 2,866); (west side) Gunnison (pop. 17,462); with some services in St. Elmo and Tincup

Summer temps: July—72-75 degrees F

Info: www.buenavistacolorado.org; www.gunnisoncrestedbutte.com

Not all the mountain trails in the South Fork and Creede area are wide, smooth paths. Some have a little character, like this one that leads to Phoenix Park. They are, after all, called the Rockies!
Many buildings from the old Commodore Mine on the Bachelor Loop Historic Tour are still intact, which is impressive enough after all these years, but even more impressive considering the harsh winters they endure every year. For history buffs, this is a great off-road experience.

 

COLORADO: ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

South Fork/Creede/San Juan Mountains

We spent two full days of riding in this part of Colorado and didn’t plan near enough time to explore. Our guide, Matt Entz (www.mountainskillz
.com
), did his best to show us the highlights of the Rio Grande National Forest, but it was a lot to take in.

All trails/roads are in the mountains with elevations starting at 8,000 feet and going up to 13,000 feet at the end of Forest Road 505 1B, which takes you to the top of the Continental Divide. Yes, you’re on top of the world. In nearly every direction there were taller mountains, including the 14,022-foot San Luis Peak.

We rode one day out of the former mining town of Creede (elevation 8,799 feet), heading past the Commodore Mine. The Creede Visitor Center and Chamber of Commerce have a great pamphlet that has a map and interesting information about the mines and interpretive stops. It’s all part of the Bachelor Loop Historic Tour. The former silver mines are no longer in operation now, but the history of this area is still very rich.

As you approach Commodore Mine, the canyon walls shoot straight up, and you follow West Willow Creek, passing interpretive sites and points of interest on the historic Bachelor Loop. We used that trail to access the Rat Creek Loop on the way to the Continental Divide. We were well above the tree line, and the views were spectacular, with nothing to obstruct your view except for more mountains.

There is a challenging canyon ride along East Willow Creek. Along with off-camber sections, there are creek crossings and plenty of rocks. A must stop is Phoenix Park, where you can see Phoenix Falls.

Another day of riding was spent east and south of South Fork. We were treated to narrow, rocky roads. We made a slight detour up to Poage Lake that sits at 11,000 feet. Sometimes the trails follow the terrain of the mountains, and other times they cut across it. The centerpiece is towering Del Norte Peak at 12,400 feet.

You should: Time your ride for fall to capture the beautiful fall colors. Summertime is great as well. 

Essentials: South Fork/Creede

Location: Southern Colorado

Riding elevation: 8,000–13,000

Full-service town: South Fork (pop. 425); Creede (pop. 312)

Summer temps: July—77 degrees F

Info: www.southfork.org; www.creede.com

If you plan accordingly, you can participate in Rangely’s annual ROAR OHV Rally, which is a great way to explore the area’s various trails without having to do a lot of your own legwork. Photo courtesy of the Town of Rangely
Much of the riding around Rangely—and you can ride in all directions from town—takes place in the high desert, which offers a unique landscape of its own. Photo courtesy of the Town of Rangely

COLORADO: ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

Rangely 

Sitting on the high desert and rangeland between Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the Utah state line, Rangely is home to hundreds of miles of roads and trails that spread out in practically all directions from the town of 2400 people. Although it isn’t in the spectacular Rocky Mountains, the views are dramatic in a different way. You ride in canyon bottoms, along ridgetops and through dry high desert. There are impressive rock formations and drainages, plus water features like the White River, Kenney Reservoir northeast of town and Douglas Creek south of town.

There are locals who can show you around the area. If you prefer to strike out on your own, click the drop-down menu on Rangely’s Chamber of Commerce website that’s labeled “ROAR OHV Rally,” then click on “Trails and Trail Rating.” You’ll find five “ready-made” trail routes complete with ratings and a short description of what you might encounter on that ride.

The East Douglas/Rope Canyon Loop totals 48 miles of trails and features lots of canyons and mountain terrain. The 40-mile Texas Springs/Oil Springs Loop has lots of ridgetop riding that offers views of the area. Texas Mountain (elevation 8,455 feet) is accessible from these trails. The Chase Draw Trail is a ridgetop trail that offers some of the best views of Rangely, the White River and surrounding area. This 25-mile trail also leads to Kenney Reservoir, with stretches of slick-rock riding.

The 30-mile Big Ridge Trails leaves right from town and heads east along ridgetops, through amazing canyons, and offers some of the most challenging trails in the area. The longest trail is the 58-mile Cottonwood Loop, with portions of the trail snaking along the White River.

Rangely Rock Crawling Park is designated by the BLM as the only natural rock-crawling park in the state of Colorado. It’s 560 acres, and it’s free to ride the challenging terrain.

You should: Attend Rangely’s ROAR Rally, held annually at the end of April/beginning of May. Information is available on the Rangely Chamber of Commerce website.

Essentials: Rangely

Location: Northwest Colorado

Riding elevation: 5,126–8,400 feet plus

Full-service town: Rangely (pop. 2,402)

Summer temps: July—92 degrees F

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Info: www.rangelychamber.com 

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