Bikepacking the Colorado Trail: Of Altered Plans and the Kindness of Strangers

An Invocation (It’ll Make Sense by the End)

Of soaring heights and plunging depths that fell

Into the heart of Colorado’s trails

Sing heav’nly muse, that on the secret top

Of Elbert Mount or low in Waterton,

The canyon that stands one mere mile high,

Regards the progress of those blessed few

Who strive to ride the Colorado Trail.

The firm resolve with which you’ve long observed

Those climbing and descending on the trail

Is now that which I call upon for aid

In telling an adventurous, epic song.*

*An epic beginning for an epic ride.

Before we’d driven far from Denver on our way to Breckenridge, the start of our 4 day excursion across the Colorado Trail, Andy made a daring proclamation: he said that during this ride, we were each only allowed to say the word ‘epic’ four times; otherwise, it would be overused in the extreme. Unfortunately, Andy exhausted three of his ‘epic’ references throughout the course of the first day and then had to be careful with any description of the trails, lest he exhaust all four precious ‘epics’ before we’d been on the trail for an entire day. Thus, in honor of Andy’s epic failure at conserving his use of the word epic, I decided to begin my story of the ride as any good epic writer would do: with an invocation to the gods of bicycling to help aid my telling of our story. So if my introduction wasn’t enough, please Bicycleus, god of all things on two wheels, help me tell of Andy and my adventures through the Colorado Rockies really well, ok? Thanks.

Day 1

Andy and my plan was to start in Breckenridge and ride west to east, from segment 6 to segment 1. This is backwards from what most traditional bikers and hikers do, but having looked at the map and seeing that west to east in these segments actually would allow us to drop more in elevation than we’d gain, we decided this was the best choice for our 4-day exploration of the trail.

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The Krampus in box form, ready to ship by train to Denver.
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Andy and I organizing the chaos of two bikepacker’s gear.
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Final preparations for the drive to Breckenridge.
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A Surly Krampus Ops
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And a Salsa El Mariachi 2. Both excellent bikes for bikepacking.
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Final preparation.
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My bike weighed in at about 55 pounds.
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While backpack weighed in at about 12 pounds.
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Andy’s bike weighed in at around 51 pounds.
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While his backpack weighed in at a little over 13 pounds.
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Ready to roll.
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The start of the trail zig-zagged its way up this nice little warm-up knoll.

Segment 6 had some pretty nasty mountains. The trail’s elevation started at about 9,000 feet and then steadily climbed up for the first number of miles. After spending much of the day either climbing or descending the two major mountain passes on segment 6, and hike-a-biking for at least four miles of unridable trail, we reached a point where there was about a mile and a half of snow where we would have been ‘postholing,’ or sinking into the snow past our knees. These conditions would have been impossible, and both Andy and I were forced to take a slight detour from the trail. Unfortunately, this detour brought us to some jeep tracks which we mistakenly took to be the Colorado trail. Continuing to ascend, Andy and I eventually questioned our trail enough to take a look at the map, and after careful analysis, realized we were actually ascending Glacier Peak, a 12,800 foot high point over a mile away from the Colorado trail and over 1,000 feet higher in elevation than our intended trail. So as the evening light diminished we raced down the mountain in search of the Colorado Trail, which through novice directional prowess, map confirmation, and blind luck we found once again.

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Starting to see some good views.
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Rest stop.
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Andy lost his sleeping bag on a particularly rip-roaring descent.

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Lunch spot.
Avoiding 1 1/2 miles of postholing with the bikes and taking a slight detour.
The top of the ridge. The peak out in the distance to the left is where we were headed. Unfortunately, it would bring us about 1,000 feet higher than the Colorado Trail and about a mile from the trail itself.
The Jeep tracks we mistakenly took to be the Colorado Trail.  We ended up heading just about to the top of the peak on the right before checking the map and turning back around.

At this point, we had abandoned our hopes of reaching the intended campsite for the night, and simply wanted to get off the exposed tundra of the mountains and back into the tree line. With a mixture of hike-a-bike through snow and stream riding caused by snow melt running down the trail, we were able to descend to what we figured was about 11,000 feet, where a primitive single campsite offered us respite for the night.

