Friday, April 17, 2015

Mountain Biking Fruita- Kokopelli Area Trails

Colorado has no shortage of world class mountain biking.  Perhaps the best known of Colorado's destinations in the mountain biking community is Fruita.  Fruita sits in far western Colorado less than 20 miles from the Utah border near Grand Junction.  While Colorado may be best known for the Rocky Mountains and alpine scenery, the Fruita area features high desert riding with canyons, slickrock, and scrubby vegetation.  While Fruita may not be quite as well known as nearby Moab in Utah, Fruita gets plenty of coverage in the world of mountain biking and is a huge destination for riders from, not only Colorado, but from all across the US.

Since I moved to Colorado last summer, I had my eyes on riding the Fruita area.  I may live in the same state but it isn't exactly down the road.  It is nearly a four hour drive, making it a bit far for one day trip.  My plan was originally to spend a night in the area and put in at least two days of riding.

Puma and I raised chickens for years.  However when we moved from Maine to Colorado, we left our flock behind.  With spring in full swing, we were looking to rebuild our flock.  Puma found specific breeds of birds that she had interest in the Grand Junction area.  The drive was a bit far just for chickens.  She knew I have been looking to put together a trip to the Fruita area.  Without much difficulty, she talked me into making a day trip to Fruita to mountain bike.  I just had to make a couple of extra stops after my ride to pick up chickens.

I woke up at 430am and hit the road by 5.  The first hour of the drive was before the sunrise.  The drive went smoothly and I was at the trailhead before 9am.  Driving early in the morning allowed me to see several herds of elk along Highway 50.  The herds were all in the same general area between Gunnison and Montrose.  The largest herd I'm guessing was around 40 or so elk.

The Fruita and Grand Junction area has several groups of trails to choose from.  The Kokopelli Loops, 18 Road, Lunch Loops, and Rabbit Valley are among the more popular riding areas.  I only had one day to ride this trip so I chose to ride trails at the Kokopelli Loops.  The Kokopelli Loops area has at least ten trails including the Kokopelli Trail and around 40 miles of riding.  I have heard nothing but great things about these trails.  Nearly every report on this area boasted of great variety and stunning scenery.  The photos of the area seemed to confirm the reports.

Like the name implies, there are numerous loops in the Kokepelli Loops area.  None of the trails, with the exception of the Kokopelli, are that long.  It is easy to combine different trails and loops to put in a nice ride of any length and suit any skill level.  After looking at maps of the area and reading trail reviews, I chose a route that combined numerous trails to put together a ride that would offer a decent variety of terrain and take in as much scenery as possible.

I started my ride from the Kokopelli Trailhead which is located conveniently very close to exit 15 of I-70.  After a quick climb from the trailhead, I descended to the start of Mary's Loop.  Mary's Loop initially climbed on somewhat rough double track.  The scenery starts quickly with views of the Colorado River from high above the canyon.  The trail stays double track with a few technical sections all the way to the start of the Horsethief Bench Loop.

The scenery starts quickly
Easy double track early on Mary's Loop
Looking down toward Rustler's Loop
The Colorado comes into view
The start of the Horsethief Bench Loop was the most technical part my ride.  The trail drops steeply over gnarly terrain for 100 yards or so down to the bench.  Sections of this can be ridden but there isn't much room for error.  The gnarliest sections have drops of a couple feet or more and it isn't for the faint of heart.  The rocks were full of scrapes from chainrings and pedals from riders that attempt the section.  I carried most of the way down as did other riders I saw in the area.

The rough descent into Horsethief Bench
Looking across Horsethief Bench
Once past the drop-in, the trail mellows out for the most part and is rideable most of the way.  Much of Horsethief Bench has good flow with some technical sections as its singletrack winds through the desert.  There are sections of smooth trail, slickrock, sand, ledge, and rock in good proportion.  A few places were a little too technical for me to ride cleanly.  I also had a spill on this trail making a bad transition down a rock drop into the sand.  The scenery along Horsethief Bench is stunning.  Much of the loop travels high above the Colorado River with grand views of the canyon.  When the loop travels away from the river, the trail passes through small slots and under cliffs.  After 3.8 miles the loop comes back to the steep section before climbing back to Mary's Loop.

Section of slickrock
Looking down the river
Sweet singletrack and sweet views following the rim
Cliffs across the river
Rock formation across the river
Smooth trail on Horsethief Bench
Heading up slickrock into a wash
Climbing up a small canyon
Grassy section of Horsethief Bench
Riding around a slot canyon
Following a sandy wash
Riding below cliffs
Mary's Loop continued along doubletrack for a couple miles before narrowing down to singletrack when it reached a slot.  The trail was somewhat technical with rocky stretches.  I followed Mary's Loop for about 3 miles riding close to the rim high above the river until I reached Steve's Loop.

