Monday, September 1, 2014

Alpine Mountain Biking on the CDT: St. Elmo- Alpine Tunnel- Tincup Pass Loop

If you read my blog regularly, you know that I enjoy several outdoor activities.  I often go in spurts favoring a particular activity for a period of time.  Right now I'm on a mountain biking kick.  I am just starting to discover places to ride in Colorado and can't get enough time on my bike.  This past week I had two nice rides and was ready for more.

My last two posts I wrote about rides that featured the Rainbow Trail.  By Colorado standards the Rainbow Trail is fairly low in elevation, mostly below 10000 feet. While the scenery is still pretty good along the Rainbow Trail at places, I was looking forward to a high elevation ride and alpine scenery.  Since I ride alone most of the time, it is easier for me to ride loops.  With a quick search I found a high elevation loop with great scenery, relatively close to Salida.

The ride is between Salida and Buena Vista starting from the ghost town of St. Elmo.  From St. Elmo, a couple of dirt roads,  an old railroad grade, and the Continental Divide Trail make up an impressive 18 mile loop.  This ride starts at just below 10000 feet in elevation and climbs above treeline to 12329 feet.  This ride fit the bill of what I was looking for and on Saturday over the Labor Day weekend I headed to St. Elmo.

Just the drive to the trailhead at St. Elmo is quite scenic.  From Salida, the drive north takes in the 14000 foot peaks of the Sawatch Range with Mt Shavano, Antero, and Princeton dominating the sky to the west.  The drive from US 285 travels to the trailhead on CR 162 between Antero and Princeton and passes right below the Chalk Cliffs which are impressive.  Also of interest was a fresh dusting of snow from overnight on top Mt Shavano and the surrounding summits

My ride began at a parking area just before St. Elmo.  The first 6 miles traveled along dirt FS 295 to the old town site of Hancock.  The ride to Hancock is uphill but very gradual and an easy spin.  This area is popular with Jeeps and ATVs and a couple groups passed me along the way.  While the ride along the road traveled through the woods, there were several spots offering views of the surrounding mountains.  This area is rich in mining history and I passed several old structures from the mining days.  Hancock itself is an old mining town but there was little evidence left other than a few signs highlighting the history of the area.

The views start early on the ride

FS 295 is easy riding

Approaching Hancock

Old mining cabin

An interesting mining relic

Not much left in Hancock

From Hancock, I turned onto the Alpine Tunnel Trail.  This trail is an old railroad grade that is now a doubletrack trail.  In the lower sections of the trail, there are still quite a few railroad ties visible despite not being used by trains since 1910.  The trail continued uphill but was gradual.  Along the way there are signs detailing the history of the area.  I was over 11000 feet in elevation by this point.  The higher I rode on the Alpine Tunnel Trail, the more impressive the scenery became.  On this section I passed a group of three other mountain bikers, the only other bikes I saw for the day.

Above 11000 feet the views got better

Chugging along the Alpine Tunnel Trail

Looking back down Tunnel Gulch

About 9 miles from the the start of the ride I reached the east portal of the AlpineTunnel, a railroad tunnel that passes under the Continental Divide.  The entrance to the tunnel is now collapsed and all that is visible is a pile of rock.  There are a couple more signs at the tunnel telling of its history.

Alpine Tunnel site

Not much left of the tunnel entrance 

From the Alpine Tunnel Trail, my route climbed steeply up the Continental Divide Trail.  The trail here switchbacked steeply over loose and rocky terrain.  This was the most difficult part of the trip.  The views really opened up here however as the trail climbed above treeline.  This steep section was short lived.

The start of the real climbing, the
trail was quite loose in here

The most challenging section of trail 
with a rocky climb up several switchbacks

From the top of the climb the trail entered grassy alpine tundra.  The trail traveled over a thin ribbon of singletrack.  It was clear this section sees little traffic of any kind.  The trail was so lightly traveled that the tread was still grass, not even worn to the dirt, at places.  The only tracks I saw above were from elk.  This was primitive singletrack, at places only a few inches wide.  Generally the trail wasn't extremely technical but traveling over the lightly used trail was fairly slow going.  There were a few sections of rock that were more technical and several small stream crossings. Other spots the low vegetation totally obscured the trail.

