Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rainbow Trail by Mountain Bike- Bear Creek to Kerr Gulch

As you can see reading this blog I enjoy the outdoors.  While I like to get outside to hike, bike, ski, or do anything in the mountains, not every trip is a winner.  Sometimes I encounter unexpected conditions and have to abandon a trip because of a thunderstorm or other reason.  I usually don't mind these trips too much because it comes with mountain travel.  Hiking I don't normally have too many trips that stand out as an unpleasant outing.  One that does stand out was a trip on Vermont's Long Trail a few years ago where it rained days on end on top of an already saturated trail and my feet were destroyed from the never ending moisture.  I ended calling it quits after 190 miles.

I am more likely to have a less than stellar trip it when mountain biking.  Most any trail can be hiked, but not so much mountain biking.  An excessively muddy or poorly riding rocky trail can really put a hamper on my fun.  My most recent ride was one of these rides that I didn't have a great time.  Part of the reason was the trail itself wasn't what I was expecting.  Another reason was this section of trail paled in comparison to the last 6 or so rides I have ridden.

The Rainbow Trail runs nearly 100 miles along the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Range.  The Rainbow Trail has been the closest riding to both of my houses that I have lived in since I moved to Colorado.  Before I moved here I heard about riding the Rainbow.  I find the riding on it hit or miss, mostly miss.  The northern most stretch of trail near Salida from the Bear Creek trailhead to the northern terminus features fun and flowy singletrack most of the way with just enough technical riding to keep it interesting. On the rides on the Rainbow south of here, I haven't had much luck finding a good ride.

I live just below the Rainbow Trail section that runs from Bear Creek to Kerr Gulch.  I never rode this stretch of trail but wanted to try riding it since the Kerr Gulch trailhead is only a few miles from my house.  The section north of Bear Creek sees a fair amount of traffic and for good reason.  It's a fun and fast stretch of singletrack.  I thought some of this fun trail would continue south of Bear Creek.  I was terribly wrong.

My ride started a couple miles below the Rainbow Trail on Fremont County 49.  For nearly the first 3 miles I followed this progressively rougher dirt road uphill to the Rainbow Trail.  While the road gets rougher, it never is too difficult.  The road ends at the Rainbow trail.  I took a left and headed south toward Kerr Gulch.  Almost immediately the rocks began.  Most of the rocks were at least baseball size or larger and very loose.  It was difficult to hold a line and get enough momentum to muscle through the rocks even though the trail wasn't too steep.  The trail climbed for the most part for at least 2 miles before topping out on a ridge.  This was nearly 5 miles of climbing from the start.  The climbing itself wasn't that severe despite a decent elevation gain by this point.  It was the rocks and ruts of the trail with absolutely no rhythm that made it difficult.

View of the Sangres near the trailhead
Start of the riding on the Rainbow Trail
Loose rock early on the trail.  This wasn't an uncommon sight on this ride
I was looking forward to the descent after the rough climbing.  The descent was much worse than the climb.  The descent was much steeper than any of the climb.  The trail was extremely washed out and rutted.  There were more rocks and much looser.  There was no line to follow.  Since the rocks were loose, they moved as you hit them causing me to bounce quite a bit and sending me on an even worse line.  One section was so rocky, steep, rutted, and washed out that I had to walk down it.  My hands cramped from riding the brakes downhill to maintain speed.  I have mountain biked for over 20 years now down some substantial descents but this was about as ugly as I have seen.

Top of the first ridge
First descent and best view of the ride.  The trail got nasty as it descended deep into the woods.
This was the norm for most of the ride.  Occasionally the trail would level out on a beautiful stretch of singletrack but it never lasted too long.  When the downhill ended I would reach a creek and climb up and over the next ridge to the next creek.  While most of the trail was rideable,  There was no flow at all to the trail.  It was long climbs with loose rock and ruts followed by bone jarring descents. Because the descents were so rough, I really didn't have much speed coming down them.  The trail was singletrack and there wasn't room for error with all the rocks and trees.  The trail often followed a steep side cut so a fall could have been disastrous, especially since this section of trail is remote and doesn't see much traffic.

One of several creek crossings
More rocky uphill
From the trailhead, the conditions mellowed some after 7 miles or so.  This is where I hit the occasional section of nice singletrack.  The total ride on the Rainbow Trail was a little more than 12 miles.  I don't think I had more than three miles of enjoyable riding and the little bit of nice riding wasn't worth the rest of the trip.  I was amazed at how different the trail conditions were on this side of Bear Creek.  The few flat sections of trail were surprisingly smooth.  I don't know how the climbs and descents had so many rocks.

One of the few fast flowy sections
Maybe 2-3  of 12 miles looked like this on the Rainbow Trail
Another brief nice stretch
Then back into the rocks for several miles
This section of trail wasn't rocky but I put my bike
in the shot to see how deeply the trail washed out.
The trough in the middle of the trail is nearly two feet deep.
Finally after 14 miles, I reached the Kerr Gulch Trail that descend away from the Rainbow Trail. Although less than a mile, this was just as bad as the Rainbow.  It dropped quite steeply and was extremely littered in loose rocks the size of baby heads.  The last 5 miles or so descended quite quickly down Kerr Gulch Road.  Kerr Gulch is fairly steep dirt road, dropping a couple thousand feet in 5 miles.  Because it gets quite windy and has some gravel on it, I had to keep my speed in check to maintain control.  I was cramping in my wrists and forearms from using my brakes so much especially since I am not riding discs.  With my hardtail, my upper body was somewhat stiff from absorbing the rocks on the 4700 feet of descent on this ride.  

I finally reached US 50 at the end of Kerr Gulch after riding 19 miles.  It took me over 3 hours. Before I got to the fast descent on Kerr Gulch Road, my average speed was less than 5 miles an hour. This ride climbs nearly 3500 feet but it doesn't seem like it because the 4700 feet of descent was so long, rough, and drawn out I forgot about the climbs.

With so many great rides close to Salida, I wouldn't recommend this ride.  Stay north of the Bear Creek on the Rainbow Trail and you will have a blast.  This was a rough ride and the rewards were not worth the unpleasantness.  There were some nice views of the Sangre de Cristos, but to be honest, you can get better views driving along US 50 through Howard than the short glimpses of the peaks that I got on this ride.  If you want solitude, you'll find it on this ride but I have found solitude on much more worthwhile rides around here.  If you want a relentless technical ride with no flow, by all means check out this trail section.  My local riding guide seemed to give this ride a little more hope but perhaps the trail has deteriorated since the books printing 6 years ago.

One of the views of the Sangre de Cristos along the trail
There wasn't enough scenery to make up for the lackluster trail
My other rides further south on the Rainbow Trail have been similar.  Riding the Rainbow feels like riding a dry riverbed with its rocks followed by rather short sections of decent riding and then more relentless rocks.  Much of the southern Rainbow is ridden by ATVs and the entire Rainbow is used by dirtbikes.  Some areas are quite heavy with their traffic.  I'm guessing  they add some to the trails deterioration.  As a mountain biker, I recommend leaving the southern sections to the ATVs and dirt bikes and enjoy the Rainbow's nice sections north of Bear Creek.

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