Thursday, August 3, 2023

Rocky Mountain Riding in Salida

I got a late start to this road trip, and by late, I mean I think I pulled out of my driveway on Wednesday at 4:03 AM instead of my usual 3:59 AM start. Four whole minutes, tisk tisk. I've done the whole road trip thing enough times now to learn some patterns: the driving at the start before sunrise goes by fast, I get super tired right as the sun comes up, and then I get a second wind for most of the day. As the sun sets again in the evening, I begin searching for a rest stop to pull over at and sleep.

Blogger chooses first picture to be the thumbnail, and this is a pretty cool picture of Agate Creek Trail off of the Monarch Crest

This time, I made it all the way into central Kansas before pulling off at a rest stop to sleep. It was hot, and obviously my car doesn't have air conditioning when it's turned off, so I spent most of the night sweating on my foam sleeping pad in the back of my car. Oh well, I still contend it's better than a hotel room, because when I wake up, all I have to do is hop out of the back of the car, jump into the front seat, and start driving.

Kansas state capitol, I got some dinner near there 

I made it to Salida, Colorado in the early afternoon on Thursday, and I found a route on MTB Project to ride. Being my first ride at elevation on the trip, and seeing as how it was quite hot in Salida that afternoon, I was suffering the whole ride. I had 32x20 gearing on my bike, and as I hit the first steep pitch, I promised myself I was switching to 32x22 that night at a campsite. I know, I know, that's a stupid easy gear. But for a lowlander riding at elevation, and considering most of the riding I'd be doing in Colorado isn't friendly for singlespeed, it was a reasonable choice.

That first ride in Salida wasn't all suffering, of course. I rode a stretch of the Rainbow Trail (a 100+ mile trail open to dirt bikes), did a sweet downhill, and ended up back at my car just as the sky was threatening to rain. I grabbed some dinner at a McDonald's and plotted my route for the next day, since I was pretty sure my campsite wouldn't have cell service.

Views from the Rainbow Trail and lower elevation (< 7500 feet) near Salida

I was right, there was no cell service at the O'Haver Lake Campground, but that's the way I like it a lot of times. Phones are nice and all, but there's a feeling of relief when you're no longer connected to the interwebs. There was an old couple in an RV next to me, and a feral cat even walked past my tent that evening. People watching (and cat watching) really can be exciting.

O'Haver Lake Campground

The campsite at O'Haver Lake was fantastic. Usually I hate paying for campsites, but this national forest campground was totally worth it. I even got lucky with getting the last available campsite, which happened to be right on the lake shore in the shadows of towering mountains. The temperatures dropped quickly at camp, especially since it was at 9,200 feet elevation, but after sweating all night in my car the night before, I was looking forward to cooler temps. I pulled out my guitar for a little as the sun was setting and kept practicing the opening for Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here". It's a cool little intro, kudos to Ian for prompting me to start learning it.

I slept like a baby that night and awoke eager to ride the Monarch Crest Trail the next morning. I packed up my camp and drove up to Marshall Pass, where I'd start the ride. Marshall Pass is one of the mountain passes on the Great Divide route, and last summer, Will and I even saw some bighorn sheep while climbing the pass. No sheep this year, but it's a really beautiful road all the same.

Monarch Crest Trail (L); Agate Creek Trail (R)

I started my ride going north on the Monarch Crest Trail, before quickly dipping down Agate Creek Trail, a rugged 2,500+ foot descent. It was a long descent with some mini hike-a-bike climbs at the bottom, and was a lot more of an adventure than most Colorado trails. I like that.

Some ruggedness on Agate Creek Trail

After the descent, I rode some pavement and gravel to Old Monarch Pass, a 10 mile and 2,500 foot gravel climb. Even though it wasn't that steep, it still hurt a lot. The suffering wasn't over at the top, though. There was another punch on US-50 before hitting yet another wall of a climb at the start of the Monarch Crest Trail. I rode most of it, but had to walk the very top; the steepness compounded with the elevation was too much for me.

Old Monarch Pass

The Monarch Crest Trail has been on my bucket list for a while now. It's a pretty famous trail, and after riding it, I can see why. Most of the trail is over 11,000 feet, and with some of it being above treeline, it is absolutely spectacular. 

More Monarch Crest Views; thank you kind stranger for the picture

I love riding bikes everywhere, but it's hard to beat the shock-and-awe feeling of being above treeline or riding on an exposed ridge top. Maybe it's a primal instinct, I don't know, but anyone who rides a trail like Monarch Crest (or Wasatch Crest for that matter) and doesn't feel something special has a screw loose.

Amazing views from the Monarch Crest

I got back to my car after riding 46 miles that day with over 6,000 feet of climbing. For my second ride at altitude this trip, it was pretty tough. I stopped at a grocery store (coincidentally the same store Will and I stopped at on the Great Divide last summer), grabbed a small rotisserie chicken for dinner (yes, I know, strange, but cheaper than McDonald's), and drove into BLM land to find a free place to camp. 

Originally, I planned to drive further into the public land, but the road was extremely rocky and I didn't want to beat up my car any more than I had to. I ended up finding a really nice place to camp right on the edge of a mesa, overlooking a valley of desert-like ridges. 

View from camp, there was a super steep drop-off right past where my tent was set up

The next morning I parked at the bottom of Marshall Pass to ride a loop I made on Strava the night before. I started with a 2,000 foot rocky doubletrack climb, almost 9% grade average, and ended up at the top of Marshall Pass once more. From there, I descended Silver Creek Trail, a phenomenal alpine descent through awe-inspiring terrain. Then, I turned onto the Rainbow Trail (a different section from before) which weaved along the mountainside for over 10 miles, crossing creeks and passing through meadows along the way.

Silver Creek Trail, off of the Colorado Trail

I had seen on MTB Project that some people don't like the Rainbow Trail. Even though it's a net downhill, there are tons of small steep climbs mixed in, and I think a lot of people are disappointed about that. Since I knew what to expect, I greatly enjoyed the whole thing.

Near the bottom of Silver Creek

Back at my car after the ride, a bikepacker rode into the parking lot just minutes after I got there. He was parked next to me, so naturally we did some talking. It turns out he had raced the Tour Divide back in 2017, so he was quite the experienced rider.

The 2017 edition of the Tour Divide seemed familiar to me for some reason. I asked if he knew my friend Colleen, who I was pretty sure had raced the divide in 2017 as well. In a strange coincidence, he actually did know Colleen and had in fact ridden with her for a while during the Tour Divide race in 2017. Small world.

That was my last ride in Salida this time around, next up was driving to the Great Sand Dunes National Park to meet my family. I'm going to end this one here, and I'll pick up where I left off a little further down the road.

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