Russell Finsterwald on the Colorado Trail.
Just under 90 miles, and 12 hours, since I left the previous night’s camp, I reach my patch of dirt for the night. I’m soaked and hungry but prouder than ever for what I’ve accomplished thus far. I haven’t had cell service in over two days, I’ve seen more moose than people, but I have never felt so alive. After five dawn-to-dusk pushes, I’m a full day ahead of schedule, and have still two, possibly three, hearty days of traversing my way across the San Juan mountains to Durango.
As I eat my dehydrated lasagna by the campfire under the light rain, I reflect on the five days of riding and the terrain I’ve covered. Prior to this trip on the Colorado Trail, the longest I’ve ridden my mountain bike was just over seven hours—and never had I done a mountain bike ride over 80 miles. My shortest day so far on this trip has been eight hours of actual moving time. I’m now 365 miles into the journey and have put in over 50,000 feet of climbing over the course of those five days. And, like any good adventure, not everything goes to plan. Having SRAM XX1 Eagle™ was a huge advantage for this diverse and challenging terrain. Climbing up relentless climbs on a weighted bike meant plenty of time in the 32x50. On the opposite end, all that weight and it's momentum cruise the downhills. Several wilderness reroutes allowed me to put in some big mile days were I was thankful to have the range to keep pedaling on the fast fire road sections.
Five days after deciding I was going to ride the Colorado Trail and a few rushed Amazon purchases, I set out on Day 1 with more ignorance than knowledge of what bike packing entailed. Learning to handle a bike fully loaded with gear came quickly and, to my surprise, the descending was quite a bit more fun than I’d imagined. I felt more connected to a trail than ever before. I rolled into Bailey, Colorado, after five hours of riding. At this point, most of my training rides would be finished. But, in order to reach my goal for the day, I still had more than 20 miles to ride. I knew I was going to be riding my bike a lot in order to make it to Durango in 8 days, but this is where it set in just how long each day was going to be.
Eight hours later, I setup camp partway up Kenosha pass. I fell asleep listening to the pitter-patter of rain on the tent, coyotes howling in the night and elk bugling in the valley below. This solo adventure was going to push my comfort levels on many levels and sleeping alone in the night was one of those. Yet the sleep was amazing, and I woke up feeling excited and refreshed for Day 2.
A couple weeks prior, I’d raced the Breck Epic. Day 2 covered a few of the trails we’d raced then. In an effort to finish each stage as quickly as possible, I didn’t get to soak in the views and enjoy the trail at a comfortable pace. Perhaps needless to say, I was looking forward to that. I climbed three 12,000-plus-foot passes that day, riding a mix of new trails and familiar ones. I reached camp that night between Searle Pass and Kokomo Pass, above tree line, just as the last rays of light hit the surrounding peaks and alpenglow began to creep its way up. I woke up that morning as excited as a kid on Christmas morning, knowing I was about to kick off the day with a 2,700-foot descent from Kokomo Pass down to Camp Hale. Descending from above tree line under the warm morning sun on some pristine singletrack was a highlight of the trip. Day 3 detoured me away from the Colorado Trail due to it passing through some Wilderness areas. This meant a trip through Leadville, where I was able to eat my first real meal since starting the trip. I rode through some gorgeous aspen groves, up and down some challenging terrain and rolled into Buena Vista, my planned stop for the night. After downing a burger and shake I realized I had a few hours of sunlight left. I set out to knock out some more miles and was able to finish the day off with just over 100 miles, my biggest mountain bike ride ever.
Day 4 began with some harder than anticipated terrain. The climb out of Chalk Creek involved a good amount of hiking and the trail ahead was rocky and slow-going. I made it to the Highway 50 crossing point, and three miles up the road was my resupply point. I hitchhiked my way up—I didn’t want to climb three extra miles if I didn’t have to—got more food, dropped some stuff that I’d over-packed and set back out.
I really enjoyed the diversity of the terrain on the Colorado Trail. From buffed-out trails, to bench-cut alpine singletrack, to drainages as lush as rainforests, to slow-going rocky terrain, it really has had it all. The climb up to the Continental Divide from Highway 50 follows Fooses Creek. I enjoyed this climb quite a bit with its mostly gentle grade and lush environment.
The last half of the day began with a segment called Sargent’s Mesa where, I entered some of the most remote terrain of the trip. I didn’t see anybody the rest of the day and found another awesome campsite in a clearing close to tree line. The day was a big one, even though I only covered 58 miles.
The agenda for Day 5 involved a bit more than 11,000 feet of climbing, 30 miles of trail to start the day, followed by 56 miles on dirt roads to get around the La Garita Wilderness. I knew it was going to be a push but, if I made it, I would be a full day ahead of schedule. I knocked the trail out pretty quickly and arrived at the start of the Wilderness detour. Across the valley, I saw San Luis Peak standing tall amongst its neighboring mountains. To my dismay, it was also shadowed heavily by an afternoon thunderstorm that was surely headed my way. Sure enough, I quickly found myself pedaling through a heavy downpour. I rode my way through that storm only to see another one building, but this new one was also bringing an abundance of lightening with it.
I’m not too fond of lightening, and when I passed the only house I’d seen for miles, I asked if I could come in and take shelter while this next storm passes. I was greeted by a couple of retired old timers who were spending their afternoon listening to music through the TV, watching the song name and artist bounce across the screen. The clock struck 5:00—their happy hour. Instead of taking up their offer to have a drink, I set out into the now clear skies hoping to get my remaining 18 miles in by nightfall.
As I pushed my way up the never-ending Cebolla Pass, I saw another storm building. It was approaching 7:00 p.m., raining again, and I was riding past many campsites. I could stop, but I had a finish line I wanted to reach. I kept going, and finally rolled into camp drenched, tired, hungry but satisfied. That’s what this trip was all about for me: testing myself, pushing myself to new levels and feeling the thrill of adventure.
Unfortunately, the rain doesn’t stop at any point throughout the night and next morning. I’d worked so hard to get myself a day ahead of schedule that, in my mind, there’s no way I’m not going to get out there today. I quickly realize how bad of a choice it is. In just three miles, my trip nearly comes to end. I encounter some gnarly peanut butter mud filled with rocks that makes my bike un-rideable and barely push-able. I know I can’t knock out the next 30 miles to Silverton with my bike like this so I only have one choice: hike back out and hitchhike to Lake City to get it cleaned up. After cleaning the bike, I discover that the mud has damaged it—most likely from me trying to ride it when I should’ve just stopped. I fix it as best I can, but I don’t feel that it’s smart to push on through the San Juans.
My trip comes to a pause here on Day 6. I say a pause because I will be back to finish it. I’m planning to get out as soon as possible to complete those remaining segments but, for now, the Colorado Trail remains an unfinished piece of work for me.
Initially, I was calling the trip a failure and was disappointed in myself for not making it. After a few days of reflection, I now realize it was far from a failure. The racer in me is accustomed to needing a finish line, but not everything in life needs one. An adventure is pushing into the unknown, testing your limits and finding excitement in all of it. This was by all means an adventure in my book and something I am now extremely proud of doing. I have a few things that I am pretty proud of on the bike, but the way I tackled this adventure tops it all in my mind. There’s something special about crossing Colorado—penetrating several mountain ranges, testing your comfort levels and pushing your body past exhaustion—that makes you feel so alive.
Photos and words by Russell Finsterwald.