Sunday, March 26, 2017

Salida Mountain Biking: Riding New Trails in the Arkansas Hills

My usual destination for singletrack mountain biking is the Arkansas Hills Trails, also known as S Mountain Trails, in Salida.  I wrote about the trails here about two years ago (See Salida Mountain Biking- Cottonwood Gulch and the Arkansas Hills). I ride here fairly regularly and thought I should write a new post on the area.  In the past two years, there have been improvements and several new trails built.  About half of this ride followed the same trails as my previous post with much of this ride on new trails.

A long stretch of warm and breezy weather has melted most of the snow and mud.  Salida has no shortage of sunshine and the many of the lower trails are rideable through winter.  The trails higher in the area are close to 9000' and snow lingers longer.  After talking to a few locals and one of the bike shops, they confirmed that everything, even the higher trails were basically free of mud and snow.  With potential winter weather returning to the area later in the week, I was eager to get on the local trails before the conditions were less than ideal.  On Tuesday, the first full day of spring, I made the short drive to Salida to check out some of the newer trails that I haven't ridden before.

Even with Salida's 7000' elevation, I was able to start my ride in shorts and a long sleeve jersey with no jacket. The temperature was near 50F at 9AM and rising quickly.  Since I ride here regularly, I have a favorite loop I ride and this day was no different.  The trails start just over the river in town Salida.  My ride began climbing up the front of S Mountain on Frontside.  Like its name implies, Frontside switchbacks its way up the front of S Mountain.  Although not very technical, Frontside climbs from the start on singletrack and negotiates several switchbacks so the going is fairly slow.

After Frontside, I made my way to Lil' Rattler.  Lil' Rattler is a relatively easy singletrack trail that connects Frontside with other trails in the system as it winds its way behind S Mountain.  Since S Mountain climbs right from town in Salida, there are some nice views of town from both Frontside and Lil' Rattler as well as views of the surrounding mountains.

View of Salida and distant Mt Ouray and Chipeta Peak
from Lil' Rattler
Looking into the Arkansas Hills from Lil' Rattler

From Lil' Rattler, a couple hundred feet long jaunt brings along a dirt road brings you to North Backbone.  North Backbone is one of the more interesting and diverse trails in the Arkansas Hills System.  From the south, the trail begins cover fairly easy trail in open terrain.  The open terrain allows for some good views of the lower Sawatch Range, including 14ers Shavano, Antero, and Princeton.  The trail enters more wooded terrain with a series of ups and downs through small drainages.  Then the trail gets more difficult as it navigates under numerous rock outcroppings and spires with much more technical tread.  Most of the technical sections can be ridden but several are tough climbs over the rock.  Eventually the technical terrain subsides and the last section of North Backbone is similar to its beginning.  After 3 miles, North Backbone ends on County Road 175.

14ers Shavano and Antero from North Backbone

Close up of Mt Ouray and Chipeta Peak

A closer look at the 14ers
Trailside rock outcropping with my bike next to it for scale
Trailside spire
I traveled CR 175 for the next 4+ miles as I made my way to the next section of singletrack.  CR 175 is a well maintained dirt road that climbs close to 1300 vertical feet between North Backbone and Salsa, the next section of trail.  The climb is somewhat of a grind although not too difficult.  It can be warm on CR 175 since you ride in the open, but you can feel the temperature drop as you get higher, topping out around 8800', 1800 vertical feet higher than the start of the ride.

After 4+ miles there is a split in the road.  To the right is CR 181 and a formal trailhead with plenty of parking.  This is the start of Salsa.  When I first rode here, this was called Upper Cottonwood and had just been built.  I was a little apprehensive about riding here this early in the season.  Salsa is the highest trail in the system at over 8900'.  The beginning of Salsa is shaded in tall pines and holds snow longer than the lower trails.  A call to the local bike shop confirmed it had only spotty mud or snow however.  As a heads up, Salsa is closed from December 15th- March 15th I believe for elk habitat.

