Photos by: Max Salzberg & Colin Pinney
The 2016 Kelpie Kampout is something I had been looking forward to for nearly a year after not aligning for the prior September’s group bikepacking trip from Fort Collins to Steamboat. That ride focused on more dirt roads and this one had more singletrack and alpine riding, the stuff I drool over.
The ride was intended to go from Nathrop, CO to Salida, CO but rather than taking the direct route of about 20 miles of pavement our goal was to ride about 200 miles in 4 days with bikepacking rigs to enjoy the journey in a slightly more pleasurable form. Our ride organizer, Colin Pinney of Kelpie Cycles, set us up with a pair of fisherman who were interested in fishing and camping along the route. This is an advantage in many ways as it not only gathers more people in the outdoors but it offers such great support to have a few other folks who are not riding. Don’t get me wrong, I love being self-reliant with everything strapped to my bike, but after a long day in the saddle it’s nice to give into temptation. These fine gentlemen were able to carry coolers of food and beer so that we had the ability have a large group meal at the end of the day with some nicely chilled beverages. Many people rode fully loaded, without the needed support of the vehicles, but I can’t deny that having a few cold beers at the end of the day over the one warm one I usually pack was a wonderful treat. Oh yeah, and we had bacon every morning. Man, I love bacon in the wild.
Day 1’s route was from Nathrop over Tin Cup pass, then down to Taylor Reservoir with a camp goal of Dorchester Campground in the upper part of the Taylor valley. The ride was about 50 miles for the day and had a resupply/dinner at Taylor Park Trading Post/Nugget Restaurant. The ride itself began by climbing the road past Mt. Princeton Hot Springs and detoured onto the Old Railroad grade to the south. The trail was a nice change from the pavement and rolled fast with nice views on the side of the canyon. About halfway through the short section of singletrack we encountered a landslide that created a fun obstacle.
After the unique hike a bike we continued to spin up to the hamlet of St. Elmo. There was a food truck there and a general store to get a few snacks and to filter some water before the climb up to Tin Cup. The folks at the store told us the back of the pass was a bit rough. That phrase echoed through my head as I pushed my bike up some pretty rough road on the St. Elmo side of the pass.
The descent down to the Mirror Lake was interesting and a bit jarring at times. As long as you could hug the off-camber sections on the side of the road you could avoid most of the baby heads, most of them.
Our ride then shifted to a nice roll down to Taylor Park for dinner. The restaurant closed the following Sunday so they were short on a few items but the food was welcomed as this was our dinner stop for the day. After leaving the Trading Post the group had a long and slow ride up some soft dirt roads while the sun was beginning to set. The first riders to camp caught the sunset but the riders that followed made their way up the valley by the light of the moon. Camp was mellow as people trickled in for the next few hours.
Day 2 began chilly as most of the gear was covered in frost that morning. The group mobilized and began the ride up to Star Pass. The road from Dorchester to the end of the road was a bit better than the softer, sandy road we had ridden to get to that point. The singletrack from the parking lot/end of the road was fun and fairly rideable as we made our way up to the pass.
It’s a beautiful pass to climb, drenched in sunlight and cool temps, we couldn’t have asked for a better day to crest this pass. The final push to the top was slow and the group met a fellow bikepacker named Luke who was riding toward the Colorado Trail with a goal of Durango in the next 7 days. He summited the pass with us and then detoured during the descent. Star Pass was a great place to enjoy both views and eat some pepperoni. For some reason on this ride I felt the need to bring copious amounts of pepperoni. My Bedrock Tapeats was filled everyday with the pep and it was a nice snack to rely on throughout the days of riding.
Descending East Brush Creek down to town was like riding in a dream. The top of the pass is barren and a bit moto’d out but runs fast and elicited quite a few whoops and hollers from the group. Catching an unnamed trail and flowing into the Strand Bonus trail was delightful. Riding through glowing, golden aspen is an experience that every rider should enjoy at least once.
My face hurt from smiling as we hit the dirt road and spun our way into Crested Butte for lunch. Stopping in at the Secret Stash for pizza hit the spot. They have some unique styles of pie and the vibe there was perfect. After imbibing we rolled out of town up Kebler Pass/Ohio Pass. The first few paved miles up Kebler were reminiscent of Poudre Canyon near Fort Collins, a nice easy slope to climb. The route detoured right before Kebler Pass onto dirt again as we did the last 2 miles up to Ohio Pass. The colors for this climb were excellent, especially as the sun was beginning to set. Descending from Ohio down to camp was really fast and a bunch of fun as we chased daylight to hit camp. Most folks made camp on night 2 before darkness and we were able to enjoy a killer camp meal in fading daylight. This camp area was very near the Mill Creek trailhead and offered dispersed camping. We had a special guest that evening as we devoured camp tacos. A wily fox was very bold in his attempts to access our food and other supplies. To my knowledge we kept him at bay for the early part of the night but once we all went to sleep the fox dined on the delicacy that was our shoes, socks, and a few gloves. In the morning as we rose, we began to search out the missing items, which did appear as a bit of a mystery to start with. Eventually almost all items were found but some had been chewed a bit too much to use, as was the case with my flip flops. That was lesson number 1 for me on this ride; don’t bring flip flops to the high country in September. It’s a bit too cold for those and they appear to be a favorite food of foxes. Or at least a favorite chew toy.
