Thursday, October 2, 2014

Mountain Biking Lookout Loop and the Crater

Puma had to go to work for a few hours while I had the day off on Tuesday.  I was looking for some outdoor fun close to Salida while she was working.  There are numerous mountain bike options accessible from town in Salida that I could ride.  Recent snow fell on the higher summits so I wanted a ride with views of the higher peaks.

From my local cycling guide, a couple of trip options came to mind.  The first is a ride into the Arkansas Hills east of town called the Lookout Loop, which as its name indicates looks out over the Arkansas Valley.  Another trip of interest is a ride to the Crater.  The Crater, while not actually a crater, is an interesting geographic feature that I wanted to see.  From downtown Salida the Crater is visible as a section of white rock in an otherwise reddish background.  The ride to the Crater starts along the Lookout Loop trip so I decided to combine the two rides.

I dropped Puma off at her work in Salida and started my ride from there.  I had a couple miles of easy riding through town to reach the start of the Lookout Loop.  The loop starts on Country Road 175 and follows it for about 6.5 miles.  The first two miles are paved before turning to dirt.  The dirt road is well maintained and quite windy as it climbs more than 1500 feet before reaching County Road 181.

CR 181 marks the beginning of the ride to the Crater.  Upon reaching CR 181 the route becomes slightly rougher.  Just over a mile on CR 181 you pass CR 173 and split from the Lookout Loop route and continue toward the Crater.  By now the route reaches 9000+ feet, 2000 feet higher than the start of the ride, and the views begin.  While the first 7 miles were all uphill, the ride features a lot more up and down riding on the ride to the Crater.  About 2 miles from the 175/181 junction the route turns on to CR 181A.  CR 181A is even rougher than the previous roads and feature sections of loose climbing.  The views are far reaching along most of the road ranging from the Sangre de Cristos to the south to the peaks of the Sawatch Range outside of Buena Vista.
Views along CR 181
(Clicking on photos will enlarge them and make them easier to see)

The vegetation is scrubby in the Arkansas Hills
Big view of the northern Sangre de Cristos
wearing a new coating of snow
After riding almost 4.5 miles from the 175/181 split, The summit of the Crater is reached.  Without a trail guide or someone familiar with the area, the route to the Crater can be tricky to follow.  From CR 181A, there are a couple more turns and the junctions aren't marked.  Without a cyclometer to measure mileage and the guidebook, I'm not sure I would have found the Crater because not all of the roads were on my map.  I actually took a wrong turn that ended at gated private property and added nearly 2 miles to my trip and a couple hundred more feet of elevation gain.  The last road became quite rocky and the final ascent up the Crater is quite steep and eroded and mostly unrideable.  Even if you can climb it, I recommend walking it to eliminate further erosion to the loose trail.

The backside of the Crater doesn't look like much
The final pitch up the Crater is steep and nasty
The Crater is an interesting place.  It isn't really a crater from a volcano or meteor.  It is more of a bowl that is open on one end.  Three sides are surrounded by steep terrain, while the side facing the valley is open.  Most of the area is red soil but the rocks that make up the back of the Crater's bowl are white, which makes the area stand out from the valley.

Looking over Salida from the Crater
Another view near Salida from the Crater.
Salida airport is visible in the bottom right corner.
From the Crater, at 9200 feet, the views are quite impressive.  The entire sweep of the upper Arkansas Valley from the northern Sangre de Cristos to Sawatch Range above Buena Vista is visible.  The city of Salida sits some 2000 feet below.  Some of the higher summits just barely touched the clouds, while some were obscured.  All of the higher mountains wore a fresh dusting of snow from the day before.  It was quite windy as I stood at the Crater.  The thermometer on my cyclometer read 50F, but with the wind it felt much cooler.  I enjoyed the view while eating a snack before heading back toward CR 173.

View across the Crater with some of the white rock in the foreground.
From town, the white rock around the Crater is visible some 2000 feet below.
Another look across the Crater with the
Sawatch Range in the background barely in the clouds.
A close up of the Sangre de Cristos from the Crater
The ride back retraces the same route.  The elevation profile for the Crater ride resembles an EKG chart.  The entire out and back is less than 9 miles and gains more than 1000 feet in elevation in a series of continuous ups and downs.  Even though it travels dirt roads, the ride fairly technical at places with sections of rock, loose trail, and washouts.  Most of the time however there are views looking at the 14ers of the Sawatch Range.

Looking into the scrubby Arkansas Hills
from the backside of the Crater
The Sawatch Range on the return from the Crater
Close up of Sawatch Range toward Shavano and Antero
Instead of returning to CR 175, I turned down CR 173, which continues the Lookout Loop.  CR 173 starts as a somewhat rough dirt road.  While it mostly descended, there are some sections of climbing.  The further I traveled on CR 173, the rougher it became.  It eventually changed from a dirt road to rough double track trail.  It descended steeply in places and became quite rocky.  It descends between Dead Horse and Cottonwood Gulches, crossing numerous washes along the way.  As the trail got lower in elevation and closer to Salida, it became quite gnarly and technical in places.  A beginner mountain biker might be intimidated by some of the rough rocky stretches on the lower reaches of CR 173.  Eventually the backside of Salida's S Mountain comes into view.  CR 173 eventually skirts the north side of S Mountain before reaching CR 176 and finally CR 175 to close the loop after 8+ miles.

Another nice look at the Sangres from the top of CR 173
CR 173 often rides along the rim of the gulches
View over the valley toward Sawatch Range
(This one looks better if you click to enlarge)
Close up of  the Sawatch Range toward Shavano and Antero
CR 173 gets quite rough and rocky as it gets lower
Solid layer of exposed rock on CR 173
CR 173 is a fun downhill.  The only thing it is missing is sections of singletrack.  At the lower reaches of CR 173, I could have accessed the Salida Mountain Trails system and had my singletrack fix but I was running short on time so I stuck to the main route  There are great views of the Arkansas Valley and the mountains surrounding the valley at many points along the ride.  The views into the gulches surrounding the route are quite interesting as well.

View over Salida from the lower part of CR 173
The back of Tenderfoot "S" Mountain and Salida
(much clearer if you click to enlarge)
By the time I got back to my car, I rode more than 28 miles and was on my bike nearly 3.5 hours.  I could have shaved off several miles if I parked downtown and didn't take the wrong turn.  Despite following dirt roads most of the time, this ride was more challenging than I expected.  The total climbing on the ride was substantial between 3500 and 4000 vertical feet.  The lower reaches of CR 173 are quite technical at times. Nonetheless it was a fun ride with plenty of nice scenery.  I plan on riding parts of Lookout Loop again soon.  There are sections of singletrack trail through Cottonwood Gulch as well as the Salida Mountain Trail System around S Mountain that I will explore in the future.  

The Lookout Loop and the Crater ride don't have to be ridden together.  I would probably classify both as intermediate rides.  Riding them together I would consider it an advanced ride with the distance and elevation gain involved combined with sections of technical riding.  I wouldn't recommend CR 173 to anyone uncomfortable with technical riding however.  By itself, the Lookout Loop trip is about 18 miles and the Crater ride is just under 9 miles. Lookout Loop however climbs more than 2500 feet compared to 1300 on the Crater ride.

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