Friday, April 21, 2017

Mountain Biking the Badger Creek-Powerline Loop

While Colorado has no shortage of mountain bike destinations, my "go to" ride isn't on any one's radar.  Just north of the Arkansas River in Howard, about 4 miles from my house, is a large chunk of BLM land.  This area doesn't have an expansive trail system.  It's primarily a series of dirt roads that rise into the Arkansas Hills around the Badger Creek drainage.  Since it is about a 6 minute drive from home, I frequently ride my mountain bike in the area.  Even though there aren't any singletrack trails to speak of, the area offers a nice loop ranging from easy going dirt road to sections of fairly rugged dirt that require high clearance.  While not overly technical, it's quite a challenging ride with numerous climbs and descents.  Best of all are the good views of both the Sangre de Cristos and Sawatch Ranges.

Tuesday, April 18th, was a beautiful spring day and I decided to ride this for the first time this season.  I start this ride at a friend's place along the river.  An easy 1.5 miles along a County Road 45 brings me to the actual loop.  I begin the loop by climbing Sand Gulch Road.  This dirt BLM road climbs gradually for more than 6 miles, much of the time using the gulch bed as the road.  Along the way it takes in some interesting landscapes.  An interesting rocky landscape called Turkey Rock is the first feature that is passed.  While the area has a jumble of rocks and cliffs, a section of the cliff is shaped like a turkey.  Further along, the road passes several low mountains and sections of cliffs.

Turkey Rock area from CR 45
Twin Sisters from CR 45
Cottonwood Group from CR 45
Low mountains around Turkey Rock
Turkey Rock
The lower ridges of Puma Peak
Cliffs above Sand Gulch
There is a key junction about 2.5 miles up Sand Gulch Road.  Sand Gulch Road angles to the right, and Sand Road continues straight.  I go on Sand Road, which is the better maintained path.  As the road reaches higher elevations, there are several good vantage points taking in the views of both the Sangres and Sawatch Ranges including several 14ers.  Eventually the road passes briefly through a section of private land with a couple of off the grid homes.  From the homes the road descends briefly and passes through Little Badger Creek.

14er Shavano and its neighbors
8759' Puma Peak
I'm not sure who Shirley is
13,588' Cottonwood Peak (R) and Wulsten Baldy (L)
Puma Peak with the Cottonwood Group in the distance
11,060' Jack Hall Mountain
10,747' Big Baldy Mountain
Just past the creek is another junction where I take a left turn.  This is BLM  5965, locally known as the Powerline Road.  It quickly becomes evident why this is called the Powerline Road.  Pretty quickly the road comes to a high voltage powerline that travels toward Salida.  I'm guessing the road is the service road to access the powerlines.  The road passes under the powerlines several times but they are often out of sight.  Even when near the powerlines, they aren't too much of a distraction since the views of the surrounding mountains are impressive.

Riding under the powerlines (hard to see in the picture)
Approaching a powerline tower with the Sangres in the distance
After reaching the powerlines, the road which is a jeep road, begins a series of fast descents followed by stiff climbs.  Rough sections give the route some extra challenge.  In this stretch much of the scenery is dominated by 11,000' Jack Hall Mountain to the north and 10,700' Big Baldy Mountain to the west.  After 3 miles of ups and downs, there is a steep descent to Badger Creek.

Interesting rock formation
Sangres from the Twin Sisters to Hunts Peak
Looking up the Badger Creek drainage
Big Baldy
Badger Creek is about 8.5 miles from the beginning of Sand Gulch Road. There is no bridge at Badger Creek but it is fairly shallow and can be ridden most of the year.  It's not uncommon to see trout darting through the creek.

Low peaks in front of Big Baldy near Badger Creek
Cliff band near the creek
Low hills upstream along the creek
Near the creek
The road near Badger Creek
Rock formations above the creek
Badger Creek
Creek crossing
Rough road along the creek
Just before reaching  Badger Creek there is a spur trail marked 5965 C.  This spur travels only a short distance but reaches an abandoned copper mine.  There is a prominent opening at the mine, that I don't recommend entering ,but makes an interesting diversion of a half mile or so.

