Monday, September 8, 2014

Canyon Creek Loop: Mountain Biking in the High Country

After my alpine mountain bike ride last week on the Continental Divide Trail above St. Elmo, I was ready for another high elevation challenge.  My sights were set on the Canyon Creek Loop located between Salida and Gunnison, just west of Monarch Pass.  I have been reading about this loop recently and have been intrigued by it.  Everyone that reported on this ride only had good things to say.  It climbs well above treeline to elevations even higher than the St. Elmo loop and features an epic downhill.  With nice weather Sunday I decided to tackle this loop.

The ride started on CR 888 by the end of the Canyon Creek Trail at Snowblind Campground about 8 miles north of US 50 at an elevation of 9300 feet.  Right from the gate the ride climbed.  The climbing allowed me to warm up quickly even though it was only 48F when I started.  The first four miles however were on well maintained dirt road.  Along the way the road passed through the ghost town of White Pine which still has old buildings as well as newer buildings with a few residents.  The White Pine Cemetery just before town was of interest with most of its "residents" deaths in the 1880s and 1890s.  Many of them were children.

White Pine Cemetery

About four miles into the ride a sign marked a turn toward Tomichi Pass.  From here the road became more rugged.  Not too long after the turn I reached the site of Tomichi.  The town of Tomichi was wiped out by an avalanche at the end of the 1800s.  All that remained was the Tomichi Cemetery.  Only a couple of the graves have marked stones and the rest were crude crosses made of sticks.

This is the first road split and the 
start of rockier conditions.  The first 
 stretch was particularly loose.

An interesting head stone at
Tomichi Cemetery

Most graves were marked with crude crosses

At the cemetery the road reached another marked junction.  From this point the road became a narrower jeep road.  The road became increasing rough as it climbed toward Tomichi Pass.  Baseball size and larger rocks covered the trail in many places.  Although the road could be ridden the entire distance, sections of these loose rocks made if difficult to "clean" some of the steeper sections.  Numerous creek crossing kept my tires wet and filled with sand which decreased traction on the loose rocks.  Along the way there were many opportunities to see the surrounding mountains as the trail passed through the occasional meadow and clearing.  Just before the summit of Tomichi Pass, I finally reached the Canyon Creek Trail after 7 miles on the road.

A typical rocky stretch along the road

More rocks

One of the wider water crossings

The views began to open up as I climbed

Bigger mountains coming into view

Soon the views are nearly continuous along the road

Tomichi Pass on the horizon.  Notice 
the road isn't always rocky.

The remainder of the trip followed the singletrack Canyon Creek Trail. By the time I reached the trail I was already above treeline and at an elevation approaching 12000 feet.  I still had another mile or so until I reached the high point of the ride.  The beginning of the trail wasn't too steep or technical.  The trail climbed continuously and soon became too steep and loose to ride as it entered rocky switchbacks.  I had to walk the bike the final push to the summit for 30 minutes or so.  Some of the reports I read reported this hike-a-bike section as an hour long hike, but it wasn't that bad.  Occasionally I could ride short stretches of this section before being forced to walk again as the trail became too steep and loose.  The hike allowed me to look around and enjoy the stunning alpine scenery.  Finally the trail reached its apex at an elevation just under 12600 feet.

Beginning of Canyon Creek Trail

The riding starts easy on Canyon Creek Trail

Looking back toward Tomichi Creek Valley

The trail climbs gradually in the beginning

The steepness and rocks soon increase

The higher the trail climbed the more challenging it became

Parts were still rideable 

The trail made its way to the peak on the right

The high point getting closer

Most of this section couldn't be ridden

The views from the summit were stunning. The summit view featured 360 degree views with mountains as far as I could see.  I could see much of the trail back to the road as well as the long ribbon of singletrack that made its way across the tundra that I was about to ride.  After more than 8 miles and 3500 vertical feet of continuous climbing, I was finally pointed downhill.

Even with the tough terrain, views
like this made it worthwhile

Great scenery in all directions

Fine alpine scenery

Looking back on my route you can
see the trail snaking down toward Tomichi Pass

The road going over Tomichi Pass below

Mountains as far as I could see

You can see the alpine vegetation already 
changing color at this elevation

The downhill was fairly technical at places, but at least I could breathe easier.  The trail followed fairly narrow singletrack across the tundra but the descent wasn't too steep in the beginning.  The trail was fairly smooth to start with only a few rocks.  Occasionally I would reach a rocky stretch but nothing too technical in the beginning.  Soon the trail reached a fairly steep side cut section that was slightly more technical.  The trail in this section was a thin ribbon through rocks and a steady drop below. At one point, my bike became squirrelly as I approached too fast and I nearly crashed as I veered to the downhill side off the trail.