Near the start of the tundra riding

Higher than some of the surrounding peaks

Narrow stretch of trail

With views like this I didn't mind this 
overgrown section of trail

You can just barely see the trail
as it crosses the tundra

The narrow trail disappearing in the distance

The most impressive part of this stretch of trail was the scenery.  The views were endless with alpine peaks in every direction as far as I could see.  I am no stranger to hiking in alpine area, but it's a unique experience to mountain bike through terrain like this, especially living in the East most of my life.

Dusting of snow in the direction of
14ers Shavano and Tabeguache

Tunnel Lake

A group of unamed peaks above Wildcat Gulch, 
only in Colorado are 12700+ foot peaks 
insignificant enough to be unamed

The trail traveled for a couple miles above treeline over mostly flat terrain with only gradual changes in elevation.  Even at 12000+ feet I never really felt the effects ofelevation with the mild climbing in this section.  Near the end of this section I saw a pair of hikers but they were the only other people using this trail.

Endless alpine singletrack

Not many places you can ride 
with views like this

Rougher section of trail

The trail is barely visible here

A nicer section of trail on the CDT

Very thin section of trail

Another barely worn section
and some nice scenery

As the alpine section ended the trail reentered the woods.  This section of trail was quite smooth and descended quite steeply.  Several sharp switchbacks kept me from building up too much speed.  As the trail leveled off, it entered a meadow that followed the North Fork of Chalk Creek for a short distance before reaching FS 267.

The trail just before entering the trees

Smooth singletrack back in the woods

The last 4 miles or so descended on FS 267 and dropped about 1000 feet in elevation.  FS 267 is rocky and rutted at places but makes for a fun downhill.  I was actually traveling faster than the ATVs down this section.  Along the way there are a couple of humps in the road that allow you to get some decent air.  I quickly reached St. Elmo. This area is very popular with Jeeps and ATVs.  Earlier on the ride I was passed by a few groups on my way to Hancock.  The road here is fairly wide and there is plenty of room for them to pass.  On the descent into St. Elmo, the road is narrower and rougher.  I had to pay close attention on the curves for approaching vehicles.

St. Elmo is an interesting place.  It is a ghost town with a mining and railroad history and several original buildings still standing.  Being Saturday of the Labor Day weekend, St. Elmo was hopping with tourists, ATV riders, and Jeeps when I finished my ride.  I took a quick peak around the town while I was there.

St. Elmo

More old buildings in St. Elmo

Old church in St. Elmo

I finished my ride in about 2.5 hours and covered 18 miles.  This is a beautiful ride with great scenery.  While there are some technical sections, the ride as a whole isn't too technically challenging apart from the steep climb above the Alpine Tunnel.  About 10 miles of the ride travels on dirt roads.  At more than 12000 feet at its highest point and a starting elevation just shy of 10000 feet, the elevation is the biggest challenge.  If you are acclimated and your lungs are up for it, this scenic loop is worth the ride just for the scenery alone, just don't ride it your first day in Colorado.  With several signs sharing the areas history and many old remains and buildings, the historical aspect of this ride is also worth checking out.

Click the link below for the map and elevation profile of this ride.
map and elevation profile


  1. Have done this loop exactly once but your blog made me stoked to do it again!

    1. Thanks for reading my blog.
      It was a beautiful ride near the Continental Divide. Sadly it will probably be 3 1/2 months before it is clear of snow and ready to ride.

  2. Thanks Tomcat. A group of us will do this on July 9th and this was super helpful.

    1. Thanks for visiting my website. I’m glad my write up was helpful. Have a great ride and enjoy the views up there.