Mountain Biking the Colorado Trail
Eight mountain ranges, six wilderness areas, five major river systems and six national forests
The Colorado Trail
Described as an adventure of a lifetime, the 485 mile continuous, narrow path from Denver to Durango is popular with hikers, horse-riders and cyclists.
In this article I’ll share my thoughts after doing the ride, I’ll show you some photos, and I’ll give you an insight into my gear and logistics.
Bikepacking the Colorado Trail
It was great to be able to ride sooo much single track. Every day 8–14 hrs of riding — single track.
There were some well spaced detours which were awesome riding as well — gravel / dirt with the odd bit of road which was a welcome break.
The track varied from smooth, flowing single track to long technical sections. Technical parts had rocks, tree routes, and a fair bit of unridable terrain, all in equal proportions. You can, and need to, convince yourself that the hard and painful days make the good days more enjoyable.
It is only now, after I have completed the ride, that I appreciate what a mammoth, and awesome, ride it actually is.
Time of year
I chose to do the ride over the last few weeks of August.
The evenings started off balmy but a few weeks later, high up on the mountains, the evenings were freezing. I got lucky, the flowers were still in full bloom and the weather overall was pleasant.
I had to keep tabs on thunderstorms on several of the mountain passes. It’s not advisable to be above tree line with lightning around. If a storm looks likely, you have to call an early day and camp below the tree line (you need an extra meal up your sleeve for that). The thunderstorm cycle is predictable. They form in the afternoon and disappear again at nightfall. Every morning was glorious.
Riding all day was fine, but the distances were hard to predict. Some full days I only covered 25 miles, and the fit hikers were faster than me for most of the day. On days with cycle detours I could often travel 60 miles. This put me back on schedule for a two week finish time.
I started the ride with a short day Saturday and had a full day off in Frisco. That gave me a chance to get rid of a few hayfever, or cold, symptoms that had developed and I also got some bike repairs done.
I finished two weeks later on a Saturday evening making it 13.5 days of riding. I had three to four shorter riding days due to timings, the rest were reasonably long dawn to dusk type riding/pushing days.
Charging — I had a SON hub dynamo. The amount of quality charging time was limited to three days, so a couple of USB batteries is a suitable solution. The latest iPhone XS seemed to last forever on airplane mode.
Spare tubes — I rode tubeless and took the risky option of carrying only one spare tube. I also carried a pen that allows you to stab a large hole and fill it with strands of rubber to help seal larger wholes. I also found some stuff called GUP which is a canister filler which pushes air and thicker sealant into the tyre. I had no flats or issues. I always run brand new tyres on a trip like this. The Colorado Trail is quite brutal on wheels/tyres. The beading was well worn after 12 days on the trail. If I were to ride again I would consider one of those new sponge inner insertHard tail — I rode a hard tail which gave me more frame space and a lighter setup. There is quite a bit of track where full suspension would be nice but I had no problems on a hard tail.
Front suspension — I also felt my front suspension needed some tuning once the bags were loaded. I only realised this late on the last day of the trip after noticing the rebound not really rebounding.
Navigation and Comms
I chose to use the Garmin 66i, it has a tracking feature and gave me the ability to send messages when I was worried about weather systems, and also helped keep family in the loop on progress. Cell phone reception was limited. I traded this off against a possibly more robust PLB. A New Zealand PLB might not be operable in the US so check this as well. There may be a service plan that needs to be activated if you are using a US registered PLB.
I also used the Guthook app, which was invaluable for showing water spots and calculating elevation gain when planning the next day’s track. I bought the Colorado Trail Data Book, but didn’t take it with me due to finding it too heavy for my ultralight setup. I made do without but the book but it did contain extra water spots data, that the Guthook app didn’t, which surprised me.
I opted to only stop in towns that had no significant detour. This includes Fisco (REI), Twin Lakes (the little store is awesome), and Silverton (has a hiking store and a supermarket).
This also meant I needed five days food between BV and Silverton. Carrying five days of food you really notice the weight, obviously on the uphills, but it also really affects the downhill handling when navigating your way through the Colorado Trail’s technical tracks.
I also came across a store on the first detour on the road to Jefferson, just before I turned off the main road. This was quite a life saver as my initial estimation of how much I would need was inadequate. Take more food than you think you will need as range anxiety is a real thing on a bike in remote areas.
Dealing with Altitude
I arrived in Denver for two nights, then headed out. I noticed a headache developing at around 6500 feet. I just sipped more water and took it easy for 10 minutes, this seemed to help. This happened several other times heading up to 8500 feet. After this I was ok, however over 12k I really noticed that riding up hill was quite challenging. I ended up just pushing the bike up anything that was not a smooth uphill friendly grade.
I chose to use an Ursack to prevent the bears from stealing my food. It weighed in at 200g but was good to put all my food in. I tied it tightly away from the tent. It kept critters out and the bears stayed away from my food.
Dehydrated meals were the way to go. I also took tortillas, cheese and salami and snacked on these between second-breakfast and (early or late) lunch. I could get three days out of a ten-pack of salami and 500g of cheese. Take care to have enough cooking gas canisters. The smaller ones give you about ten cooks. Surprisingly, I gave up coffee for half the mornings meaning I could get going faster and stretch the gas cartridge to ten dinner cooks.
My routine was all over the place; some nights I would be in bed at 7pm then up and getting ready at 4:30am, other nights I would be in bed at 10:30pm.
If you have any questions, or want to chat about the ride, I am more than happy to help. Please email me at email@example.com