Friday, August 11, 2023

Durango With the Family

Unlike most of my road trips, this time I’m staying completely in one state: Colorado. After a few days in Salida, I was off to Alamosa (a little over an hour south) to meet up with my family. It was a nice change of pace to sleep in a hotel room and eat at a restaurant, and meeting up with my family halfway across the country is always fun.

The first real destination for the family trip was the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Zach and I were determined to do a ride from the park, so we set off on a dirt (well, actually, sand) road toward Medano Pass. It ended up being a lot more challenging than anticipated, and we had to hike quite a bit in the sand. After airing my tires down to about 10 or 12 psi, I was able to ride a little bit more, but there was still a lot of hiking. Thankfully, the road got more hard-packed as went along and we were able to ride most of it as we approached the pass itself. The road kicked up quite a bit – probably around 20% grade – and I had to briefly get off and walk. That being said, I surprised myself with how much I was able to ride, especially at nearly 10,000 feet elevation.

Patch of snow just below Rolling Pass, a good cover picture
Once reaching the pass, we took some pictures and turned around to ride right back the way we came. It was a fast descent until we hit the sand, where the hiking one again commenced. It seemed like more hiking on the way back, but I think some of that was just because I was getting a little tired of the sand at that point.
After the ride, my whole family went for a hike on the sand dunes. It was tough and slow hiking, with every footstep seemingly only moving you an inch forward as the sand gave way beneath you. Nonetheless, we kept going, and got about halfway to the top of the tallest dune before stopping for a while. The sandy peak in the distance looked pretty miserable to get to, but before long, I had convinced myself I had no choice but to go for it.

Sand dunes!

My brother reluctantly agreed, as did my dad, and we set off. My brother’s girlfriend Kiera quickly decided she didn’t want to be left out, so she joined us. It was a grueling hike to the top, and I tried to make myself suffer a little bit just for good measure, but we got there. The views were great, but the way back down was even better. The sand dunes were incredibly steep, but because of how soft the sand was, you could run full-speed down the dunes without a huge risk of falling.
After a relaxing night at a lodge just outside the national park, we set off for Durango the next morning. It was a very scenic drive through the mountains, and we passed through the town of Pagosa Springs along the way. It reminded me a lot of the alpine terrain in northern New Mexico, which makes sense, since Pagosa Springs is super close to New Mexico.
Once in Durango, me, my brother, and my dad went out for a ride. The first trail I took them up had a minor amount of exposure, and it didn’t sit well with either of them. That didn’t bode well for the rest of the ride. After a long climb to a ridgetop, the route took us onto a double-black diamond rated trail across the ridge. My dad decided to take a different way down, but my brother reluctantly (extremely reluctantly) came along with me. The exposure wasn’t that bad, but the combination of extremely technical trail and being somewhat close to the edge of a cliff meant that it wasn’t ideal for someone afraid of heights (Zach). I think the ridgetop trail took a few years off Zach’s life, but after a substantial amount of hiking, he made it through to the other side. I told him the experience makes him stronger, but he doubted me.

Great views from the cliffs

We checked into our AirBNB after the ride, which was a large house just outside of town. It was far too big for the five of us, but it was all that was available when it came time to book.
I carefully planned the first big ride that Zach and I would do the next day, routing us through Purgatory Resort on a nice loop. The first trail on the route was Hermosa Creek Trail, a gradual climb along, you guessed it, Hermosa Creek. We got hit with some rain near the end, but it was extraordinarily beautiful. We took some more trail to Purgatory Resort, before climbing a long fire road up to the top of the mountain.
Great views along Hermosa Creek

Next up was a long descent back to Hermosa Creek called Dutch Creek Trail. It was a fast, steep, and technical descent through pines and aspen. We even saw some free-range cows at the top of the trail. 
My mom rented a bike, so that day, my mom and dad went out for a ride on some of the trails near town. It was my mom’s first ride on a full suspension, and I think she’s spoiled now. She'll get used to her hardtail again back in Sewickley, though.

