Salida: A Mountain Biker's Mecca|
Sunday, April 03, 2005
|Photo by Nathan Ward
|St. Elmo to Tin Cup Pass
Before dawn even kissed the eastern horizon, we were racing like fast sleek hounds through the night as 35 mountain bikers settled into a fast paceline heading toward the western mountains. "This is way too fast!" my legs shouted, thinking of the 80 miles of trail before us. Then my caffeine-deprived brain shut off again and I pedaled on, my heart rate climbing into the dark sky.
It was the annual 4th of July ride in Salida, Colorado, an unofficial gathering of masochists who like to pedal a long hard loop around the valley above town. The ride starts with more than 4,000 feet of climbing on dirt roads and trails before settling into 50 miles of continuous singletrack. This "88 miles of pain" has silently been testing cyclists in Salida every year for more than a decade.
Ten hours into the ride I was pushing my bike up "Heartbreak Hill," a two mile section of trail that climbs 1,700 feet. Below me I could still see Salida, the tantalizing view laced with green trees running along the Arkansas River. I knew it was an oasis of cold drinks, cool grasses and music in the park. It beckoned like a promising lover the rest of the day as I survived the last 20 miles of the ride and limped into the park downtown. For many this would be the epic of a lifetime, but in Salida it’s just another ride in this town of 5,500 where mountain biking is becoming a way of life.
Salida lies in a valley on the banks of the upper Arkansas River just 2.5 hours southwest of Denver. The area around the town is ideal for outdoor dreaming and scheming with 15 peaks over 14,000 feet, class I-V whitewater, hot springs and hundreds of miles of trails. Above town, three separate mountain ranges form the skyline - the Sawatch Range to the west, the Collegiate Peaks to the north and the lonely Sangre de Cristo Range which starts at the edge of town and runs south into New Mexico. These three huge mountain ranges conceal a mouth-watering number of mountain bike trails.
However, what really sets the valley apart from anywhere else in North America is weather so fine, mild and consistent that you can bank on it. "This is one of the only places where you can do a ride at 12,000 feet, then cruise back into town at night and drink a beer on the deck at 7,000 feet in just a t-shirt," promises Shawn Gillis, who moved his shop, Absolute Bikes, here from Arizona five years ago. Where else can you do that in the summer? Crested Butte is still too cold, and Fruita is blast furnace.
For sun lovers, Salida serves up more than 300 days of sunshine a year, and due to luck of the geographical draw, the valley floor stays dry in the winter while the peaks above town get hammered with snow. "I came here to check out Salida in March and people were skiing in the morning and riding trails in the afternoon. I just couldn’t believe it," exclaims bike mechanic Anton Van Leuken, a recent transplant from upstate New York. Salida may be the only place in Colorado where cyclists can comfortably ride trails 12 months of the year.
In the heat of summer, the number of rides in the Upper Arkansas River Valley boggles the brain. If you’ve got the time and energy, you can explore a new trail every day, all summer, and not ride them all. This singletrack bonanza stems from the amount of terrain accessible from Salida’s unique location at the crossroads of the three mountain ranges. The Continental Divide Scenic Trail, the Colorado Trail, the Rainbow Trail and the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route all pass through the valley. There are so many miles of singletrack, in comparison to the number of cyclists, that you rarely see another person on the trail.
The only downside to the riding scene in Salida is the lack of beginner singletrack. Mountain bike novices usually start on fire roads and jump up a huge notch when they start pedaling the skinny trails. At the moment, the Arkansas Valley Cycling Club is working with the Bureau of Land Management to get more beginner trails approved and created.
Once the easier trails are in place, Salida will have a full quiver of singletrack rides to fit every ability level. Until then, novices will continue to be thrown into the grinder with the rest of the town’s colorful band of bike fanatics. Cyclists here embrace nearly anything on two wheels and there are groups that ride 29ers, single speeds, cross country, road, high wheelers and downhill. In town, the favorite ride is a restored cruiser or a homemade chopper. You can usually check out a selection of good townies in front of the bar, whatever that says.
Salida also has to be one of the only mountain towns with almost as many female cyclists as male. They call themselves the "Dirt Divas" and they crank.
This proliferation of cyclists differs radically from when I first moved here in the early 1980s when there wasn’t a mountain bike to be seen. Eventually they arrived, the new vehicle of choice for whiskered hippie types who explored the trails in jeans and flannel shirts way before grunge became popular. It evolved into a movement and today Salida hosts cross-country races, a winter cyclocross series, a cruiser criterium, trials competitions, trail maintenance days, kid’s races, a cycling film series and bunny hop contests.
