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

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