Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Mountain Biking to Billings Lake

The past several months I have been focused on mountain biking.  Last winter I bought a new mountain bike and this fueled my desire to hit the trails by bike.  This is also my first full season of riding in Colorado.  I never lived somewhere with so many great mountain bike options and I am excited to explore new trails.

Since I have been biking so much, I was ready to hit the trails by foot again and do some hiking.  Puma was busy for several days, so I set my sights on an outing to visit some new peaks in the nearby Sangre de Cristo Range.  I basically live on the downslope of the Sangres.  I woke up Sunday morning ready to hike, but I was greeted with rain and the summits completely hidden in the clouds.  I was ready the next two morning to hike but both days saw the Sangres shrouded in clouds early in the morning.  Although the mountains were not giving me ideal conditions, the lower elevations were fair and I managed to get in a mountain bike ride just a few minutes from home.

Tuesday, I woke up early again, ready to hike.  Once again, the mountains were obscured.  A few hours later, the visibility improved but it was too late to hike to my original destination.  I wanted to travel in some alpine terrain.  With a good part of my morning lost I decided to go mountain biking again.

At the last minute, I decided to head to the North Fork of the South Arkansas River.  Although I never ridden bike here before, I had cross country skied in the area.  It isn't too far from home and the route ends in a beautiful alpine basin, just above treeline.

My ride started at the Angel of Shavano trailhead. at 9200'.  FS Road 240 travels along the river, a small creek at this point, to its headwaters above treeline at Billings Lake.  I had never been on this road when it was free of snow, so I didn't know entirely what to expect.  I did know that high clearance vehicles can travel the distance however.  I also knew that I could make it to Billings Lake on skis, so I knew it wasn't too steep.  The jeep road travels eight miles and gradually climbs about 2800' to Billings Lake.

A typical section of rocky road
The start of the ride is one of the steeper sections.  In the first mile, the road is fairly rocky and somewhat loose as it climbs on sandy soil.  After the first mile, the road becomes more gradual for much of the way.  The road is consistently rocky but never really too technical.  Riding on the road reminded my a little bit of the forest roads that I rode while growing up mountain biking in Pennsylvania.  Rain had fallen overnight making the road damp.  The air had a cool fall-like feel and a leafy smell to it as the aspens were changing color and loosing leaves.  The dampness and forest smell also reminded me a bit of the east.

Lingering color on the aspens
The ride had little else reminding me of the east.  The scenery is quite a bit different.  The road travels along the base of 14ers Shavano and Tabegauche.  Rocky slopes and cliffs surround the road much of the way.  Nearby 12 and 13,000' peaks tower above the road.

Early view of alpine terrain
Peaks in the distance near Billings Lake
Rocky terrain above the North Fork
Lingering snow from the previous night
While the elevation gain along the road is manageable, rockier and sandier stretches add to the difficulty.  Seldom did the road ever seem steep.  The higher I climbed the more mountain scenery came into view.  Finally, the road reaches the end of the trees just below Billings Lake and the view is amazing.

Getting closer to treeline
View close to treeline
Approaching the Billings Lake basin with
Pomeroy Mtn  as a backdrop
Entering the basin
The final stretch of road travels above Billings Lake to the end of the line. Between the lake and the end of the line, I passed an old cabin ruin and a large unmarked mine entrance.  Just past the mine, the road ends at a tunnel that is the entrance to the long abandoned Pride of the West Mine.  The entryway to the tunnel is remarkably well preserved with its keystone dated to 1880.  The elevation at the mine entrance is right around 12,000'.

I had good views but the skies were ominous
Looking across the basin toward 13,000' Sewanee Peak and neighbors
Close up of a nameless 13,000' peak
The road as it passes above Billings Lake
Mine entrance along road
Pride of the West Tunnel
The keystone at the tunnel entrance
Close up of the tunnel
Old shack near the mine site
From the perch at the mine entrance, the views are quite impressive.  The peaks in this part of the Sawatch Range stand right around 13,000 feet and pretty jagged.  The large alpine basin in which Billings Lake sits is quite pretty.  On this day, the northeast slopes of the surrounding peaks had a few patches of snow still lingering from the previous night.  The summits occasionally ducked behind passing clouds.

View over the basin along the road
View over Billings Lake, the two pointy peaks in the
distance I believe are 13ers Taylor and Aetna
Another view across basin
Sewanee Peak
I was too busy enjoying my surroundings to think about looking at my bike computer.  It was over 8 miles to the Pride of the West tunnel.  I didn't think to look at how long the climb took me.  Even though the climbing was never too steep, it seemed like a slow climb.

After taking a few minutes to soak in the scenery, I looked forward to my 8 mile descent.  On the upper reaches of the descent, it is hard to pay attention to the road with the great views of the peaks around you.  The downhill was a little tough on a hardtail cross country bike.  2800 feet of rocky downhill is tiring.  This is one of the times I wish I had a full suspension bike.  It took me well over 2 hours to finish the entire ride.  Even with an 8 mile downhill, the travel was slow going.

The view as I began descent
The view in front of me
The views continued as I got lower
I had to pay attention to the rocky road and not
focus on the mountains
More leaf color as I got closer to the trailhead
At the trailhead, the Colorado Trail passes through.  I decided to ride a couple more miles on the Colorado Trail to get in a little bit of singletrack riding.  When I returned to my car, as I was changing and putting my bike away, it began to rain.  The sky was somewhat ominous the entire morning so I'm glad the shower held off until I was finished riding, especially since it was only in the low 50s.

While I'm glad that I took this ride, I wouldn't say it was my favorite.  I enjoyed  this route more when I traveled it on skis.  The entire route is on jeep road with no singletrack riding.  I have ridden plenty of long uphills,  but thisone is definitely a grind.  What the ride lacks in awesome terrain, it makes up for with scenery.  For those traveling on a full suspension, all mountain bike, I'm sure the downhill would be worth the ride too.  I probably don't see myself revisiting the area anytime too soon on bike. I'm sure I'll revisit the area in winter on skis however as the area is even more stunning covered in snow.

Clicking the link below will take you to my blog post of my winter cross country ski outing to this area and it's interesting to see the difference when the route and surrounding mountains are snow covered.
Cross Country Skiing the North Fork of the South Arkansas River

My bike enjoying the view

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