This isn’t to say that Salida is the world’s version of bicycle utopia, because it isn’t quite there yet. The big truck and redneck quotient runs high, like in most western towns, and trail access and ATV trail abuse issues are becoming more common. The fast US Highway 50 stretch that runs through town also looks like a prolonged strip mall.
However, for those who bother to turn off the highway, Salida also contains the largest historic district in Colorado and it encompasses the entire downtown with its funky art galleries, bars, bike shops, pizza places, whitewater park and laid-back atmosphere.
Once you make your way into downtown Salida, start your tour at Absolute Bikes where the folks will give you the local scoop on any type of ride you want. They’ll probably even go with you if you catch them at lunch time or closing. At the very least, check out their extensive mountain bike museum which includes treasures like an early Retrotech and a pristine first-year Stumpjumper.
Once you coffee up and get ready to ride, they might send you straight to the cream of the crop – the high altitude Monarch Crest Trail which traces a few miles of the Continental Divide above treeline before descending 4,000 feet on a 26 mile downhill back to town.
Then turn those pedals a few more times to the Moonlight Pizza patio for a tasty fat crust pie and a dangerously-strong blue margarita. From Moonlight, all the good bars lie within a two minute bike ride and there is free primitive camping within a five minute drive.
If you get to bed early enough, which isn’t difficult because the nightlife doesn’t rival Las Vegas, you can get up and do it again – another direction and another perfect trail. After a few days you’ll realize that Salida offers some of the most epic riding in the country. The word is getting out so pack your bags so you get here while it’s still cool, fresh and unknown.
To purchase a copy of Nathan’s guidebook to the mountain bike trails of Salida and the surrounding area – Salida Singletrack, visit www.nathanward.com/guidebooks.htm
Trails: The Top 5 Rides
1. Monarch Crest Trail to Agate Creek – an 18 mile advanced ride that climbs above treeline on the Continental Divide before descending over 3,400 feet on a wild singletrack that crosses Agate Creek at least a dozen times.
2. Rainbow Trail: Silver Creek Loop – a 19 mile intermediate ride that gradually climbs one of Otto Mear’s old toll roads along Silver Creek before turning evolving into a perfect singletrack.
3. Colorado Trail: Mount Princeton to Cottonwood Creek – 11 miles of buff singletrack, this intermediate trail also has hot springs at either end. Rarely ridden and perfect. Soak your buns.
4. Continental Divide Trail: Saint Elmo to Tin Cup Pass – this strenuous 18 mile loop follows an old railroad grade to the Alpine Tunnel where the route turns into a faint challenging singletrack that tops out at 12,329 feet above sea level.
5. Colorado Trail: Twin Lakes to Half Moon Creek – a beautiful intermediate 18 mile singletrack that traverses the flanks of Mount Elbert (14,433 ft.), the highest peak in Colorado.
All of these trails can be found in the new guidebook: Salida Singletrack, Mountain Biking in Colorado’s Upper Arkansas Valley. It can be purchased directly from the author online at www.nathanward.com/guidebooks.htm
2.5 hours southwest of Denver on US Highway 285. 2 hours west of Colorado Springs on US 115 to 50.
Camping at US Forest Service Campgrounds, or camp FREE 2 miles east of Salida at Salida East. No facilities. Drive east on US50 about two miles and look for the tiny sign on the north side of the road next to the Arkansas River.
Bed and Breakfasts
River Run Inn, 800-385-6925 – on the banks of the Arkansas River
Gazebo Country Inn, 800-565-7806 – located downtown
Absolute Bikes, www.absolutebikes.com, 888-539-9295.
This shop has everything – high quality rentals, USCF-certified mechanics, guidebooks, etc.
Otero Cyclery, www.oterocyclery.com, 719-539-6704
Eating and Drinking:
Moonlight Pizza, 719-539-4277 – even Italians fight over this pie
Cornucopia Bakery and Café, 719-539-2531 – inexpensive and free coffee refills
Bongo Billy’s Salida Café, 719-539-4261 – live music on weekends
Bensons Tavern, 719-539-9391 – the only smoke free bar in town
Arlie Dale’s Jug Liquor, 719-539-0111 – the owner is a mountain biker
Other Good Stuff:
Joyful Journey Mineral Hot Springs, 719-256-4328 – the best hot springs around. 30 minute drive south of town and well worth it.
Salida Hot Springs Pool, 719-539-6738 – showers, but they’re ugly.