Midway through a five-hour fat tire slide down the Hermosa Creek Trail near Durango, Colorado, Jennifer Brouillette completely lost it. She’d never before been mountain biking, and now—thanks to some chunk of million-year-old granite—the 32-year-old administrative assistant lay sprawled, bruised, and tense under a canopy of robin’s-egg-blue skies and ponderosa pine.
The other riders in her group had disappeared. Narrow ledges and hundred-foot dropoffs loomed around every corner for miles. Pride be damned, she blubbered like a baby.
Hours later, however, Brouillette – now properly resaddled and rehydrated – looked like a jockey who had won the Preakness. “Once it was over, I was so happy, so exhilarated,” she recalls. She’d vanquished her fears. Entered the temple of wilderness. Gone where no Jeep or SUV has gone before. “I would do it all over again,” she says now. “In a minute.”
Colorado tests your mettle. But it also delivers rewards. (Think Rocky Mountain high.) In fact, there’s no better place in America to quash your ego and max out the muscles – as Brouillette or anyone else who has biked the state’s backcountry will testify. From Durango to Grand Junction to Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, the rugged hinterlands of Colorado are laced with some of the finest mountain-biking trails in the world, challenging to amateurs and experienced riders alike.
The International Mountain Biking Association makes its home in Boulder, and most Colorado towns are more likely to have a bike shop than a grocery. In the fat-tire world, this is the Promised Land.
Flatland and Fourteeners
Choosing a mountain-biking destination in Colorado is no easy task. With its treeless plains, deep gorges, scrubby flats, and 14,000-foot peaks, the state offers a smorgasbord of terrain to choose from. But a handful of towns and regions regularly make the top-10 lists when it comes to off-road riding: Crested Butte; Durango; Fruita; the so-called Front Range, the serrated horizon that runs from Colorado Springs, Denver, and Fort Collins; and the resort towns of Vail, Keystone, and Winter Park, which are hit with a steady blizzard of single-track enthusiasts from May through October.
Truth be told, it’s hard to make a bad pick: Studded with wind-whipped piñons or majestic purple peaks, nearly every area west of the state’s center makes for scenic riding.
Once you’ve selected a general destination, it’s time to go local. Even if you’ve got your own gear and an innate, God-given sense of direction, a stop at the area bike shop is always a smart idea. Local residents can provide insightful updates and perspectives that few guidebooks are able to match: Area enthusiasts can provide details on trail lengths, estimated trip times, obstacles, and good stopping points. They’ll also know about washouts and trail closings—and they just might reveal the location of a secret canyon or the coordinates for a hidden hot springs.
Of course, the local bike store is also a good place to rent a bike, hire a guide, or stock up on supplies for your trip. Unless you’ve got a titanium frame, flawless components, and a seat that leaves your post-ride butt feeling like butter, it probably doesn’t make sense to drag your Specialized or Schwinn cross-country. Outfitters like The Alpineer (800-223-4655) in Crested Butte offer rentals for as little as $20 a day and will throw in a helmet, pump, or clipless pedals for just a few bucks more. Over the Edge Sports (970-858-7220) in Fruita, near Grand Junction, rents bikes ($29 a day) and other riding essentials and, more importantly, can provide maps of area trails and plenty of gratis advice. “Anytime you go anywhere new, you should stop by the local shop and get information,” says owner Sarah Rarick.
First-timers—those new to an area or new to the sport altogether—would do well to travel with a guide or a guided group. Jerome Daniels, a 38-year-old emergency communications dispatcher who moonlights as a ride guide, knows the trails that surround his hometown, Grand Junction, like the back of his hand. Best known is the Kokopelli Trail, which wends its way all the way to Moab, the mecca of mountain biking, just across the Colorado-Utah border, but there’s plenty of other offerings for group rides in Mesa County too.
The only thing that rivals the scenery on a group ride, Daniels says, is the food – prepared by staff and brought in at every stop by vehicles. “After a 50-mile day in the saddle, to sit down and have someone serve you a meal of chicken fajitas or eggplant Parmesan feels pretty good,” Daniels says.
Gourmet fixings and competent guides don’t come cheap, however. Expect to pay $50 a day or more for a guided tour. Pikes Peak Mountain Bike Tours (800-593-3062), in Colorado Springs, offers a 20-mile guided day tour for $58. Rim Tours (800-626-7335), based in Moab, Utah, offers five-day stints through several Colorado regions for around $800. Equipment, at some outfitters, may be extra.