This slushy mess was impossible to bike through.
The campsite for the night.

The two-person tarp-tent we decided to use worked out great and was incredibly lightweight.

Although the area was infested with mosquitos, Andy and I both were happy to have made it back to tree line before dark. It was 8:30pm, we had been riding for 10 ½ hours, and only gone a total of 27 miles. The first day turned out to be the most ‘epic’ of the entire trip.

Day 2

Day two started with 4 miles of both technical and flowy downhill singletrack, and some of the most enjoyable riding of the entire trip. Having felt that the trail had won the first round, this descent restored both of our spirits and helped us feel ready for whatever the day had in store for us.

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The high winds during the night had blown my bike over.
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Drying rack.
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The beer can stove worked like a charm at 11,000 feet.
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Somebody else’s breakfast.

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We rode through some beautiful aspen groves.

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Columbines.

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Water fill-up station.

Fortunately, the day would prove to be 66 miles of pure fun, with varied terrain and no mishaps. The first 15 miles was rideable singletrack, and at the end where we ate lunch, we met a woman who was acting as a sag wagon for her husband and daughter who were riding/hiking the entire Colorado Trail. She kindly offered to take all our trash for us, and then gave us both a container full of fresh strawberries. We couldn’t have asked for a better lunch dessert!

Both Andy and I reflected on previous hiking/biking experiences where the unsolicited kindness of strangers combatted the more common feelings of cynicism towards humanity, developed through exposure to the media and news. This restoration of faith in the innate kindness of the human spirit would be demonstrated again and again throughout our trip.

After the 15 miles of singletrack and the lunch stop, Andy and I hopped on county road 39, a gravel road which lasted for about 10 miles.

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We then popped out on Highway 77, where thanks to a consistent tailwind and almost all downhill riding, we covered the first 17 miles in an hour. We road on the highway for about 10 more miles before transferring to forest service road 211, a dirt road, where the 14 remaining miles of our ride were spent before getting to Goose Creek Campground, our final destination.

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Once again, the kindness of strangers amazed us. Having just pulled off Highway 77 for a snack break and reapplication of sunscreen, not one but two cars pulled off the highway and asked us if we were ok and whether we needed a ride somewhere. We assured both cars that we were fine and just stopping for a quick snack, to which they both waved friendly farewells before driving away.

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If you look closely, you may be able to just barely make out Andy riding in the middle of the frame.

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The campsite.
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Writing down some details from the day, leftover smeared sunscreen, and a bloody nose = one handsome man.

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Once at Goose Creek Campground, Andy had a rather disconcerting epiphany. We had heard through various riders on the trail that Segments 1 and 2 of the Colorado Trail were closed due to some flooding, so our original plan to ride straight back to Denver was out of the question. Thus, we had both mentally altered our plans, telling ourselves that on our last day we would simply call Ali, Andy’s wife, and let her know where we were so that she could meet us at our final destination, wherever that might be. However, after looking at the map, Andy realized that there was no place within the general riding vicinity where we would actually get cell phone service. We immediately began trying to find alternate routes we could take to various towns in order to find a place with either a landline or phone service. After talking to the camp host at our campsite, we learned that the nearest potential land line was owned by a camp host well outside of our route at a different campsite. This option was dismissed simply because even if we did go to the campsite, there was no guarantee that the camp host would be available or even present on the campground when we rolled up. Having gone over numerous alterations to our ride with no clear solution, Andy and I both went to bed feeling rather defeated, once again, by the vastness and isolation of the Colorado Wilderness.

Day 3

Andy and I both had warranted feelings of trepidation leaving Goose Creek Campground the morning of our third day. We weren’t exactly sure what the plan was, but we knew that we wouldn’t have to make a decision right away, since our only option was to continue riding down forest service road 211 for at least 10 miles. We eventually traversed our way down to a fork in the road, where there was a sign that said Flying J Ranch, and then another sign that pointed its way on a continuation of 211. The ranch would make for a three mile detour off our chosen path, and we decided that the extra time it would take to get there wasn’t worth the slight possibility of meeting someone with a landline. As we made up our mind to carry on along 211, a truck came driving up from Flying J Ranch. We decided to take our chances and flag him down.

