Sunday, August 16, 2015

Mountain Biking the Monarch Crest: Twice is Nice

The Monarch Crest is the most renowned mountain bike ride in the Salida area and perhaps even all of Colorado.  Despite living in the area for over a year, I never rode the Monarch Crest.  There are several options for a Crest ride.  Majority of the rides involve a shuttle at the end.  Since nearly all of my mountain biking is solo, I never had a second vehicle for a shuttle nor did I want to pay for a shuttle.

This view sums up the Monarch Crest,
miles of alpine riding
I finally decided that I waited long enough to ride the Monarch Crest.  A recent ride took me to Marshall Pass and Starvation Creek, both descents from the Crest.  Then a few days later, I climbed Mt Ouray which stands above the Continental Divide over the Monarch Crest.  From Ouray's summit, much of the Monarch Crest route is visible.  Getting so close to the Crest motivated me to finally ride it.

The actual Monarch Crest is the section of the Continental Divide from Monarch Pass to Marshall Pass.  The Continental Divide Trail traverses this section and is the route for the ride.  From the Crest, there are a handful of descents to the valley.  The most popular descent is down the Silver Creek Trail and this descent after riding the Crest is an IMBA Epic Ride.

The turnoff to the start of the singletrack
not too far from Monarch Pass
On August 4th, I finally headed to Monarch Pass to ride the Monarch Crest.  I didn't have a shuttle for my ride however.  I was going to ride the Monarch Crest as an out and back ride.  I would start at Monarch Pass and continue to Marshall Pass.  Upon reaching Marshall Pass, I would turn around and head back.  The Monarch Crest is known for its high alpine singletrack with plenty of scenery and far reaching views.  Riding the trail out and back would allow me to spend twice as much time along the Crest riding the good stuff.

My ride started around 9AM from Monarch Pass at an elevation of 11,312'.  From the start, the route travels a short distance uphill on an access road before turning onto singletrack.  After a mile or so the singletrack turned onto a rough dirt road and began about a half mile of climbing on what is probably the steepest part of the entire Crest.  Although steep and rutted, the road is rideable.  I could see people having trouble if not acclimated to the high elevation on the this climb.

Early singletrack below treeline
Upon leaving the doubletrack, the real fun begins.  The next 9 miles of trail are on singletrack.  Much of the trail stays above treeline with short sections dropping into the trees.  Much of the trail has good flow, but there are some moderate technical sections with rock and roots along the way.  From Monarch Pass, the trail seemed to be climbing more often than not for more than 5 miles until the high elevation is reached just shy of 12,000 feet.  Other than the rough doubletrack, the climbing was never too steep though.  One thing that was constant is the far reaching views.

Just below treeline
Just the beginning of the alpine singletrack
Early morning clouds rising over the Continental Divide
Technical rocky section just ahead
More clouds rolling over Peel Point
Peel Point after the clouds pass
Smooth stretch of trail
The great trail continues
About 6 miles from Monarch Pass, the trail has a fairly steep descent into the forest.  Some heavy rain fell the night before and the trail was fairly muddy in this section.  The wooded stretch of trail doesn't last too long before popping out in sections of meadow.  Several stretches of rock including, a small scree field are mixed in the meadows.  After passing the scree field and the Agate Creek Trail junction, the trail enters the forest for the rest of the ride to Marshall Pass.

Last stretch of trail before it descends 
View to the south
At the top of the descent toward the Green's Creek junction
After a short distance in the trees
the trail gets back above treeline
Riding through a nice meadow
Still early enough the sun hasn't hit
the trail in this section
Crossing section of scree
Once in the forest, the trail begins a descent for the remainder of the route to Marshall Pass.  In the trees, the trail is more consistently rooty and rockier.  The last 1.5 miles to Marshall Pass the trail widens to a rough doubletrack.  This last 1.5 miles is fast as the descent steepens.  There are some washouts along with loose rocks on this stretch so make sure you don't get too fast.  After 11 miles, I arrived at Marshall Pass at 10,880' and the low point of the ride.

Back in the woods
Most people continue at this point by descending off the Crest at Marshall Pass or a short distance ahead at one of the other descent trails.  I turned around and headed back to Monarch Pass.  Even though I just rode this route, the return trip has a new feel and a different view in the reverse direction.  From Marshall Pass, I began by climbing for several miles.  Although there are plenty of ups and downs, the trail climbs more for the first 5 miles back.  By the time I return to the high point of the ride, just shy of 12,000', I had been riding for about 16 miles.  The last bit of climbing to the high point is moderately steep and I began to feel the elevation for the first time on the ride.

The trail is part of both the Continental Divide and
Colorado Trail for much of the route
Heading back toward Monarch Pass
It's the same trail but it's like
a new ride on the return trip
Flowers along the trail
One of the steeper climbs on the return
From the high point, there is minimal climbing left and plenty of downhill.  The last few miles feature stretches of relatively flat riding along the Continental Divide and finishes with a few fast downhills back to Monarch Pass.  I finished the 22 mile ride in less than 3 hours.

Back into smooth section of trail
More fine riding on the way back
The monsoon clouds building as I head toward Peel Point
The view ahead
A glimpse of the peaks beyond Monarch Pass
The clouds getting close to Mt Peck
Dropping briefly back into the trees
Now that I have ridden the Monarch Crest, I look forward to returning.  I hope to ride an extended version with a descent off the Crest next time, probably following Silver Creek and Rainbow Trails.  Riding as an out and back definitely had its advantages allowing me to ride nearly 20 miles of alpine singetrack with nearly endless views riding above treeline.

Another brief section among the trees
The trail continues up the slopes
 and skirts around the summit ahead
Here are some observations I have of the ride.   The Monarch Crest ride is often listed as having 6000' of descent.  This is true if you ride it as a shuttle ride and descend 6 miles of paved road from Poncha Pass back into Poncha Springs or Salida.  The actual ride on the Crest from Monarch to Marshall Pass is a solid cross country ride with plenty of climbing and descending.

Looking quite grey to the north
Along the Divide
Don't expect to have this ride to yourself.  The Monarch Crest is one of the most popular rides in Colorado.  I rode on  a Tuesday and I passed at least a half dozen groups of riders.  On my return in the opposite direction, I passed many of the same riders and many new riders that started after me.  There are other alpine rides in the area including the CDT near St Elmo and the Canyon Creek Loop that offer long stretches above treeline without the crowds.  The Colorado Trail and the CDT both follow the route, so be aware of other trail users, including dirt bikes and horses.

Looking across Mt Peck
Despite the ominous clouds, I stayed dry
and avoided any thunder or lightning
Like any adventure above treeline during monsoon season, be prepared.  Although I didn't hit any weather, there were threatening clouds toward the end of my ride and I was finished by noon.  This was on a day with only a 10% of storms.  It was also quite windy along the Divide which made it quite chilly.  I'm glad I went with my long sleeve jersey.  Respect the mountains at this elevation.

I definitely recommend riding the Monarch Crest if you are an experienced mountain biker.  There are few places that offer so much alpine mountain biking.  The ride is well known for a reason and well worth exploring.

Below are link from previous alpine mountain bike rides not too far from the Monarch Crest with less traffic.
Mountain Biking the CDT: St Elmo-Alpine Tunnel- Tincup Pass Loop
Canyon Creek Loop: Mountain Biking the High Country

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