While Summit County trails dry out, find MTB adventures close to home
Big Fat Tire
If you had asked me in mid-April when I thought trails in Summit would start to melt out I would have said “about two to three weeks early.” That was about 4 to 5 feet of snow ago. Now, as we approach June, the SNOTEL sites in Summit have gone from 20 to 30 percent below average to some crazy numbers, like 514 percent of average at Hoosier Pass and 653 percent of average at Copper Mountain on May 27.
Now, those numbers are a bit misleading because this time of year the snowpack is usually plummeting, and instead it’s been growing. But still, that’s a pretty remarkable turnaround. Now I’ll guess that we’ll probably be behind for a week or two for the melt out. It just goes to show you that there’s no such thing as “normal” when it comes to the weather.
Right now, there are only a few places to go riding in Summit County — the Frisco Peninsula, Oro Grande, parts of the Flume trail system — but it’s pretty limited. So what’s a High Country MTBer to do? Many of us take off for extended vacations to Moab or Fruita or destinations further, but what about those of us who have work and family responsibilities and can’t take a lot of time off? Fortunately we don’t have to go far, just lower in elevation to find quality dirt under our tires.
There are a bunch of areas that are an easy day’s drive there and back from Summit. I have four main areas that I usually go to. There are others of course, but for me, these areas offer a combination of relatively short driving time, uncrowded trails, generally reliable dry conditions as early as April, and extensive mileage of quality trails.
The closest in drive time from Summit (I live in Breckenridge) is the Four Mile Recreation area just east of Buena Vista. Most people think of the Midland Trail when they think of this area, but if you haven’t been there in a few years a bunch of new trails have been added.
Some people might knock the Midland for not having a lot of technical challenge, since it’s mostly a railroad grade, but new trails like Broken Boyfriend (there’s a story there, I’m sure) above the BV river park and the Spaghetti Western trails near the Collegiate Peaks overlook have added a lot to the area. They’re moderately technical, nothing too over-the-top but enough to keep it interesting. If you’re looking to get some more serious miles, 25- to 35-mile loops are possible using the dirt roads that climb up and down through the area and offer spectacular scenery and views of the Collegiate peaks. You can integrate the numerous trails designed for ATVs into your loops to add a little technical spice also. I also highly recommend the Davis Meadow trail on the north end of the area. It is a little higher so it usually takes a little longer to dry out, but doing it counter-clockwise gives you a nice climb out of the high desert pinion juniper and into the aspen and fir trees, followed by a technical, rock-filled descent.
Road Tip: If you park at the river park you not only have easy access to the best trails, you have easy access to Kay’s Dairy Delight for a post-ride chocolate malt and onion rings.
Trail heads: I usually park at the town river park, but the shortest drive from Summit is the east end of the Midland RR grade on CR 315 (Shields Gulch). You can park at the top of Trout Creek Pass, but it’s a lot of dirt-road miles through open and often windy Chubb Park to get to any singletrack.
If you want to drive another 20 minutes or so down valley from BV you’ll come to the funky town of Salida. Salida is a town with a lot to offer off the bike, but there are many top-notch trails that you can get to from town that offer almost year-round riding. The local mountain bike group, Salida Mountain Trails, has done a great job building new trails in the area.
The closest trail system is the Arkansas Hills (aka “S Mountain”) system. This takes off right from town, although it can be challenging to find the entrance after crossing through the old rail yard. If you go more-or-less across the RR tracks from the F, the trails get progressively more technical as you get away from town. North Backbone has some moderately difficult rock outcrop moves, and Sand Dunes and Uncle Nazty are downright scary in spots.
A great loop is the Cottonwood Gulch Loop. This approximately 20-mile loop uses the North Backbone trail to get to the Ute trail, which is a county road. The Ute trail is a bit of a gravel grind, but there’s generally not much car traffic and the gulch it runs through is pretty. A recently completed section of singletrack takes you over to Cottonwood Gulch Road (CR 173) for a short distance. There is a non-system trail that will be rerouted this summer that heads down to the bottom of the gulch that is unmarked. You have to know where to look, but if you find it (or the re-route is done and marked) you drop into the Gulch proper. Once at the bottom there are a series of rock drops and chunk interspersed with faster, flowing single track — great loop. If you can’t find the trail dropping into the gulch, you can stay on the road, which is fast in sections, with steep, gnarly portions. It drops you right back at the start of the North Backbone Trail.
The other trail system that opens early is the Methodist Mountain system south of town. The Little Rainbow Trail, which is a machine-built trail without any big climbs or tech, is good for beginners and fast for experts who like backbone rides. Other trails branch off of it and are more difficult, but not too technical.