A technical section on Mary's Loop that travels a few feet from the
rim.  It's the same rim you see in the distance.
Riding along the canyon rim just feet from a long drop
Heading into a rocky stretch on Mary's Loop.  
More riding along the rim
Riding high above Steve's Loop
A flowy stretch of singletrack
Steve's Loop was probably my favorite section of this ride.  Steve's Loop featured huge views of the river with great desert terrain along the way.  The trail traveled around several large slot canyons when it wasn't riding along the rim of the main canyon above the river.  As the trail continued, it climbed back toward Mary's Loop while overlooking the terrain that I had just ridden.  Steve's Loop wasn't quite as difficult as Horsethief Bench Loop.

Nice view of the river
A canyon the trail passes around, the
trail rides along the top of the wall
Another slot to ride around
Riding around another canyon
The trail rides along the top of the wall
Looking back where I rode on Steve's Loop
Looking down on a slot I rode around earlier
After Steve's Loop I headed back toward the start on Mary's Loop.  This section of Mary's Loop was back on double track with some rocky sections.  As I neared the beginning of Steve's Loop I headed back into the singletrack in a narrow, technical section of Mary's Loop.  I noticed my bike felt mushy.  I then noticed the hissing.  I looked down and saw my rear tire was rapidly loosing air.  I had a pinch flat as a result of a poorly executed bunny hop over a rock at high speed.  I changed my tube and was back on my way with not too much lost time.

After a couple more miles on Mary's Loop I turned onto Wrangler's Loop.  Wrangler's Loop travels away from the canyons on singletrack with good flow for a couple miles.  The loop is generally fairly easy until it descends the last 3/4 of a mile.  The drop is on somewhat rough double track with loose rock that may pose problems for inexperienced riders.  Wrangler's Loop ends near the beginning of Mary's Loop.

Looking down on Horsethief Bench
Wrangler's Loop
Another section of Wrangler's
I had ridden nearly 18 miles by this point but wasn't quite ready to call it quits.  Rather than turn toward the trailhead, I headed toward Rustler's Loop.  Rustler's Loop is just under 4 miles and is the main beginner's loop in the area.  Despite being one of the easier trails in the area, riding it was quite a blast.  The trail offers everything the other Kokopelli Loops trails offer, but in a small package.  There is fun and flowy singletrack most of the way.  There are a few short, easier technical sections with ledges, slickrock, switchbacks, and changing terrain.  There is nice scenery from the rim of the canyon and plenty of steep cliffs near the trail.  An experienced rider can fly through the loop pretty quickly but it still offers a great mix of trail in a short distance.

River views on Rustler's
Looking across the river
Nice singletrack on Rustler's
Rustler's Loop is set up as an interpretive trail for newer riders.  Along the way there are signs with pointers on how to tackle the terrain.  Someone with more than a few miles on a bike might find it boring to ride only Rustler's Loop.  However I recommend adding it to the start or end of a longer ride to get just a little more scenery and a fun trail that does throw a little bit of everything at you including nearly 4 miles of great singletrack.

One last look at the river and canyon on Rustler's
Riding under a cliff near the end of Rustler's
After Rustler's Loop I headed back to the trailhead to wrap up my ride.  I rode just over 22 miles with 2:40 of riding, although my total time was a little longer with the flat and a few stops to take in the views.   The total climbing was around 2200 feet.  Even with the distance and decent elevation gain, I didn't feel too beat after this ride and still had some energy left in me which I find surprising since I awoke at 430am and drove nearly 4 hours before my ride.  Maybe I was just amped from the great riding and fine scenery.

Nice rock formations across the river
There is still quite a few more trails at the Kokopelli Loops that I didn't ride.  This ride however was a great introduction to the Fruita area.  The riding lived up to the hype.  I will definitely be coming back to ride again.  Next time I will make it at least an overnight trip so I can explore more of the area.  If I didn't have my secondary mission of picking up chickens, I would have made it a multiday trip this time.

More rock formations
There are numerous technical sections on this ride and I wouldn't recommend some of the side loops to anyone less than an intermediate rider.  There are a few obstacle that even veterans will have difficulty clearing cleanly.  The area has a fair amount of rocks and ledge to traverse.  Despite the 2200 feet of total elevation gain, there never seemed to be any real long climbs or descents.

