Travel | Mud, Moose, and Wildflowers in Colorado
“Weather is the ruler of all,” goes the saying. In mountain biking, rain plays the tricky role of being both the best and the worst thing that can happen. We want it to rain before we ride, in order to give the dirt a facelift…but not too much, or else we’ll be riding muddy ruts the rest of the season.
I arrived with friends Matt, Chris, and Luke in Crested Butte, Colorado, on a Friday in late July, two weeks before the EWS stop in the area. I was not there to race, but simply to escape the pressures of being a full-time student and bike mechanic back home in Boulder. We just wanted to ride bikes with friends in peace for a few days before the crowds rolled through for the big event.
Mt. Crusty Butthole and munching moose
The Butte is a quiet town, at the end of massive valley surrounded by Colorado’s highest peaks. Mt. Crested Butte, with its distinctive craggy point, rises out of the middle of the valley and is the perfect landmark for anyone riding on the endless high-alpine trails the area is so famous for. The local name has a nicer ring to it: Mt. Crusty Butthole. The mountain itself offers some excellent lift-serviced riding, but is small compared to other resorts in the state, with only a handful of trails marked “downhill-only.”
Rolling into to our campsite after dark, it was a welcoming sight to see a raging fire and libations being passed around. I set up my tent and joined my friends at the fire, swapping tales about the day’s riding with some other campers.
The words “mud” and “snow” started getting thrown around a lot, to my worry. Did I drive four hours from Boulder just to ride in shitty conditions? I hope not. Then again, what can you do but sack up and deal with it out on the trail?
Bad weather? Don’t believe the hype!?
We woke up the next morning, nice and hungover, and unanimously made the easy decision to go ride the lifts for the morning. The weather was perfect, and the area was in the middle of its peak wildflower season, so maybe we would do a little exploring off the back of the mountain later.
On our first upload the lift passed over a family of moose hanging out in a meadow, munching on all the delicious wildflowers the mountain had to offer. A moose is a massive creature, even from thirty feet up on a chairlift. Especially when there are four of them.
I saddled up on my Nomad, and we whooped and hollered our way down some easier terrain at first, filled with beautifully sculpted berms and rollers, before testing out some of the gnarlier downhill tracks. There was little need for a full-on DH sled on the mountain; an enduro bike was more than capable.
Unfortunately, a few runs later I ran into some technical difficulties with a flat tire and was unable to do a field repair, so I was forced to walk down the mountain on foot. By the time I was at the bottom it had started to rain and bike patrol elected to shut the lift and wait for the storm to subside. Back to the parking lot, it was time for lunch and some R&R.
The rain subsided an hour later, and we hopped back on the lift for some late afternoon runs. We ran laps on the mountain’s signature jump trail, shooting down flowy berms and whipping over doubles. Sheer fun was the name of the game.
The evening’s plans comprised looking over the map to see where we would ride Sunday. Our campsite was about a mile away from the 401 trail, the area’s must-ride destination. We could see headlamps on the trail, high up on a slope across the valley; a party was enjoying the cooler temperatures to ride by moonlight. Tomorrow’s destination, for sure. Maybe we could even tag on a descent of the 403 trail afterwards, another classic in the area.
Weather is the ruler of all!
Waking up Sunday morning I noticed some dampness in my tent. Turning over, I saw the tent floor was flooded, along with all my clothes, camera, and cooking gear. I had slept through a massive rainstorm, and somehow the skies had emptied directly into my tent.
Matt and Chris had similar experiences with their night. Without even thinking of breakfast, we packed up the car and drove into town to re-assess our options. 401 and 403 were surely out of the question with the amount of rain we received. What may have been a few mud patches before would now be a torrential, brown creek cascading down the mountain. No way.
Even the lifts were closed for the morning to give patrol a chance to assess any trail damage. Our only option now was retreat. Maybe we could find something to ride on the way home to Boulder.
We packed up the car and noticed that the GPS on our phone took us back over Monarch Pass, home of the super-classic Monarch Crest Trail. Why not give that a shot?
Chased by the storm
Logistically, Monarch Crest is a little challenging, as it is a point-to-point descent from the top of Monarch Pass, giving you the option of either a sixteen-mile or a thirty-mile ride, most of which is above treeline. Having two cars makes the whole endeavor much easier.
Our tired group started riding at the crack of noon from the very touristy top of Monarch Pass. There is an ice-cream parlor in the visitor center at the top. Naturally, we had to sample the goods, and stuffed our faces with some much-needed fudge sundaes.
As we threw everything we needed for the day into our packs, one somewhat important thing was missing. Luke’s riding shorts were nowhere to found. They were in the car at the bottom of the pass. Spandex was the name of the game, and he took off wearing just his liners.
From the top of the pass, there are still roughly a thousand feet of elevation gain up a loose jeep road with incredible views of the fourteeners (14,000-foot peaks, of which there are 54 in Colorado) Mt. Princeton and Mt. Antero directly to the north. To the west, the Gunnison valley drops away towards Gunnison and Crested Butte. Once the jeep road ends, it is pure singletrack along a beautiful ridgeline. Some sections proved to quite hairy, with a long fall down to the valley on either side if anyone messed up. The trail splits at a small lean-to shelter where a section of the Colorado Trail crosses. We could see storm clouds rolling in from Crested Butte, so we opted to slay the singletrack descent down Green Creek back to the car instead of continuing on the Crest.
Better safe than sorry
Lightning strikes fast up there, well above treeline at 12,000 feet. While all of us were well versed in lightning safety, no one wanted to risk it. Lesson number one in lightning school: don’t get yourself anywhere near a lightning storm. Lesson number two: if you do get caught, don’t be the highest point. On top of a ridgeline, it is really hard to not be the highest point, especially when clipped into a 35-pound hunk of metal.
The Green Creek descent begins with a steep rocky section through a scree field before dipping into dense pine forests. The first two miles were very technical, making for incredibly varied riding, with some portaging necessary due to downed trees on the trail. Once we reached the creek at the bottom of the valley, the trail was in much better shape, and we let off the brakes. Blasting through Aspen groves at full speed really defines the tunnel vision we all crave from riding. Tires rolling fast on dirt really make for a cool soundtrack to the flow state we all found ourselves in.
After roughly eight miles of this, the trail dumps out onto a logging road. Our bikes had certainly taken a beating on the descent. Luke was delayed considerably due to a broken derailleur and brake lever, and Chris double flatted, but this did not faze them. Once they burst out of the trail onto the road, the shit-eating grins on their faces told the whole story.
The storm rolled in within minutes of us taking our shoes off and cracking a beer at the car. Chris and I headed back up to retrieve his car on top, and we raced back down the pass to pick up Matt and Luke, by now huddled under a tree hugging their knees to stay warm and somewhat dry.
We scooped them up and hit the road, racing the storm all the way back to Boulder. That evening, the soothing pitter-patter of rain on the roof was all I needed to bring me into dreamland, shredding singletrack at full speed in one of the most beautiful ranges of the Rocky Mountains.
Words: Max Ritter Photos: Daniel Dunn, Max Ritter