Entrance to old copper mine
By this point there has been about 1200 feet of climbing and nearly 800 feet of descent so far.  The most difficult part of the ride lies just ahead.  From the creek the route climbs stiffly away from the water.  After gaining most of the elevation back the route lost descending to Badger Creek, the roller coaster ride begins again.  The route climbs a ridge, only to descend into, and climb out of a drainage.  This repeats several times. On this particularly ride two F-16s flew overhead at a fairly low altitude that appeared to be following Badger Creek.

Twin Sisters
At 10.5 miles into the ride, the route reaches its most demanding climb.  Loose and bare rock in the road with steep pitches add to this climbs toughness.  The climb is rideable, but after the last 5 miles of roller coaster terrain, it's a strain to ride it without stopping.  There are good views of Big Baldy and Jack Hall from this stretch.  At the top of the climb you get a good vantage point back over the area already ridden and realize this area has a wild and remote quality to it.

Riding below Big Baldy
Looking back to Jack Hall Mtn
Puma Peak on right and 10,082' Burned Timber Mountain
in the distance overlooking the Badger Creek drainage
After the punishing climb, you are rewarded with an equally demanding descent.  The road drops fast and steep until it descends into another gulch.  A couple more short climbs are ahead before the road drops the last couple miles with great speed to the settlement of Wellsville.

Another look at the northern Sangres
13,071' Hunts Peak
Close up of Hunts Peak
In Wellsville, the route turns onto Country Road 45 on a decent dirt road for about 1.5 miles while passing the few homesin the settlement.  After 1.5 miles the road is blocked off due to a washout but still usable by bikes and foot traffic.  From here the route reaches the river and travels along it on a doubletrack road.  

For the next two miles or so the doubletrack follows the river, at times just a few feet from the water.  Along the way it passes several campsites and an area set aside for the public to mine for gold in the river.  Once again Badger Creek is crossed, this time where it reaches its terminus at the river.  Badger Creek can be ridden across easily, although there is a railroad bridge a couple feet upstream to cross it if you don't want to get your bike wet.  
Riding above the river
Riding in Bighorn Sheep Canyon looking at Peak 7763'
View upriver
Riding between a cliff and the river
While traveling along the river there are good views of surrounding terrain that rises quite abruptly from the river.  The river is passing through Bighorn Sheep Canyon here.  Even though US 50 is on the other side of the river, its easy to ignore with the river's noise and good scenery.

Old railroad bridge at Badger Creek
Not long after crossing Badger Creek, the route becomes more road like again as it reaches "downtown"  Howard.  From Howard, it's less than a mile back to the beginning of Sand Gulch Road.

There is a BLM parking lot near the end of Sand Gulch Road.  Riding the loop from this lot, the route is about 20 miles.  I begin at the end of my road, so it adds 3 miles to the ride.  Even though the ride travels mostly on dirt roads of varying difficulty, I really enjoy this ride.  I consider it my "workout ride" and it's my ride to enjoy a quick outing on my bike.  Although I don't have an elevation profile of this loop, the portion of the ride away from the river would resemble an EKG reading with its numerous, steep ups and downs.  It's not unusual to see people fishing or camping near the section along the river, but it's pretty rare to see anybody on the rest of the route. For me, it's a nice ride just a few minutes from home. I would ride this from my house, if it wasn't for the additional 800 vertical feet of necessary climbing to end the ride back at my house.

I have explored many of the mountains in the photos above.  If interested, browse through my older blog posts to read about these mountains.  Cottonwood Peak, The Twin Sisters, Puma Peak, Mt Shavano, Burned Timber Mountain, Big Baldy Mountain, Turkey Rock, and Badger Creek all have blog posts from previous hikes.  I also climbed Jack Hall Mountain and Peak 7763' recently and will soon have posts about them.

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  1. Hello,
    I am researching Badger Creek, Sand Gulch and this blog is very in depth. Thank you for posting it. I do have some other questions. Is it possible to have a conversation about this BLM area. My name is David and my contact info is (C) 719-371-0840. Thank you for your time

    1. Hi David, thanks for reading. You can email me- with any questions any time. I'll do my best to help you. I will try to get in touch with you by phone before the end of the weekend.