The trail leaving the high point

The trail snaked through the high tundra

Looking back at the trail toward the high point

The rocky section where I almost spilled

You can see the trail is quite narrow

The trail negotiating a rocky side cut

It was hard to focus on the trail with the surrounding scenery

The remainder of my ride on the ridge was uneventful and the trail relatively smooth.  As the trail dropped off the ridge the riding became more technical and precarious.  As the trail dropped, it passed through a steep side cut with a nearly sheer, rocky drop below.  There wasn't much room for error on the narrow singletrack. To add a more little spice, the trail itself became rockier in a few spots through here.  The trail was descending and I had some speed building up so it was somewhat challenging to control my speed and navigate the rocks through this technical section.  A fall in here would probably result in serious trouble, especially since I was riding alone, but I made it through cleanly.

The trail began to drop more steeply
and became rougher

Negotiating the steep side cut 

It's hard to tell from the picture but the drop to 
the left is extremely steep and rocky

Looking back at the steep side cut from below, you can see the 
trail more clearly by clicking on the picture

Looking toward the next stretch of trail

The trail dropped into a meadow after navigating the tricky stretch.  There was still a fair amount of pitch to the trail and my speed built quickly.  The trail would pass through a section with good flow and then suddenly hit a technical stretch.  Usually the rocky sections came with little warning and required fast action to keep control.  The first couple miles of downhill continued like this alternating between smooth, flowing trail and technical rocky stretches.  I'm usually content riding my hardtail but during the first few miles of downhill I would have preferred a full suspension to absorb some of the jarring.

The trail just before it drops somewhat
steeply into the valley

One last look back before entering the trees

It may not look like much, but these
sections of rock usually came by surprise
and were a challenge with a full head of steam
going into them

By the last 5 miles of the ride, the downhill wasn't nearly as steep after crossing Canyon Creek  The trail at this point changed to primarily fast and flowing singletrack with an occasional brief section of technical riding.  Around mile 18, the trail climbed away from the creek with one last moderately steep climb that lasted a little more than a half mile and gained about 300 vertical feet.

The last 5 miles offered fast and smooth singletrack

This is typical of the last several miles

A brief, but very technical section in the last few miles 

From the last climb, the trail dropped steeply over a fast section of trail with switchbacks.  The trail was fairly sandy in this stretch.  Less than a 1/4 mile from the end of the ride, I had too much speed before the last switchback.  My path wandered from the center of the singletrack into the sandy edges.  When I hit the sand, my bike got sucked onto the downhill side of the side cut trail.  As soon as I tried to straighten myself, my front tire slid out from beneath me and I tumbled off my bike.  Luckily I landed in a soft mix of sand and pine needles with no rocks or trees breaking my fall.  I rode away with only a few scrapes and a little dirtier and no bike damage from the incident.  I reached the end of the loop after 19 miles of riding.

One last view before dropping steeply to the finish

This was a challenging ride.  The climb on the road was slow with the rocks.  It was difficult to spin up the road.  I had to crank through the rocks pretty hard to keep my momentum.  At the high elevation, that is challenging.  The last hump up to the apex of the loop is pretty much unrideable, even by the most experienced rider.  While the downhill was fun, it had several technical sections that often came up unexpectedly.

While the ride is only 19 miles, it took me a little over 3 hours to ride it, averaging  less than 6 miles an hour.  That's fairly slow considering the nearly 11 miles of downhill.    Besides my legs, my hands and arms also got a workout from absorbing the shock on the long and sometimes bumpy downhill that dropped 3600 feet in less than 11 miles.

This ride definitely isn't for the beginner.  The quick transitions from smooth to technical sections on the downhill require quick changes in riding position to prevent a trip over the handle bars.  A few sections there is no room for error at all.  Reaching an elevation of over 12500 feet, this is one of the highest rides around and only adds to the difficulty of the substantial climbing.  The downhill section is a workout on a hardtail and full suspension bike might make the ride downhill a little easier on the body.

Despite the challenges, this is a great ride.  Climbing, fast descents, technical sections, nearly 11 miles of singletrack, and stunning alpine scenery all make this a worthwhile loop with something to offer any experienced mountain biker.  The ride is more challenging than the St. Elmo loop I last wrote about and the views are just as stunning.

A great way to end a great ride

Great fun on the flowing singletrack after 
a challenging ride

You can click on the links below to see the maps and elevation profiles of the ride.

Description, map, and elevation profile
Map and profile

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