Salsa features good variety as well.  The trail begins in taller pines on a trail with a mix of easy ups and downs but generally climbing to its high point.  Occasionally it gets slightly rocky, but the rocks are short lived and easy to negotiate.  After the trail reaches its high point, it winds downhill, with berms in place to negotiate sharp turns.  The trail then follows a sandy bottomed gulch, at times traveling in the gulch.  It's a real blast dropping in and out of the gulch in this section.  After nearly 3 miles, Salsa drops down to 4X4 CR 173, the same road at the end of Lit' Rattler.  There were a few very short sections of snow at the very beginning of Salsa and a couple patches of mud but nothing lasting more than a few feet.

Anotra Peak left, Mt Ouray right

Closeup of Shavano

Riding through forest on Salsa

The northern Sangres from Salsa

Riding through the gulch
This is where things change quite a bit from my previous blog post mentioned earlier.  Before new trail was built, you had to ride about a mile on CR 173 to reach an unofficial local trail that was fairly well hidden.  This led to a nasty, washed out, and heavily eroded descent into Cottonwood Gulch and the Cottonwood Trail.  New trail has been built and opened about a year ago to eliminate the unsustainable drop.  The new trail is called Rumba.

Rumba has three signed sections.  The initial section is simply "Rumba".  Rumba is a snaky trail that climbs in and out of several small drainages on a series of hairpin turns.  At roughly 13 miles into the ride, the beginning of Rumba is somewhat tiring with its numerous short climbs.

The trail opens up and begins the next section, Big Snake, which is marked by a sign.  Big Snake is less windy and trends downhill.  The riding is easier on Big Snake.  As quickly as Big Snake begins, you enter the next section of Rumba called Rumba Ridge.

Rumba Ridge is probably my favorite trail in the Arkansas Hills System.  The trail begins fairly high on an open slope.  This allows for views of the Southern Sawatch and Northern Sangre de Cristos.  The trail is somewhat chunky to start on narrow singletrack with a couple of tight switchbacks to negotiate.  The trail steepens as it enters a gulch.  The trails drops in and out of the gulch with large berms.  Your speed will pick up as you drop into the gulch.  Just as your ready to brake, the trail steeply climbs back out of the gulch and enters a bermed turn just to do it again.  The trail through the gulch is a wonderful roller coaster ride that seems to last a while and is a blast the entire time.

Mountain view above a switchback on Rumba Ridge

A drop in and out of a drainage

Looking ahead on Rumba Ridge as it drops in and
out of a drainage
Eventually the roller coaster comes to an end as the trail makes its way into Cottonwood Gulch and the Cottonwood Trail.  Cottonwood is a pretty burly trail that throws a lot at you.  I would consider Cottonwood an advanced difficulty trail and wouldn't recommend it for beginners.  Intermediates can negotiate it, but should expect to get off the bike at times in the more technical sections.

Riding in the narrow part of Cottonwood Gulch

Rocky trail along Cottonwood

Looking back at some technical rock drops
For the most part, Cottonwood travels along the floor of its namesake gulch.  In the beginning the trail navigates over technical rock drops in the narrowest part of the gulch.  Most of these drops can be ridden, but should be scouted if you aren't familiar with the trail.  As the gulch widens, the trail mellows some and is generally less difficult.  It still travels along the gulch and hits rockier, technical sections but not as frequently as the beginning..  There are several terrain transitions that come up fast to keep you on your toes throughout Cottonwood.  Over its 3 miles, Cottonwood drops nearly 900 vertical feet.

A flowier section of Cottonwood

Cruising down Cottonwood

A good look at the narrowness of Cottonwood Gulch
While riding Cottonwood, I came across a deer leg.  A few feet from the leg was a pile of fur, followed by another leg.  I'm guessing this was the remnants of a mountain lion's dinner.