Day 3 began with descending into the town of Gunnison to reconnect with a few riders who did not make camp on night 2, as well as to resupply. I was able to grab a marvelous breakfast burrito and Americano at The Bean, a Grateful Dead inspired coffee shop in town. It made me smile how often we would roll into a town and hear the tones of the Dead. The route on this day went along a canal road/Colorado Trail spur to make it out of Gunnison heading east toward the Continental Divide. This day was longer than the others, mileage wise, and also featured the least amount of singletrack. I was able to make the burg of Pitkin by noon, about 40 miles down so far. The quaint little town was nestled in a beautiful valley and was a great ride. After the town, the route returned to dirt again. With a big river crossing I was able to start climbing in earnest for the day.
The route led up to the saddle near Old Baldy and offered some riding on doubletrack and a smattering of other baby head strewn dirt roads. Once reaching the top near Old Baldy the road yielded some amazing views that make you feel like you are on top of the world.
When descending the backside I was unable to successfully navigate the singletrack route to camp and ended up riding over Black Sage Pass after a brief stop at Waunita Hot Springs to confirm my location and fill a bottle. This was lesson number 2 of the ride, bring all your maps. It never hurts to have an extra map. Black Sage Pass was true to it’s name – a very open sage-brush covered climb. It’s always a beautiful feeling to feel the wind at your back, I was happy to have a decent tailwind up this short pass. Near the very top of the pass it was covered in Aspens that offered a temporary home to a gaggle of hunters. I arrived at the top of the pass around 4pm and ripped down the backside toward camp at Snowblind Campground. The colors at camp were great, night 3 was my favorite camp spot. Nestled among aspens with a stream running next to camp. I was happy to have finished my day at a reasonable hour. Dinner for night three was a tasty spaghetti, such a great meal to load back up on calories. Oddly enough this camp spot at around 10,000′ was the warmest of any of the nights, the only night we did not have frost/ice on the tent when we woke up.
Day 4 was warmer in air temperature but we were in the shadows for the morning before pedaling away. From camp we had a short ride down to the Old Monarch Pass climb. After a rather abrupt turn to start Old Monarch we were up and enjoying the meandering 9 mile climb. The road offered some great color and views as we approached Old Monarch Pass.
After a short break at the windy pass we went up to start the Monarch Crest trail and rode south toward Monarch Pass (new). The short bit of singletrack that connected the two passes was excellent and fairly challenging as we made our way down to the visitor’s center at the summit of the pass.
This was one of two passes we descended down to today, not to mention the one we climbed. The visitors center was a smack of reality as it’s a rather touristy place, but the snacks and food options were quite nice to take advantage of. After a quick bite to eat we headed up the road that accesses the Monarch Crest Trail. This was my first foray on the Crest and though worn down from the 3 previous days, I was excited as could be to see what this trail was all about. We followed the singletrack as it rose above treeline and stayed there for what felt like days. The views and perspective offered at such elevation was a treat. The fact that the trail can be ridden by bikes, let alone fully loaded bikes, made it even sweeter. I truly love to ride above treeline, maybe it’s the dizzying effect of altitude, maybe it’s the views, I don’t know but I love it all. The ride along the Crest was amazing and felt like riding on the moon at times.
We eventually descended to Marshall Pass and opted to ride the dirt road down to the highway. At that point in the trip knowing that Elevation Brewing (Poncha Springs, CO) was our new end point and that it was pretty much “downhill from here” made it an easy choice. Our original ending point was in the town of Salida but a few of our group had opted to skip the Crest and ride to town via dirt roads or the highway. Those folks were kind enough to grab many of our cars from the Nathrop start area so we were all looking forward to the final meet up and some tasty brews. Descending from Marshall Pass down to town was triumphant in many ways, the dirt road just ripped down hill and we basked in the glow of golden aspens the whole way down. The hardest thing to take at the bottom of this climb was reality. Damn reality. I will admit it was a wonderful experience to ride with these fellas for four days, but to be able to leave my phone in airplane mode for the duration of the trip and just connect to the bike, that was an experience in itself.
We eventually hit pavement and coasted down to Poncha Springs before serpentining our way to Elevation Brewing. The beers there was delightful and their food truck on the patio delivered food well beyond what I expected to find there. The group raised glasses and enjoyed plenty of food before disbanding and starting the drive home.
This campout was such an experience, a true adventure by bike. I will admit my affinity for the trails featured on day 2 and 4, make those my favorite days of the trip, but the experience was beautiful in its entirety. For me, this was my first trip beyond a single overnight. I have plenty of those in the bag but with work and life it can be tough to find the time to pull off +2 nights in the backcountry. In total the route covered 222 miles of pavement, dirt roads, two track and loads of singletrack. With ~18,700′ of elevation gain on the route we were able to enjoy plenty of climbing but also had plenty of downhill. Riding from town to town via bicycle not only allows one to enjoy the ride a bit more. It’s the simple experience of piloting your bike for four days, and that opened up doors of perception I had missed before. Perspective is often the only tool we have at our disposal for life. I am appreciative of the perspective that I gained from this Kampout. I can’t wait for next year…
Max Salzberg – www.sonjakphotography.com
Colin Pinney – @kelpie_cycles