If you are a hardcore trail warrior, hand-delivered fajitas may not be quite your style, but whatever you do, don’t skimp when it comes to the gear and goodies you haul on your ride. Your trusty two-wheeled steed should be equipped with front-fork suspension, rear shock, fast-gripping brakes, and correctly inflated knobbies. Extended-grip handlebars also make for a more comfortable and safe ride. Helmets and full water bottles are a must. Gloves and padded Lycra shorts are highly recommended. And don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses, bug spray (for stops), and a pouch full of gorp, protein bars, or other high-energy, easily packable foods.
Remember the rule of the road: Eat before you’re hungry, and drink before you’re thirsty. Dehydration, especially in the high, dry elevations typical of Colorado, is almost always a problem among amateur riders.
Dehydration isn’t the only risk riders face, however. Rough terrain and inclement weather can turn a joyride into a tragedy if proper precautions aren’t taken. Pack rain gear and an extra layer of clothing; you’ll feel the chill as soon as you stop pedaling. Tuck a small first-aid kit and tire repair tools into your under-saddle bag. And carry a pump fitted for your bike.
Above all, anticipate what’s ahead. The dangers of sharp turns, bumps, and skidding can all be lessened by one easy-to-learn technique: Slow down. Keeping control, of course, goes for your mental focus as well. Strike a balance between looking at the vistas that unfold and eyeing the road in front of you.
Shaun Nugent, a 37-year-old member of Brouillette’s pack, barely survived a tumble off a steep slope. “Just staying in control was challenging,” Nugent says, noting that the tree that stopped his slide down the slope may have saved his life.
Still, the risks (when carefully navigated) bring sweet rewards in Colorado. As you race down a trail – piney scents and ancient dust surrounding you—you can’t help but feel a sense of awe and deep emotion. It may make you want to whoop, gape or grin. Or blubber like a baby.
Roads to Nowhere
There are plenty of places to get lost in natural splendor in Colorado. Pick one of these five destinations, then head down the road least traveled.
Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins
The foothills and facades that rise between these cities and the continental divide are often referred to as the Front Ranges. Packed with opportunities, they’re great for day trips and overnights alike. The western side of Jefferson County features several trailheads and is an easy drive from Denver. Hot tip: Stop in nearby Golden and toast your single-track success with a tour of the Coors Brewery.
Only Durango rivals this town for riding renown. Legend has it that the maze of mining and logging roads that surrounds the town of 900 spawned Colorado’s first mountain biking aficionados and the avalanche craze that’s followed. Each year, the town hosts a “Fat Tire Week,” featuring everything from slalom contests to mountain-bike polo to a “slow race,” where the biker who manages to cross the finish line last without setting a foot on the ground takes home the trophy.
Locals recommend the Colorado Trail, the Hermosa Creek Trail, or the La Plata Canyon road, but a short drive will also take you to Purgatory – a resort where a ski lift transports you to the top. The descent (and the resulting punishments) are accomplished under your own steam.
Winter Park, Keystone and Vail
Minus snow, these mountain towns serve as the staging ground for some of the best high-country off-roading in Colorado. Easily accessible via I-70 from Denver. Take a lift to the top, and roll down. Perfect for those who want rough riding by day and the comforts of civilization after sundown.
This blip of a town near Grand Junction, on the so-called western slope of the Rockies, hardly rates a mention in most guidebooks. But most bikers are familiar with this up-and-coming area. “Fruita’s known for its smooth fast single-track,” says local bike store owner Sarah Rarick, “but the secret is this: A 30-minute drive will take you into more ledgy, technical stuff.” Bonus scenery: Grand Mesa, the largest flattop mountain in the world, lies an hour’s drive away.
Mind Your Manners
Most mountain bikers share the great outdoors and trails with hikers, horseback riders, and ATV operators, as well as other single-track enthusiasts. Apropos, a few words on fat-tire etiquette:
Yield to Hikers and Horseback Riders. Both are easily spooked. “Go out of your way to promote goodwill and you’re more likely to see it returned,” say authors Jonathan and Roseann Hanson in the Ragged Mountain Press Guide to Outdoor Sports.
Stick to Marked Trails. Straying from the beaten path may seem adventurous, but barbed wire and other dangers may not be marked. Plus, you may be treading on vital wildlife habitats.
Mind Erosion. Don’t cut switchbacks or plow furrows. If a steep trail section looks like it’s getting torn up by spinning tires, get off the bike and walk it.