Biking The Colorado Trail

Mountain vistas: the ups and downs of a mountain-biking/hiking paradise.
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Mountain vistas: the ups and downs of a mountain-biking/hiking paradise.

Little Known Fact: The Colorado Trail totals 469 miles ~ for mountain biking or hiking.

You've got a long weekend coming up, three full days if you leave immediately after work Thursday and return late Sunday night. You want to go where your lungs gasp for air, your legs groan for relief, and your mind explodes with joy, solely because of where you are.

And you definitely want your mountain bike. You want to go self-contained for three days and two nights, camping wherever the mood strikes you. You want mountains, crystal waters, and skies so blue they make your eyes ache. You want the stars close enough to tickle you. What you want is the Colorado Trail, specifically the sections immediately north of Durango, Colorado.

Usually the distance is broken into three distinct sections: from Molas Pass to Bolem Pass; Bolem Pass to the head of Hotel Draw; from Hotel Draw to Kennebec Pass and on to Durango. Each can be ridden in a hard, fast day, with easy access via car or truck. But to really savor the trail, to fully appreciate just what a magnificent land it traverses, you've got to take your time, hiking or riding slowly, camping wherever night finds you.

The best part is the first two sections. If you're in no hurry whatsoever and enjoy lingering, take all three days just to ride to Bolem Pass, where you'll take the dirt road to the Purgatory Ski Resort. Stash your gear there and pedal back up the highway to Molas Pass and your car.

Elevations are high, very high. You'll spend most of the time near timberline, which in Colorado hovers around 12,000 feet. If you've never been to that altitude, you'll feel weak. But don't worry, because altitude affects everybody that way. Just get in shape beforehand and drink lots of water (more than a gallon a day if the sun's out).

Contact Information:

U.S. Forest Service, Room 301

701 Camino del Rio

Durango, CO 81301

(970) 247-4874

Location:

The trail is located in southwestern Colorado, 350 miles from Denver, 15 minutes from Durango.

Getting There:

The drive from Denver is a long one; it's best to fly into Albuquerque and drive to Durango. Molas Pass is an hour's drive north of Durango on US 550. Just north of the Molas Pass summit, turn left at the sign for Little Molas Lake. The trailhead is past the lake. Head south on the trail.

Seasonal Information:

July and early September are probably the best months. August is wetter.

Snow can fall at high elevations any month of the year. Go prepared for everything from rain and snow to 90?, skin-broiling heat.

Wildlife:

What you see depends on your elevation, but you may find mule deer, elk, black bears, and even moose. In the backcountry's less-traveled areas live bighorn sheep, mountain goats, beavers, river otters, and even mountain lions.

Chipmunks and ground squirrels are common campsite visitors, and raccoons and skunks may visit after dark. An occasional porcupine or furry marmot scurries along a back road.

Nearly 300 species of birds have been identified in southwestern Colorado. Look to the sky and you may see a bald eagle or a peregrine falcon. And listen for woodpeckers in search of insects in the bark of trees. More common are ravens, flickers, gray jays, mountain bluebirds, and hummingbirds. Owls often pierce the still of the night with their hoots. A bird list, compiled by the Durango Bird Club, is available from Forest Service offices upon request.

For recorded information on Colorado wildlife special events, call (303) 291-7518.

Insects:

Check for Rocky Mountain wood ticks that can transmit Colorado tick fever. Mosquitoes are usually an annoyance only in damp and densely forested locations. Avoid wet, low-lying areas, and use insect repellent.

Plant Life:

Once again, this will depend on your elevation. The most common trees are aspen, pi?ion juniper, spruce fir, and cottonwood. Autumn foliage brings magnificent gold to the area.

Facilities:

The forest has many developed campgrounds and picnic areas, including several designed for large groups. Sites at 13 campgrounds may be reserved by calling (800) 280-CAMP. You may make reservations up to 120 days in advance for individual sites and up to 360 days in advance for group sites. Reservations must be made at least 10 days prior to arrival for individual sites and three days prior for group sites. A reservation fee is charged. Each campground has a self-service registration and fee-payment station near the entrance.

The closer to Denver, the more developed campsites become. Fee campgrounds include tables, fire grates, toilets, and drinking water.

In Durango, there are over 10 raft companies to help plan a white water trip. Jeep and mountain bike rentals are also available.

Parking:

Contact park office for information.

Permits:

No permits are needed.

Campgrounds range from $6 to $10; most are $8. There is a $15.75 reservation fee for group sites and a $7.85 reservation fee for family sites.

Policies:

  • There is a 14-day camping limit.
  • Dogs are allowed on a leash.

Hazards:

  • Be prepared for extreme weather. Floods can occur in the floodplains.
  • Poison ivy grows in the area, usually in the lower elevations ~ in thickets along streams and on rocky hillsides.
  • Water is scarce along parts of the trail.
  • Rattlesnakes are seldom seen but may be found in lower elevations during the summer.
  • Be prepared for high altitudes, and possibly accompanying sickness from ascending too rapidly. A victim of altitude sickness should descend to lower elevations immediately.

Leave No Trace:

Charcoal and camp stoves are encouraged.

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

  • The finest information is found in the Colorado Mountain Club's excellent guidebook for the entire trail, which includes topo maps. Contact:
  • Colorado Mountain Club
  • Box 1105
  • Boulder, CO 80306
  • (303) 449-1135.
  • The San Juan National Forest Association offers Colorado Trail maps for $18 plus $2 shipping (whole set) and $10 plus $1 shipping (half set: 1-16 North, 17-29 South) and Colorado Traveler (a detailed guidebook for day hikes on the Colorado Trail) for $5 plus $1 shipping. Contact: SJNFA
  • P.O. Box 2261
  • Durango, CO 81302.
  • National forest maps are also available from the visitor center for $3.
  • Guide to Bicycle Routes on Public Lands of Southwest Colorado and Durango Area Southwest Colorado Mountain Bike Routes are helpful for mountain bikers and are available from forest offices and local bike shops.

Other Trip Options:

  • Within San Juan National Forest, you can drive along the San Juan Skyway, a National Forest Scenic Byway; fish for trout in lakes or go boating; go kayaking on a white water river; ride a mountain bike on miles of single-track trails, including some that are known internationally; hike into the backcountry; explore three wilderness areas and more than 1,000 miles of trails; visit historic mining districts or ancient Pueblo Indian archaeological sites; see sights by foot, car, horse, motorcycle, or other off-road vehicle; hunt plentiful big game; and enjoy downhill and cross-country skiiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, or ice fishing in the winter.
  • Clear Lake and Turquoise Lake are popular spots.
  • There are about a dozen great peaks to climb within a one-day walk from the trail.
  • In Durango, take a ride on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (970-247-2733).
  • The Strater Hotel (800-247-4431) in Durango was built in 1887 and houses the largest collection of antique walnut furniture in the world. And there is lots of history to enjoy in Durango's Victorian architecture.
  • You can also learn about the Southern Ute Indian tribe (800-847-5485), enjoy vaudeville at the Diamond Circle Melodrama (970-247-3400), relieve stress at Trimble Hot Springs (970-247-0111), attend a rodeo in the summer, take a ballon ride or glider ride, or experience an evening at Bar-D Chuckwagon (970-247-5753). And Purgatory Resort offers 38 miles of skiing.
  • Mesa Verde National Park (970-529-4461 or 520-529-2241) offers magnificient archaeological sites about 1? hours west of Durango.