Ann and I depart for three and a half days of hiking and biking in the high alpine mountains of Central Colorado on a Tuesday morning. Rather than the dreaded, stressful I-70 route, we opt for Rt 285 from Denver on our way to the Rockies, passing across the magnificently expansive valley just beyond the Lost Creek Wilderness, and then through Buena Vista, onto Cottonwood Pass road to cross Cottonwood Pass at the Continental Divide. In the Gunnison National Forest, we skirt the huge Taylor Park Reservoir, and then up Rt 135 into Crested Butte.
There, in the Crested Butte town center, we arrive at our AirBnB lodging, a funky old two-story place run by a female artist, who turns out to be a very nice host. She happily takes us on a short bike ride to show us the important nearby establishments, such as the bike shop, Eldo brewpub, and a few recommended restaurants.
Crested Butte is surprisingly bustling with summer adventure tourists in July. And for good reason. I had previously researched the trails in the area on the Internet, and learned that Crested Butte is home to an impressive selection of trails. Sadly, as is common for me, I must choose one or two trails out of the many on my list, and vow to return in future years to sample the ones I will miss.
My hiking trail research goes out the window, as we learn from another guest at our lodge that we should hike the West Maroon Pass trail, which is not on my long list of trails. I agree to this with great hesitation. After all, if none of my Internet research and none of the Crested Butte hiking maps list this trail, how good can it be?
Plenty good, it turns out.
On our first morning, then, we drive up the highly scenic Gothic Road out of north Crested Butte. The road takes us by Mt Crested Butte ski area, aspen groves, and rolling yellow valleys filled with skunk cabbage – a view that reminds me of the Tuscan Valley in Italy.
After 11 miles, we arrive at Schofield Pass on the Continental Divide. We see a trailhead marker for the famed #401mountain bike trail, where I had earlier thought would also be the West Maroon Pass trailhead. But looking again at my map, it appears that the West Maroon is further down the mountain forest road. At a fork in the road, we guess that we should head toward “Schofield Park.” Fortunately, we guess right, as we soon come upon a trailhead parking lot.
The trail starts out in a pleasant pine forest. Soon the forest opens up into a meadow, where a wood cabin ruin sits. Once past the cabin, the trail takes us into a spectacular, breathtaking, U-shaped valley with wonderful views of tall mountains in several directions, along a trail sprinkled with a colorful diversity of wildflowers. While we understand that this is a “down” year for wildflowers due to relatively little snow and rain in the preceding winter and spring, Crested Butte is a world-class venue for wildflowers, so we are nevertheless treated to quite a show.
Much of the West Maroon Pass trail follows the Continental Divide on its way to the Pass. The trail generally follows a creek, and a few highly scenic waterfalls can be seen along the way. Past the waterfalls, the trail starts heading up in elevation towards the Pass. Here, the wildflower meadows become stupendous. All around us are mountain ranges, valleys, and brightly-colored flowers. I cannot stop shooting photos.
As we near the Pass, we leave the lush vegetation and enter a boulder field above the tree line. Above us is the ridgeline. The trail seems rather steep, and the hikers at the Pass look like tiny insects.
Once at the Pass, we find an amazing setting. The ridgeline is as sharp as a knife. One can tell which hikers have hiked to the Pass from Aspen six miles to our north. They are the hikers sitting facing south into the valley in the direction of Crested Butte to admire the view they did not get on their hike. Those of us who hiked to this Pass from Crested Butte, on the other hand, can be known because we sit facing north into the equally impressive mountain valleys in the direction of Aspen.
To our 10 o’clock from the Pass facing north is the world famous Maroon Bells peak.
On our descent back, we decide we shall return to do an overnight backpack hike from Aspen to what Aspenites call the EAST Maroon Pass hike. We stop for a dip in the cold, clear waters below the waterfalls on our way back to Schofield Pass. Ahhhh!!!!!!
I finish the day with a pint of “The Stout,” a delicious beer brewed by Eldo Brewpub. While doing so, I step out onto the familiar second-story deck of Eldo where, several years ago, a friend and I were standing at this very spot to watch the annual Crested Butte mardis gras parade after a day of skiing the extreme slopes of Mount Crested Butte.
To see more photos I shot during the West Maroon Pass hike, go to the following link (when the link brings you to Picasa, select “slideshow” in the upper left for the best view): https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/WestMaroonPassTrailCrestedButteJuly2012
For dinner this night, we opt for Marchitelli’s Gourmet Noodle, which serves outstanding food in the town center.
Speaking of the town center, Crested Butte has a compact, relatively walkable grid of streets that I was pleased to see.