A good picture with Zach and my dad on Animas Mountain

The next day we left from the house to ride up Animas Mountain. My dad joined us, and immediately, we were met with a brutally steep 1,500 foot climb. I stopped at the intersections on the trail to make sure no-one got lost, but other than that, I was able to ride the whole climb with 32x22 gearing. At the top, there were some phenomenal views, substantial exposure, and technical riding. Bueno, bueno, and bueno.
Views from the top of Animas Mountain

After the Animas Mountain loop, my brother and I headed toward the Colorado Trail trailhead. Seeing as the Colorado Trail is on my bucket list, riding the start (or finish, depending on direction) seemed like a neat idea. Some of you might remember I had hoped to ride the Colorado Trail this year, but for a variety of reasons, I decided against it. I won’t go into all the details here, but I just did not feel ready for that kind of an event. The easy excuse is that it would’ve tired me out for Breck Epic, but honestly, I’m not sure if I would’ve done it even if I wasn’t racing Breck Epic. 
But I digress. The opening climb of the Colorado Trail was tough, but switchbacks made it manageable. On the very next descent, I heard a loud noise from behind me. I stopped to see what happened to Zach, and immediately I heard an expletive.
He broke his carbon wheel, the rear wheel. It was actually an impressive break; the rim was cracked almost entirely through. To make it even more interesting, he was seriously riding 28 psi (I don’t know why he runs such high pressure), so there’s zero chance it was a rim strike. It wasn’t even a rocky trail. Best I can figure is that a rock flipped up from the side and smacked the rim that way. This proves what I’ve been saying for a long time though, carbon wheels are dumb for anything except race day. I know, I know, “carbon is stronger”. But I’ve totaled two wheels in my life, and my brother has now broken one, and all three were carbon wheels. Plus, we’ve both ridden way more miles on alloy wheels than on carbon. That’s not to say I haven’t dented alloy rims – I have, rarely – but 9 times out of 10 I can fix it with a crescent wrench. There’s no fixing a totaled carbon rim.
Anyways. Zach turned around to ride back, and I continued the route. It was a fun loop off the Colorado Trail, and getting to bomb back down the Colorado Trail section that I had climbed up earlier was awesome. The pavement ride back to the AirBNB was a grind, though, I must admit. The last climb up to the house, even though it was only 400 feet or so, felt pretty rough.
Zach found a new rear wheel for sale at a bike shop, so I drove down with him to get it. It was a good wheel – a DT 350 hub with an EX 511 rim – the same exact setup I have on my Karate Monkey. Plus, it was on sale for only $400, a really great deal for that wheel.
The next day, with his new wheel, Zach and I drove up to Purgatory resort to do a true alpine ride. We did a little bit of the Colorado Trail, a little bit of some other alpine trails over 11,500 feet, and finished off the day with a trail everyone had been recommending to me: Engineer Mountain.

Unlike some of the other trails which had a little bit too much exposure for Zach, Engineer Mountain was tame. It was 2,500 vertical feet of descent, starting in high-alpine terrain over 11,500 feet, weaving through pines and aspens, and finally dumping out into open meadows at a little over 9,000 feet. I have a bad habit of ranking things, but Engineer Mountain is one of the better trails I’ve ridden.

The following day was the “queen” day of the trip. It actually ended up being slightly shortly time-wise than another day, but still, it was the most epic and most challenging ride of them all.
To make it even more fun, our friend Nicky joined us for the ride – he drove up from Colorado Springs to stay with us for a night. He has a top-of-the-line Trek Top Fuel with the new AXS transmission, so he certainly wasn't at a disadvantage with his bike.
We once again drove up toward Purgatory Resort and started the ride at the bottom of a historic road called “Old Lime Creek”. The road was carved in the 1880s and served as the connector between Durango and Silverton. It has since been replaced by a modern highway, but it still exists as a fun road for biking and four-wheeling.
Old Lime Creek Road

It had a few climbs on it, but nothing too bad. The real climbing started in earnest once we finished that first road. To get to the Colorado Trail at Molas Pass, we had to climb up the highway to the pass. It was only about a 1,000 foot climb, but it felt much longer. I started off steady, but eventually locked myself in to a pace that had me suffering to the top. One of my rules is that once you set a pace, you don’t back off until the top or you blow up. I didn’t blow up.
Once at Molas Pass, it was singletrack all the way to end – another 25 miles. We hopped on the Colorado Trail and had a gradual climb, and as the trail climbed higher, the scenery changed. It went from green meadows to exposed mountainsides with scree fields, icy-cold alpine streams, and wildflowers more colorful than I’ve ever seen before. It really was a sight to see.

