Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Rare Day in Colorado's Front Range

High above Colorado Springs.
There are some pretty weird hobbies in this world:  rubber band collections, dressing up like a stuffed animal, or jumping off bridges with a parachute to name a few.

When you really think about it, climbing and descending hiking trails on a bicycle is no more or less reasonable than collecting porcelain figurines, running ultra-marathons or re-writing all the endings to Disney movies to make them horror flicks.

But for some reason I've chosen mountain biking.  So, what exactly do I get out of it?  Why do I spend an inordinate amount of my free time either mountain biking or thinking about mountain biking?  Why is it more appealing to me than, say, chasing a little white ball around a meticulously landscaped yard?

When pondering dangerous questions like this, I envision words like adventure, beauty, excitement, challenge  and meditation written on a giant Venn diagram.  I see mountain biking as a mixture of all of these experiences, but most of the time a given day will feature some aspects but not all of them together.
My second favorite Venn diagram

There was a trip to the Kancamagus where I slogged along a terribly maintained trail through wilderness.  There was definitely adventure, beauty, and challenge but the day was a little short on excitement and particularly short on the meditation that comes with finding flow.

However, once in a while there are those days where all the categories intersect.  Where you challenge yourself, venture into the unknown, and are rewarded with beautiful vistas, exciting descents, and sublime transcendence.  Those are the days that keep you coming back for more.

For a golfer, its that day you break 80, for a gamer its that day you move through the game like some invincible demi-god, and for the Ebay-er, its the day you outbid the retiree from Ocala by a dollar on the "My Little Pony" figurine from your childhood.

A rare day, indeed.

I think of a trip to Noble Canyon, a day at Charlemont Trails, a crisp October day at Kingdom Trails, or my first day at Millstone Trails.

And then there was that day up above Colorado Springs.

It was mid-March and my wife had a conference in Colorado Springs.  We decided it would be a decent time for a quasi-vacation. During the week, while she "conferenced", I would explore the local sights, and then we'd spend our evenings together.

I knew nothing about Colorado Springs, aside from the fact that it was home to the US Olympic training center.  A little over an hour south of Denver, it sits at about 7000 feet above sea level.  The front range of the Rockies thrusts upward just west of the city and the rocky Pike's Peak towers above everything.  A little research revealed that there were ample mountain biking opportunities to be found, and so I set up a rental at a local shop, Criterium Cycles and packed my mountain biking gear.

I picked up my rental from Criterium the afternoon that I arrived.  My ride for the week was a Specialized Carve Comp.  A relatively light hard-tail, it had a very comfortable geometry and climbed really well.  I asked the woman who was helping me (Stephanie) where she suggested I ride.  She spent the next twenty minutes giving me a comprehensive list of places to check out complete with turn by turn directions on some of the trails.

While all of the places she described seemed interesting, North Cheyenne Canyon and Stratton Open Space stood out far above the rest.  For starters, it was huge.  Both in terms of square footage and vertical relief, none of the other parks she described came close.  In addition, while the other places she listed were circumscribed by roads or other vestiges of civilization, North Cheyenne held the very real possibility of getting lost.  It ran up against and into the mountains: where trails could lead you back down into the valley where you started or several ravines and several thousand feet of climbing away from getting home.  Lastly, the final descent back to the car, a trail called "Chutes" was consistently mentioned as one of the best flow trails in the area.

So on a sunny Colorado morning I parked at the Stratton Open Space lot, and started my climb up past the reservoir toward Gold Camp Road.  The steady climb continued upward pausing only briefly as I reached a paved road headed further into the mountains.  Given that I was STARTING my day at about 7000 feet, I worked slowly upward, very conscious of the thin air in my lungs.

The view down from Gold Camp Road.
The paved Gold Camp Road changed to gravel and I continued to pedal upwards through one tunnel, and then another.  Finally, I reached a large parking lot where I  crossed the lot and set out on an old road blocked by a gate.  I followed this road around the ridge until just after it crossed a small stream.  There I entered the woods, crossing a bridge over the brook and turned sharply right, climbing back toward the lot. This wide singletrack known as Buckhorn Cutoff Trail, cut across the steep mountainside through a gorgeous pine glen.

The climbing was steady, but manageable as I continued upward onto the ridge high above the parking lot I had passed earlier.  With over an hour of climbing behind me I finally reached a lookout which marked the the start of what promised to be an amazing descent.

The bike insisted on being part of the photo.
The wide singletrack, known as Captain Jack's trail, descended down from the lookout.  It would have made for a lightning fast descent if not for two factors.  The first was the steepness of the hill below the trail.  Any wandering off trail would likely result in a prolonged roll and/or slide down the mountain.  In some spots the prospect of a tumble was downright terrifying.  Second, the surface of the trails was covered by pea sized stones making for slick cornering and braking.

Despite the hazards, the descent was still heavenly.  I zipped along side of the mountain, snaking across ridges, through ravines, and around to the back side of the mountain.  I checked my speed making sure to give me a good margin for braking in case I met anyone coming up the trail, even if there wasn't another soul in sight.

After crossing a service road, I continued on the singletrack downward and through one of the most amazing washed out sections of trail I have ever seen.

Now THAT is a rut.
Eventually the trail rolled around to the front side of the mountain and switchbacks carried me down to an exit just before the first of the tunnels on Gold Camp Road.

Wide singletrack helps when enjoying the amazing views.

While Captain Jack's had been amazing, the best was still yet to come.  I descended on the road until the top of The Chutes where I started my final descent to the parking lot far below.  I savored the banked corners and smooth rollers of The Chutes, twisting my way downward.  Like a dirt covered bobsled run, The Chutes is exactly as the name implies: a steadily weaving, twisting playground of smooth dirt and rock.  Far too quickly I emerged next to the reservoir, and hit the last rocky section of trail above the parking lot.

As I reluctantly packed the bike into my rental car I realized how special a day it had been.

Even today, long after my trip, I still feel the afterglow of such an amazing day.  Resonating like some evocative chord, it stirs me and compels me to keep searching for those rare days.

Something tells me, though, that the rare days aren't as rare on the Front Range of Colorado.


  1. Glad you enjoyed your time in Co. That ride and area is just one of hundreds of spectacular places to ride. Let us know the next time you are in the area and I'm sure some of us would join you.

    1. I'm sure I only got a taste of what is there and I WILL let you know. Whoever you are.