Good view down the canyon from Horsethief Bench Loop
I can't recommend this area enough to serious mountain bikers.  This area is no secret however and you won't have the place to yourself.  I rode on a Monday morning and the parking lots were fairly full and I saw quite a few groups on the trails.  Because there are many different trails, and several loops seem to favor a specific direction of travel, you can avoid traffic on the trails most of the time. Riding here on a nice weekend is probably another story.  I probably wouldn't ride here in the peak of summer because the area gets quite hot and is very dry.  It is after all desert.  I enjoyed a 70 degree temperature by the end of my ride.  By Colorado standards, this ride is fairly low in elevation, never reaching above 5000 feet.  It might be a good place to ride to acclimate before riding higher elevations.  Because of its lower elevation and desert climate, Fruita sees little snow and experiences warmer winter weather making it a good destination when most of the high country is covered in snow.

Looking down a large slot canyon on Steve's Loop
After the ride, it was time for the second part of my trip, shopping for chicks.  Luckily this went smoothly and I was soon on the road for the nearly four hour drive home.  With the exception of the nearly constant chirping from the chicks, the return home was uneventful and I was at the house by 630PM to Puma eagerly awaiting her new flock members.

Desert blooms
Click on the link below for a map of the trails in the area.
Trail Map

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Salida Mountain Biking- Cottonwood Gulch and the Arkansas Hills

Mountain Biking has been my activity of choice lately.  A long spell of warm and dry weather has cleared most of the snow in the lower elevations in Colorado and I have been riding consistently for the last month. I traveled to Pueblo Reservoir for a couple rides since it is one of the first places to dry out for mountain biking. (See previous two blog posts)  Last week I traveled to Canon City to ride another warm and dry spot called Oil Well Flats (Click for that ride).  I also did some riding on BLM and National Forest roads just minutes from home for a quick outing.

Although I live in Howard, Colorado, the closest real town to me is Salida.  Salida is surrounded by several mountain ranges and an abundance of trails.  Salida is becoming a mountain bike destination in its own right.  Although the area is probably best known in mountain bike circles for its proximity to the Monarch Crest, there are endless other opportunities for riding.  I have lived here less than a year and have only begun to scratch the surface of the local riding.

You don't have to travel far to find mountain biking in Salida.  You don't even have to leave town.  Accessible from downtown, on the other side of the Arkansas River, is the Arkansas Hills Trail System. 

While I have ridden around the the trail system, I never really rode the trails in the system.  I originally discounted the trails since they are in town and the trails didn't seem too long.  I have however heard good things about the riding and finally decided to check out the trails for myself.  I was eating lunch Saturday in Riverside Park in downtown Salida near the start of the trails, watching  what seemed like most of Salida enjoying the trails and decided it was time to ride here Tuesday.  

I wanted to explore as much of the trail system without too much repetition.  I also had a few suggestion on trails to try.  I started my ride from my friends house on 3rd Street in Salida, just a few blocks from the trails.

The actual riding starts at the base of Tenderfoot, "S," Mountain.  I began my ride on a trail called Frontside.  Like its name implies, Frontside winds its way up the front of "S" Mountain.  The singletrack trail switchbacks its way quickly up the mountain without getting too steep.  The views over Salida and the surrounding mountains start immediately as you climb.  After a mile of easy climbing, Frontside ended and I continued on Little Rattler.  Little Rattler didn't climb as much as Frontside as it continued on easier singletrack for another mile.  There is little vegetation on Little Rattler and Frontside  and the views are continuous.  From Little Rattler, it is only a short side trip to the actual top of "S" Mountain and its lookout.

Looking over Salida with Mt Ouray and
its neighbors in the distance
View toward 14ers Shavano, Antero, and nearby peaks from the
trails on "S" Mountain
Looking into the Arkansas Hills
At the end of Little Rattler I headed to North Backbone.  North Backbone is over three miles long and one of the longer trails in the system.  While the first two trails were more beginner friendly, North Backbone is a little more technical.  The trail winds from the back of "S" Mountain to CR 175.  Along the way the trail snakes along the hills traveling through drainages and around rock features, while staying mostly in a scrubby juniper-pinon forest.  There are no serious climbs, but sevearal rocky stretches keep you on your toes.

Entering a technical stretch of North Backbone
Rock features along the trail
Big view along the trail
Outcroppings near North Backbone
Denser section of trees along North Backbone
Shavano framed above the trail
Interesting spire along the trail
At the end of North Backbone, the fun singletrack stops for a few miles as the route follows CR 175.  CR 175 features a long grind up a dirt road, climbing more than 1200 feet.  CR 175 isn't too difficult, it's just monotonous compared to the singletrack ridden so far.  On the day I was riding, there was a road crew grading the road.  This made the normally firm dirt road looser than normal.  To make matters worse they wetted the road prior to grading, making the road muddy.  Fortunately the mess didn't last more than a couple miles.