The crux of the day was Rolling Pass, which sits at 12,450 feet. The climb was surprisingly rideable – even for me on singlespeed – but as we neared the top, the thin air took its toll. I had to get off and push a few sections, and it felt like I had no power. That said, it was actually better than expected, and the breathtaking views at the pass were well-worth the effort.

I dare say that the views from Rolling Pass are among the most incredible I’ve ever seen. There were patches of snow near the top, and the whipping wind added to the epic-ness. 

After taking some pictures, we started down the other side. It wasn’t as technical as I expected, which meant I was able to look around and take in the views. I could ride a trail like that every single day of my life and it would never get old.
Almost to Rolling Pass

Unfortunately for some, the climbing wasn’t over yet. Of course, I joke, because actually, Zach and Nicky both crushed the ride. That still didn’t change the fact though that we had one more 700-foot climb on the Colorado Trail until we got to the last downhill. To make matters worse, it was a lot of hike-a-bike. And, I had a minor crash just before the climb, but it was merely a flesh wound.
The climb went by fast enough, and before long, we were at the last downhill: Graysill Trail. It was about 1,800 feet of drop in only 2 miles, so it was bound to be spicy. For the most part, it was just steep but not technical, but toward the bottom, that changed. A few switchbacks were super steep, and chunky rocks on the turns made them even more difficult. I made it down unscathed and with a smile on my face, but it certainly took some focus.
Even after the descent, the fun technical riding did not end. We had another couple miles on a trail following a creek, and the scenery actually reminded me a lot of being in Canada near Banff. As if the day hadn’t been exciting enough, we even saw a marten (a small weasel-like creature) as we popped out on the singletrack. I’d say it was a pretty darn good day.
The next day was the last full day in Colorado for my family, so I headed on a ride with my dad and brother. We did some janky trails, and even though my dad may not have been too pleased, he kept riding. 
At the top of one of the climbs, I saw a super steep rock slab to hike up and ride down. It looked pretty sketchy, but I decided it was worth it so I hiked up it. My brother filmed it and some other people at the bottom also watched me and filmed as I rode down. Much to everyone’s disappointment, I did not crash, and I made it down totally fine with a smile on my face.
A nice sandy trail on the last day

My brother and I kept tooling around on some more trails for another hour or two, before heading back to the AirBNB. I didn’t really talk much about hanging out at the AirBNB, because if I did, this post would be twice as long, and really this blog is supposed to be mostly about biking. But, it was a great time hanging out with family, having some good food, and sitting by the fire outside in the evenings.
Zach in the Animas River

The next morning, my family packed up early to hit the road, and I left for a short ride the same time they left to drive home. Recovery for Breck Epic was starting, so I just did an easy hour cruise and got back to the AirBNB before checkout time to take a shower and pack up.
That’s pretty much it for Durango, but I will leave with a few thoughts. This was the first time I’d ever been to Durango, and really, my first time in southwest Colorado. I’m not really sure what I expected, but Durango was extremely diverse. You could ride sandy desert trails in town or drive 15 minutes north and do trails in pine and aspen forests. Drive just a little further north, and you have singletrack over 12,000 feet. In many ways, Durango is sort of the coming-together point for different biomes, and that's pretty neat.
Well, next up is the rest and sightseeing week in Colorado before Breck Epic starts. I’ll try to churn out that blog post before Breck Epic starts, but we’ll see. This post was quite long, and maybe someday I’ll learn to trim them down a little bit. But, quantity over quality, right?

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