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Morning drying rack session for our riding clothes.
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On the road again.

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After some friendly greetings, we found out that the driver was actually the rancher for all the surrounding land we were driving through. He had just flown in a few weeks ago to work with some of the cows on his ranch, and as luck would have it, had On Star service and was more than happy to let us use it. After leaving messages for both our wives giving detailed instructions on our chosen pickup spot, we both felt immediate relief about our previously dire situation. In addition to some enjoyable conversation, the rancher said that we could get reception at the top of the next three mile hill we were about to climb, in case we wanted to try and get a hold of our wives again. Our situation had greatly improved since last night’s anxieties.

After climbing a three mile gravel grinder, we once again tried to contact Ali and she answered. After a brief discussion, we actually ended up altering our plans once again and planning a meeting point where Ali could join us for some mountain biking the following day. Unfortunately, this change of plans would be our undoing. Trish ended up calling Ali later that day telling her the original plan, and a text I had tried to send Ali earlier in the day before the altered plans took shape went through after her and Andy’s conversation, reinforcing the original plan. So day four would prove to be a day of miscommunication. But of that later.

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First contact with Ali.

After Andy got off the phone with Ali, we both rejoiced and continued on our way towards a campground another 13 miles down the gravel/dirt road. After a total of 23 miles, we set up camp at Buffalo Campground. We then proceeded to strip our bikes of all their gear and ride them ‘naked’ through the Buffalo Creek Trail network, a system of trails that proved to be challenging, rewarding, and a great way to end the last major day of riding for both of us. This trail network also claimed the only two falls Andy and I took throughout the entire trip. We rode a total of about 41.5 miles on the day, 23 miles of dirt road and 18+ of singletrack, and overall it was a great end to what could have been a much more stressful day.

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Salty sweat stains and sunscreen.
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Final campsite.
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Naked bikes on some top-notch singletrack.

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Our drying racks became a metropolis for flies at Buffalo Campgrounds.

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Day 4

Our final day was intended to be a total of about 15 miles of riding: 5 miles down to the pickup point, and then a 10 mile mountain bike ride with Ali. However, as previously mentioned, our intent was all garbled because of our own miscommunication, and the longer we waited at the pickup spot, the more we were convinced that Ali had gotten mixed up by our convoluted directions the previous day. I ended up riding an additional 6 or 7 miles to Pine, the original point of pickup we had told her about, while Andy waited in the area where we had made phone plans to meet the previous day.

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A slightly slimmed down pack version of my bike for the final day.

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We waited for Ali at a little trailhead where some awesome biker volunteers set up a little feed station.
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Free snacks!
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We thought Ali might see our turnoff better if we parked our bikes near the road. It didn’t help.
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So I biked 6 or 7 miles up the road to the other place we told Ali we would meet her.

After talking with some strangers who drove to an area of phone reception, called Ali, and clarified our situation, she eventually picked up Andy and then me, but decided that because of the late arrival, it was best to leave her own mountain bike at home. We all reunited a little before 1pm, relieved to have gotten through the poor overall communication of the last two days and to be headed safely home.

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Final Thoughts

This trip proved to be a once in a lifetime opportunity for both of us, and was a gateway drug to future riding together. It’s not often that you find someone who is similar in conditioning and skill level on a bike, AND that you can stand to be with for multiple days in close quarters. Andy and I both agreed that our riding styles and general temperament were very compatible for such long-distance endeavors, and plan to do similar trips together in the future.

Despite our best efforts to get lost, crash on treacherous downhills, dehydrate ourselves in the incessant Colorado heat, throw our wives off our trail through horrible communication, and die of either Giardia, blood loss (to mosquitoes), or anger at interminable flies, in the end the Colorado Trail proved to be a formidable but conquerable opponent. Andy and I will likely be back to conquer this trail in its entirety in the next few years, Bicycleus willing.

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