As the climbing nearly ends on CR 175, the road splits.  At the split is a parking lot and the start of the Cottonwood Trail at nearly 9000 feet.  This part of Cottonwood is new, officially opening last fall.  As I climbed CR 175, there were increasing patches of snow in some shaded areas.  The start of Cottonwood was in one of these shaded areas.  I walked maybe 50 yards to avoid the worst of the mud and a patch of ice at the beginning of Cottonwood.  After the initial mud and snow, the trail was mostly clear except for a couple of puddles.

The new section of Cottonwood rides nicely.  Most of the trail is smooth with good flow.  Where the trail turns sharply, the corners are banked, allowing you to keep up speed.  Since this section is higher in elevation, the forest is a little more substantial than at the lower elevations.  Since the start of Cottonwood is near the high point of the route, most of the ride is now downhill.

Northern Sangre de Cristos from Cottonwood
The trails briefly follows CR 173 after a few miles.  I have ridden CR 173, a rough, double track and four wheel drive road, before.  It eventually pops out next to "S" Mountain.  I was looking for the Cottonwood Gulch Trail.  Local riders talk highly of the Cottonwood Gulch Trail.  It is the local's secret trail that really isn't a secret.  As of now Cottonwood Gulch is an unofficial trail and finding the beginning isn't too obvious.  Without being shown the entrance, it is very easy to pass by as it is somewhat hidden.  A local offered to show me the way but our ride never came to fruition.  He gave me an idea where to look however.  I also found a decent description on how to find the entrance.  As I began to descend CR 173 I kept my eyes peeled and spotted the trail a setting back a short distance from CR 173.

Cottonwood Gulch starts with a fairly steep and loose descent into the gulch.  Once in the gulch, the real fun begins.  While there are a few short climbs crossing in and out of the gulch bottom, the trail is generally downhill.  After all, there is nearly 2000 feet of elevation difference from the start of the new section of Cottonwood to Salida.  Often the trail is traveling directly along the sandy bottom of the gulch.  There are some technical sections choked with rocks and big drops that will challenge even the best riders.  For the most part, an advanced rider should be able to clear most technical sections. A few short stretches will challenge even veteran riders however.    From CR 175 to Cottonwood's end, the trail covers more than 7 miles of prime riding.

Traveling in Cottonwood Gulch
Multiple lines in Cottonwood Gulch
Looking back at a rocky section in the gulch
Another rocky drop
A ribbon of singletrack through Cottonwood Gulch
Traveling in the bottom of the gulch
More technical riding
Riding along the edge of the gulch
By this fall Cottonwood Gulch is going to be reworked.  Salida Mountain Trails received a grant to rebuild parts of the trail and make it an official mapped trail.  An insider told me that the trail will maintain most of its integrity.  The biggest change will be a reroute where the trail makes its steep descent into the gulch.  This will be done mostly to maintain erosion and make the trail more sustainable.

At the end of Cottonwood, I was back on the official Arkansas Hill Trail System.  I headed to Prospector.  This was a fun trail of windy singletrack and a fair amount elevation loss.  Prospector is a fairly short trail however.  I wanted to explore a few more trail in the system before ending my ride.  I headed across Backbone to Tenderfoot.  Backbone is fairly easy singletrack.  Tenderfoot throws more rocks at you, but nothing too difficult, as you sidehill around "S" Mountain.  I descended back toward the river on Burnpile and Sgt Pepper.  From Sgt Pepper, I was back at the river and in town.

The Sangres coming into view on Tenderfoot
Tenderfoot traveling into the distance
Tenderfoot, AKA "S" Mountain
This ride far exceeded my expectations.  I rode more than 22 miles in just over 3 hours.  At least  17 of the miles were on singletrack.  I would consider my particular route an advanced ride.  The ride is fairly long and climbs and descends more than 2500 vertical feet.  There is enough technical terrain to add to the ride that might make it overwhelming for less experienced riders. However, there are enough trails with varying difficulties that most riders should be able to put together a ride to suit their abilities.  There are three bike shops in downtown Salida and they are happy to recommend a route to get you rolling.

Salida Mountain Trails did a nice job on this trail system and it continues to expand.  Since I live so close, I'm sure I'll ride here regularly.  Salida's weather is pretty mellow compared to much of Colorado and the riding season close to town is longer than many nearby trails.  This makes this ride a good choice early and late season.    

Click on the link below for a map
Arkansas Hills Map

This link below is a general route description that covers most of my ride
Cottonwood Tour

Clicking the link below will show another ride from town in the Arkansas Hill including parts of CR 175 and CR 173
Mountain Biking Lookout Loop and the Crater