The next morning was one I was excitedly looking forward to for days, ever since seeing a number of sources indicate that the #401 trail in Crested Butte is one of the best mountain bike trails in North America (despite the unimaginative, boring trail name…).
Ann very generously gives me a ride up to Emerald Lake on Gothic Road near the #401 trailhead fairly early in the morning (she is not a morning person, which adds to my appreciation). Most mountain bicyclists – impressively – actually ride up from much further down the mountainside on Gothic Road (typically starting at the Jud Falls trailhead). But even starting at Emerald Lake, the 10,000 feet of elevation finds me having to walk up much of Gothic Road to get to the Schofield Pass trail start.
And it is no picnic for the rider even starting from the Pass, as the first few miles of the single-track trail climb fairly steeply into the Continental Divide ridgeline. I end up walking for nearly all of this ascent, but do so happily as I anticipate the joyous ride that awaits me.
The forest opens up at the top of this section, and I can already see the stupendous mountain and valley views all around me, not to mention the lovely wildflower meadows. In front of me is about nine continuous miles of unparalleled downhill on mostly smooth, high-speed single-track. While I anticipate future rides at much higher velocities, on my first ride I find myself being compelled to stop every few hundred feet to shoot a photo of a seemingly endless series of breathtaking views.
For many sections, however, I do reach rather high speeds, which elicits from me occasional loud whoops and hollers as I enjoy the exhilarating experience of riding in such a gorgeous alpine mountain setting.
I am riding alone, which in its own way is quite pleasant as I have no need to feel rushed when I frequently stop to shoot another photo, and no need to feel as if I’m slowing down others when photo ops turn up.
Overall, the #401 trail is one of the best mountain bike rides I have ever ridden, and possibly THE best ride I’ve ever done. But while the trail is somewhat technical in a few spots due to some steep creek return valleys, some tight turns, and some rocky areas, the greatness of this trail is much less due to the adrenalin rush of screaming downhills and turns. The unforgettable nature is much more due to the world-class mountain and valley surroundings.
Granted, the trail does allow me to feel high-speed, plummeting joy, but more often than not, I find myself being too distracted by the incredible views to stay focused on the trail in front of me (a focus that is certainly needed if one seeks to bomb down a run).
On this day, I am not only riding without companion riders, but I only come across one or two riders all day, which gives me the sensation that I have the entire mountain range and valley to myself.
This ride feels lush not only due to the thick meadows of wildflowers, by the way, but also the dense growth of green and yellow skunk cabbage found throughout the meadows.
To see more photos I shot during this ride, go to the following link (when the link takes you to Picasa, select “slideshow” for the best view): https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534/MtnBiking401TrailCrestedButteJuly2012
My ride ends all too soon on #401 (but I know I will be back again). Riding down Gothic Road back to Crested Butte, I stop at the horse stable near Mt Crested Butte and am happy to see that I am at the trailhead for the Snodgrass Trail, a mountain bike ride I have on my list. I call Ann to confirm that she is okay with my being delayed because I am riding Snodgrass, and get a green light.
Snodgrass, at least from the east trailhead, features a rather long uphill climb. But soon I find myself on excellent single-track – much of which meanders through gorgeous aspen groves. Adding to the fun on Snodgrass is how the trail has a weaving-through-trees slalom pattern.
Ann and I depart Crested Butte. We stop at Lake Irwin where Ann goes for an enjoyable swim. In the forested mountains, we follow several miles of the dirt road known as Keebler Pass Road. At Paonia Reservoir, we head north on Rt 133 on our way to Redstone. Along the way, we stop to admire Hayes Creek Falls. That night in Redstone, we enjoy a nice outdoor café dinner, and have the good fortune of having Peter Karp and Sue Foley serenade us with their blues and folk guitar (http://www.karpfoley.com/).
We depart Redstone and head north for I-70. Heading east, we stop at Hanging Lake, a highly popular spot. But we decide not to have a look as the place is full of cars and people.
Instead, we choose to hike the North TenMile Trail for lunch.
Heading east again on the Interstate, Ann decides the drive is too intolerable, so we opt to divert off onto Central City Parkway. The Parkway utterly shocks me for its extreme wastefulness. We find ourselves on a four-lane divided highway that is EMPTY of other cars. It is the most over-capacitied road I have ever seen.
The gambling towns of Central City and Black Hawk are charming old (former) mining towns, with charming little streets and historic buildings.
Our total mileage driven was an eye-popping 550 miles. Our plan is to return in the future to Crested Butte for more hiking, biking and paddling in that world-class summer playground. But this time, we plan to stay put in Crested Butte. And hope to arrive by train or bus…