Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Cañon City Mountain Biking: Oil Well Flats

I have written about the mountain biking in Cañon City in the past.  The area has taken big steps to expand the local mountain biking.  The two main groups that have been building trails and promoting the region are LAMBA (Lower Arkansas Mountain Bike Association) and FAR (Fremont Adventure Recreation).  The two groups have done a good job at making Cañon City a mountain bike destination.  In the several years I have lived in the area, they added many miles of trails, creating two new riding areas, South Cañon Trails and the Royal Gorge Trails and added to existing trail systems at Oil Well Flats and the Hogbacks.

Because of its dry and mild climate, Cañon City has one of the longest riding seasons in Colorado.  The trails are often rideable in the winter.  The area doesn't hold snow very long after a storm.  This makes it a great place to ride early and late in the season.  Each year, I ride at least one of the trail systems as one of my first real rides of the season.

This year, my first serious ride of the season was at the Oil Well Flats trail system, just north of Cañon City.  Oil Well Flats is probably the most challenging and most popular trail system in the Royal Gorge Region.  I have ridden here several times.  I even have a blog post from a few years ago (Oil Well Flats: Fun Desert Singletrack).  Since that ride, new trails have been added.  This post includes some of the updates.

Click: Oil Well Flats Map for reference to the trails in the ride description below.

On March 14th, I headed to Oil Well Flats, just a few miles north of Cañon City.  I always start to get the mountain biking bug around this time of year.  The forecast was calling for a high near 70F in Cañon City.  It was nearly 50F when I started riding around 9AM.

My ride began at the lower trailhead.  The trail Tectonic Shift begins from the trailhead.  Tectonic Shift snakes through a mixed pinyon and juniper forest for less than two miles before I turned onto Anticline.  Tectonic Shift offers a few rock features along the way, but is never harder than an intermediate trail.

Anticline continues snaking through the pinyon and juniper forest.  While still an intermediate trail, Anticline offers more technical rock features than Tectonic Shift as well as more climbing in this direction.  All the ledges are rideable.  You need to stay on your toes however, as some of the technical sections catch you by surprise on the many twists and turns on Anticline complicated by sandy tread.

View from Anticline

After 2.7 miles on Anticline, I continued on Unconformity.  Uncomformity travels into more technical terrain.  Heading in the uphill direction, this could be considered an advanced trail.  The trail leaves the forest and climbs into the remnants of a burn scar from 30 years ago.  The trail gains 500 feet over its 3 mile course.  There are a series of ledges that require technical moves, often with little transition.  On the uphill sections, even the best riders will have difficulty clearing some of the obstacles.  A ledgy climb will begin after a technical traverse.  Its difficult to maintain the necessary momentum to clear the ledges at times with sand, loose tread.  A few drops require quick turns over rough terrain adding to the challenge.

Cholla along the trail

The cliffs that Island in the Sky follows

Section of Unconformity

There are neat rock features in this area.  Random stand alone rocks are spaced out in the burn scar.  Because the clearing around the burn scar and higher elevations of Unconformity, there are some nice views in the area, including the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the southwest.  After reaching its apex, Unconformity drops through a sandy section, before running a short distance on a doubletrack.  When I first rode here, this was a true doubletrack.  Now it has grown over and is more like a section of singletrack.

Large rocks along the trail

The Sangres in the distance

Climbing near the high point of Unconformity

Looking down into the old burn

Mountains to the east of Oil Well Flats

The end of Unconformity brings you to Island in the Sky.  Island in the sky is probably the most interesting trail at Oil Well Flats.  The trail starts out with a climb up a ridge.  The trail tops out on a point on the ridge.  From here the views are far reaching.  Cañon City can be seen just a few miles to the south.  The Wet Mountains are beyond Cañon City.  There is a good look a long stretch of the Sangres in the distance.

Cows are common road blocks on BLM land

The northern part of Cañon City and the Sangres

The riding becomes more interesting at this point.  The trail descends into continually more rocky terrain.  The descent brings you to the top of a long exposed cliff with a 200 foot drop off.  The trail rides within a few feet of the edge at times.  The trail travels over the rock and is quite rough.  The views from the cliff allow you to overlook much of the interior of Oil Well Flats.  After leaving the cliff top, the trail descents over a mix of technical terrain before ending at Fire Canyon.  I'd consider Island in the Sky an advanced trail.

Clifftop ride on Island in the Sky

Looking back along the cliff

Another look along the cliff

The Sangres in the distance

A short jaunt up Fire Canyon brings you back to the end of Unconformity.  From here I retraced my route on Unconformity.  Heading in the opposite direction, Unconformity features a lot more downhill.  The downhill momentum generally makes it easier to clear most of the rocky terrain.  After leaving the burn scar and heading back into the pinyon/juniper forest, the downhill ride is much flowier.

Headed down Unconformity through the burn scar

Trailside rock

The cliffs of Island in the Sky in the distance

I continued retracing my course, now riding Anticline in the opposite direction.  Anticline features much more downhill in reverse and is a fast, flowy ride much of the time with an occasional short climb in the mix.  Anticline is a blast in this direction.

Riding through Pinyon and Juniper scrub forest

At the end of Anticline, I was back on Tectonic Shift.  Tectonic Shift is more undulating than Anticline in this direction.  On one corner, I found myself at the top of a rock ramp.  I must of had too much speed and took the corner wide and my front tire skidded a little on the sandy trail.  My front tire hit a small rock that was firmly planted in the ground.  This caused my front tire to turn abruptly and dumping me hard on the rock ramp.  It happen extremely quickly and I didn't see it coming so I'm not 100% sure how it happened but this seems most likely.  I had some blood on my shin and a sore elbow but nothing serious.  I was surprised that my bike had no damage since the aluminum frame made quite the clang as it hit the rock.

A smooth stretch of Tectonic Shift

Rather than wrap up my ride, I turned onto Fracture just before the trailhead.  I don't think I had ever ridden Fracture and wanted to check it out.  By this point I was close to 20 miles into my ride, but I still had some energy to spare.  Fracture is a fairly easy trail over mostly smooth tread.  It climbs 300 feet in its 1.8 mile course but never seems steep.  The climbing was punctuated with several quick descents to break up the continuous climbing.  Fracture ends near the bottom of Unconformity.

A quarter mile or so on Unconformity brought me to the top of Tectonic Shift.  I haven't ridden this section of trail since my first time at Oil Well Flats.  Tectonic Shift, from its high point, travels 2.3 miles back to the trailhead.  The upper portion features a fast downhill that often travels through fields on fairly easy terrain.  In less than a mile, it reaches the section I already rode twice, once in each direction.  The last 1.5 miles or so were uneventful and I had no problems with the rock ramp where I spilled earlier.

Nearby mountains to the west

By the time I reached the trailhead, I had ridden 23 miles.  Since this was my first real mountain bike ride of the season, I could feel the miles.  In general, the riding at Oil Well Flats is "pedally" and never too fast so you earn your distance.  My first time riding at Oil Well Flats, I remember the area being loaded with cactus.  While there is still cactus, it seems like it has been brought under control.  I don't know if this is from trail maintenance working to eliminate or it has been trampled by years of traffic.

Oil Well Flats is the most interesting and technical trail system in the Cañon City area.  I recommend checking it out.  As a whole, it's probably not the most beginner friendly riding area, especially on the trails furthest from the lower trailhead.  For riders in the Front Range or High Country, Oil Well Flats is worth the trip for early and late season riding.  Cañon City is always quite hot in the summer, so I would avoid it in the summer.

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