Deer leg leftovers

Pile of deer hair
From the end of Cottonwood, I rode new terrain for the rest of my ride.  I turned onto Sweet Dreams.  Sweet Dreams is one of the newest trails in the system, named for Sweetwater Gulch, which it eventually enters.  Sweet Dreams features a mix of climbs and descents on a windy trail.  By this point in my ride, my distance ridden was closing in on 20 miles and the short climbs were tiring.  A few rocky sections thrown in started to slow me down.  The downhills are relatively short and berms make them more interesting.  The trail finally begins its final descent toward the river.  Less than 2 miles from its start, Sweet Dreams passes a junction.  Riding straight on Sweet Dreams continues a steep descent into Sweetwater Gulch.  Turning left is the beginning of Chicken Dinner.

Open section of Sweet Dreams

Looking ahead toward Sweetwater Gulch

View over Salida from Sweet Dreams
Chicken Dinner is the newest addition and southern most trail in the Arkansas Hills System.  They finished building it only a few months ago.  It is also the only trail that I haven't biked or hiked in the trail system.  I didn't know much about it other than it dropped more than 350 feet over its two miles.

Chicken Dinner descended modestly at first, with several bermed turns keeping good flow.  Quickly the trail began to drop more quickly.  As it dropped, the trail aggressively switchbacked on hairpin turns.  Massive banked berms lined the switchbacks allowing for good speed.  Several jump features dotted the trail along the way.  Speed built quickly and the berms helped manage the speed.  Even with the massive berms, I managed to get squirrely a couple times on the somewhat loose tread.  The trails builders did a great job with Chicken Dinner.  It was a really fun descent and great addition to the area, although I still like Rumba Ridge better.

A bermed turn early on Chicken Dinner

Looking ahead on Chicken Dinner
Sangre view lower on Chicken Dinner

A steep berm on Chicken Dinner
After two miles, Chicken Dinner comes to an end on a rough jeep road that parallels the railroad tracks along the river. I traveled the jeep road heading back toward the trailhead.  After a half mile or so, an unsigned singletrack heads off to the left paralleling the railroad tracks not too far from the trailhead.

My bike computer was completely non-functioning the entire ride so I don't have the exact mileage.  Based on the maps of the trail system, my ride was around 23 miles.  As always when riding the Arkansas Hills Trails, this was a great ride.  The new trails since I first wrote about this area nearly two years ago made a great trail system even better.  Salida Mountain Trails and its partners did a wonderful job building this trail system.  I enjoy riding here as much as anywhere else, and this area doesn't exactly have a shortage of place to ride.

By the end of the week, the weather had changed and snow fell on the higher reaches of the trails here.  It quickly melted however.  Several weather systems are forecasted to pass through in the next week with the potential for more snow and rain.  The area may not be at its peak for a couple more weeks until a drier weather pattern moves in.

Mountain biking in Salida isn't exactly a secret.  There are several great areas to ride and the Arkansas Hills Trails can be quite busy on summer weekends.  It's also one of the first places in the high country to be free of snow.  In fact, the lower trails can often be ridden in winter.  There's a reason these trails are popular though.  I highly recommend Salida for a riding destination and I'd make sure to ride the Arkansas Hills.

For a map of the area click Arkansas Hills Map or MTB Project Map for a map and other info on this ride.

For more photos from this area, see my previous blog post on this ride from two years ago by clicking on Salida Mountain Biking: Cottonwood Gulch and the Arkansas Hills.

If you enjoy reading my blog, check out and like Tomcat's Outdoor Adventures on Facebook.


  1. HeyTomcat, thank you for quite a nice writeup. Lil'l Rattler was my first excavator build, and Chicken Dinner one of my most recent, so I am very happy to hear you enjoyed them. Many props to SMT and the locals who have supported the vision, it has become more than we ever hoped for. And of course to Tony Boone Trails, who've been incubating some awesome talent here!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the write up. Chicken Dinner was a nice ride and I use Lil Rattler just about every ride in the Arkansas Hills Trails. Everyone involved has done a great job at making Salida a great riding destination.