Thursday, November 1, 2018

Mountain Biking the Royal Gorge Region

I have written about the mountain biking in the Cañon City area in the past.  In the past several years, local groups including Fremont Adventure Recreation (FAR) and the Lower Arkansas Mountain Bike Association (LAMBA) have been quite progressive with trail building and making the area a mountain bike destination.  Oil Well Flats and the South Cañon/Section 13 trail systems have been in place with miles of trails.

The group now seems to be focusing on the trail system at the Royal Gorge Park. The Royal Gorge trails have come a long way in the past couple years.  While the trail system is a work in progress, they have enough trails in place now that I felt I could put together a decent ride.  In September, they had a 50 mile bike race on the trails at the Royal Gorge.  This route consisted of three 14 mile laps with extra riding at the beginning and end.  The race used most of the trails in the system and I used the race route as a starting point to put together my ride.

On a Monday, October 29th, I headed to the Royal Gorge trails. Cañon City usually has warmer weather than where I live about an hour away.  Monday, the forecast called for temperatures to hit the 70s. The next day called for a drastic change with much cooler temperatures and the chance for winter weather, so I felt this was a good time to put in a few miles and check out the new trails.

I began my ride at the first trailhead that you approach when driving toward the Royal Gorge Park.  This trailhead is at the northern end of the trail system and accesses a trail called Dark Side of the Moon.  On the most recent map, available on the FAR website, there is a trail yet to be named, labled as TBD (To be Determined), that is accessed from this trailhead.  I began my ride on the TBD trail.

As I said, the trails here are a work in progress.  Besides Dark Side of the Moon, there are several unmarked trails at this trailhead including TBD.  I initially followed a very well tread trail that had a trail cutting machine parked along in it.  This trail ended after less than a 1/2 mile.  The trail continued beyond a short yet to be build stretch of trail.  This was a future trail that isn't quite ready but will be in the near future.

I backtracked and found the TBD Trail.  It wasn't marked, but the very obvious trail continued along a wash rather than taking the tunnel under the road that lead to Dark Side of the Moon.  From the trailhead, TBD climbs gently following the wash on a fairly easy trail.  As it gains elevation, it climbs above a couple of gullies that descend toward the Royal Gorge.

Riding TBD

After a couple miles, TBD ends at a day use parking lot.  I crossed the road and picked up the Overlook Trail.  The Overlook Trail joins the Overlook Loop for a 1.5 mile lollipop loop.  As its name implies, the Overlook Trail climbs near the gorge rim and features nice views looking over the Royal Gorge.  Further along the loop, the Royal Gorge Bridge comes into view, a short distance away.  The Royal Gorge Bridge is the highest bridge in the US with a drop of nearly 1000 feet from the bridge to the Arkansas River below.

First look into the Royal Gorge

Royal Gorge Bridge

From the end of the Overlook Trail, I picked up the Canyon Rim Trail.  The trail rolls through a mix of juniper and pinyon with not too much elevation change.  Traveling this direction, the trail climbed more than it descended, gaining about 200 feet in the 1.5 miles I traveled on it.  Several ledges along the trail offer nice views into the gorge.

The Sangre de Cristos

One of many views along Canyon Rim

Easy trail on Canyon Rim

Open section of Canyon Rim

Before reaching the end of the Canyon Rim Trail, I turned onto FAR Out.  FAR Out was probably the most challenging trail and diverse trail in the Royal Gorge system.  The trail travels nearly 2 miles and climbs about 300 feet.  There are occasional views into the gorge as well as views into Cañon City, just a few miles to the east.  The trail traverses a few rockier sections.  There are a few tricky transitions along the way.  The trail ends with a somewhat technical descent to the Summit Trail.  During the descent, the trail negotiates a few tight switchbacks and rocky sections that require a little thought to pick a good line.  The trail passes a series of communication towers near its high point.

Passing under outcropping on FAR Out

Good look at Cañon City

Riding across slabs on FAR Out

View of the bridge near FAR Out high point

The gorge from FAR Out high point

There are a few junctions along FAR Out.  Fortunately, the area features good signage at most of the junctions.  I recommend following the signs and stay on FAR Out at the junctions for the most interesting terrain.  There is a short spur that is marked off of FAR Out called Le View.  The 1/4 or so mile round trip up Le View is worth the effort.  The end of Le View reaches an open high point with 360 degree views with a nice look at the gorge, Sangre de Cristos, and much of the terrain ridden so far.

Gorge from Le View

Another view from Le View

From the end of FAR Out, I picked up the Summit Trail.  The Summit Trail traverses along a side cut trail.  In the lower scrubby vegetation.  The trail route is visible ahead at most points along the Summit Trail.  Although not too technical, take care on the sidehill trail.  Veering off the downhill side could get ugly.  Desert vegetation is quite abundant along the Summit Trail.  Numerous cholla guard the edge of the trail, so don't get too wide from the trail center.

Trailside cholla

The Summit Trail

Riding along a sidehill on the Summit Trail

The Summit Trail climbs toward Fremont Peak and the high point of the trail system.  As you approach the end of the Summit Trail, the tread becomes looser with a few steeper pitches.  There are nice views to the east toward Cañon City from most of the Summit Trail.