Road tip: Watch your speed on Hwy 285 between BV and Salida. Many tickets are written here.
Trail heads: Arkansas hills: F Street just over the Arkansas River bridge right in town or the S Mountain parking off Spiral Drive (CR 176).
Methodist Mountain: Just off of Highway 50 about a half-mile south of Highway 50 and Oak Street (Highway 291 intersection).
Buffalo Creek is an area created for mountain biking about an hour and 15 from Breckenridge. It has somewhere around 40 miles of interconnected trails, some of which wind through the Old Buffalo Creek and Hi Meadow burn areas that can be combined into 5-6-7-8-9 (you get the idea) loop combinations. You can easily do 30-40 miles with 5,000 to 6,000 feet of climbing rides. Most of the trails are what are often categorized as “XC,” meaning they are, with some exceptions (more on that later), fast and flowing roller coasters. The soil on most of the trails at BC is decomposed granite, which drains very well and doesn’t have a lot of organic material. The trail rides well when wet and can also be traction challenged (careful with your front brake) when dry. The area is quite popular, but it’s big enough to swallow everyone and never feels crowded, even on a nice weekend.
Some people knock BC for its lack of technical challenge, which is mostly true. If you like big hits and scary drops, BC is probably not for you. There are some modest and not-so-modest exceptions to that, though. The new Little Scraggly trail is the modest exception. Presently it is an out-and-back, but construction is underway to connect it on both ends to the Colorado Trail and the greater trail system. Little Scraggly combines the fast flow of most other BC trails, but it makes use of the numerous granite rock outcrops. None of these features are too difficult, but they definitely add some spice to the trail.
The not-so-modest exception is the Raspberry Ridge/Blackjack trail. Raspberry is the easier part of the combination, but still has plenty of rock moves up and down. Blackjack has some — at least for me — genuinely pucker-inducing drops that require quick turns at the bottom. They’re mostly very steep roll overs, with some squeeze-through-the-slot moves. They are not a place you want to fall over. I think of myself as a fairly competent technical rider, but there are a couple spots on Blackjack that I opt out, although there aren’t really any chicken lines and portaging is almost as scary as riding.
Road tip: Watch your speed on 285 between Kenosha Pass and Pine Junction. Zoka’s in Pine is a great place to stop for a post-ride meal.
Trail heads: There are numerous access points. I usually park at either Pine Valley open space or the Buffalo Creek trailhead. Pine Valley is less driving but starts with a bear of a climb. BC gives you the opportunity to warm up on a dirt road before you climb.
Eagle is west on Interstate 70 about an hour and 15 from Frisco. It’s a cool town with many Summit expats. It’s one of those places where the local MTB community has worked well with the local open space departments, as well as the federal land agencies, to create a great trail system. The trails range in difficulty, but mostly I’d call them high-desert rock and twist.
The trails are located on either side of the Brush Creek Valley. On the east side of town are what I call the Bellyache Ridge trails. I usually climb the Boneyard trail; the others are doable but a grunt. The Pool and Ice Rink trail is definitely a trail that rides better down than up. It is fairly steep with constructed flow features, such as big berms and pump rollers. Typically I’ll do a loop here, then head through town to hit the west-side trails.
The west side has a more expansive system than the east. It mixes purpose-built, non-motorized trails with dirt road and user-created moto trails. Some trails are non-motorized and some allow dirt bikes. There are many combinations of loops that can take you out of the pinion juniper into scrub oak and higher. Once you get above the scrub-oak zone early in the season, things begin to get mucky. Moto trails like World’s Greatest Downhill can be pretty chewed up and rutted. They’re pretty steep and all the use seems to be taking its toll, but they’re still fun. Be aware though that once you get to the bottom of WGD or the other lower trails, due to private property you cannot exit Hockett Gulch to access town. You have to climb back out on a nasty little grunt called Schoolhouse Rock.
Most of the access for trails like Abrams Ridge and Tick Alley are in residential areas and can be tricky to find, but once you know the system it’s no big deal.
Road tip: Eagle has lots of cafes and bike shops. Don’t forget to support the local businesses.
Trail heads: There is a bunch of public parking in Eagle. I usually park at the Brush Creek Pavilion on Brush Creek Road in between “old” and “new” Eagle, just because it’s centrally located, but you can park in any number of other lots. Eagle is fairly small so it’s all good.
Mike Zobbe is the president of the Summit County Fat Tire Society (www.summitfattire.org).
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