The ridge dropping away from Fremont Peak

Climbing the Summit Trail

Watch out for the cholla

Eventually the trail seems to drop in the direction of Cañon City, while a less defined trail continues straight toward the ridge ahead. The trail that drops is part of future trail expansion according to the map. This ends the riding on the Summit Trail.  I recommend leaving your bike behind and walking the 5-10 minutes to the summit of Fremont Peak.  The trail becomes steep and loose but stays defined.  The route becomes a bit of a scramble near the summit of the 7233' peak which can be a little tricky in clipless cyling shoes.

The summit is marked with a large cairn.  The peak features nice 360 degree views that take in the Royal Gorge and Cañon City, nearly 2000 vertical feet below.  The Sangre de Cristos offer a nice backdrop beyond the gorge.  A summit register can be found at the cairn as well.

The Sangres

Royal Gorge Bridge

The Gorge

Summit Cairn

Cañon City below

I returned to my bike.  After an initial, short climb, the Summit Trail offers quick downhill riding in the reverse direction.  After a rejoining FAR Out briefly, I joined the Cañon Vista Trail.  Cañon Vista starts with a nice descent as it travels through a mix of terrain before joining S'mores in less than a mile.

I followed S'mores very briefly before reaching the most fun trail I rode for the day, Dream Weaver.  After a short climb for the first 1/4 mile or so, Dream Weaver enters open terrain and the fun begins.  The entire trail is just 1.8 miles long.  In the last 1.5 miles, Dream Weaver drops over 400' through open terrain.  The trail flows wonderfully and features numerous bumps to catch air if desired.  The trail winds and drops before ending across the road from my starting trailhead.

"I believe you can get me through the night" 

View on the upper part of Dream Weaver

Open terrain ahead on Dream Weaver

Passing an outcropping on Dream Weaver

Rather than wrap up the ride, I climbed for a little over a mile and nearly 300 vertical feet up The Maze.  My next target was Dark Side of the Moon.  The Maze is a fairly easy climb and the recommended route to access Dream Weaver or Dark Side of the Moon, which see more downhill traffic.

Climbing The Maze, Dream Weaver
descends the hill on the left

From the top of The Maze, I began my descent on Dark Side of the Moon.  The initial start of Dark Side of the Moon passes over an area of rock that can easily be bypassed if desired.  Once past the rock, the trail is more obvious.  Dark Side of the Moon only travels 1.2 miles, but drops 300' in that distance.  Unlike Dream Weaver, which is all flow, Dark Side has more technical sections.  There are a few transitions and sections of rock that will keep you on your toes.  A beginner may have a little more trouble.  Dark Side of the Moon is a fun descent, but if I had to choose, I would pick Dream Weaver to ride over the two trails.

"And if your head explodes with dark
forebodings too, I'll see you on the..."

Riding along Dark Side of the Moon

Although I had ridden a little more than 15 miles at this point, I wasn't quite ready to call it quits for the day.  I climbed back up The Maze.  The Maze offers several lines, and I rode a different tread to the top this time.  I crossed a dirt road at the top The Maze and rejoined S'mores until I reached the end of the Canyon Rim Trail.

I planned to ride Canyon Rim, then connect back to TBD, this time riding both trails in the opposite direction.  These two trails would add nearly 4 miles of riding and as a bonus, a majority of the riding was downhill.  The last 4 miles went by quickly.  While Canyon Rim definitely travels more downhill in this direction, the terrain rolls, so it isn't continuously downhill.  TBD, however, travels nearly all downhill in this direction and made for a fast and fun descent back to my starting point. By the time I wrapped my ride, I covered just over 20 miles.  Even though I retraced a few trails, traveling in reverse was a different riding experience.

View from Canyon Rim

View from TBD

I wasn't disappointed by the Royal Gorge trails.  They are a nice addition to the constantly expanding trail systems in the Cañon City area.  In general the Royal Gorge trails are geared toward cross country riding.  The trails never get too difficult.  The elevation change is never too drastic.  The descents tend to have good flow while the climbs never sting to much.  The trails offered enough variety to keep me entertained for twenty miles of riding but never seemed too difficult for the average intermediate rider.  Best of all, I basically had the area to myself.  During my ride, I only saw one group of three hikers using the trails- the benefits of riding during the week.

The terrain is typical for the area with a mix of pinyon and juniper forest and desert-like vegetation with no shortage of cactus.  The scenery isn't too bad either.  There are plenty of views of the Royal Gorge and the lofty Sangre de Cristos are usually in sight.

The Sangres

This trail system will continue to improve.  The map shows numerous proposed trails, and at least a couple are currently flagged. At least one is in the process of being cut.  Based on the proposed trails on the map, the area looks like it will offer the most trails in the Cañon City in a few years.

With the addition of the Royal Gorge trails, Cañon City looks better and better as a mountain biking destination.  Oil Well Flats still has the most impressive and challenging riding in the area.  If you only have a day in the area, I recommend Oil Well Flats as the one area to visit.  If you have a weekend though, the other trail systems are worth visiting for some different terrain.

For more information on the trails in the Cañon City area, click Fremont Adventure Recreation for access to maps of the trails, trailhead directions, and camping info.

For photos and trip reports from my previous rides at Oil Well Flats, click the links below.
Cañon City Mountain Biking- Oil Well Flats
Oil Well Flats: Fun Desert Singletrack
Cañon City Mountain Biking: South Cañon Trails

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