The San Juans are a truly beautiful mountain range. Wild and unpredictable but very much worth the journey. There is deep history in the mining and mountain culture that exists within those peaks. The scenery is some of the best Colorado has to offer and to be there in the midst of changing colors makes the experience even more magical.
The Kelpie Kampout is now in its 3rd year with the first year showcasing the dirt roads from Fort Collins to Steamboat and the following year enjoying the long way from Nathrop to Salida via Crested Butte. This year we tackled a three day route in the San Juans over the course of four days. The goal was to add something a bit different to the trip so our third day was a day off from pushing bikes uphill and allowed for a choose your own adventure day. With a slightly larger group of bikepackers this year, as well as a few more folks along for the adventure, it’s a tale that will be fun to tell.
Our campsite for the night before the start was at Molas Lake Campground. They have a group area with a large fire ring that was perfect for the night before the ride. The campground is quite open and has amazing views of mountains surrounding on all sides. The night sky was moonless and nearly took your breath away as we were treated to a barrage of brilliant stars.
Our route began from Molas Pass where we rode a quick mile or so of the Colorado Trail before rolling into Molas Lake Campground and then onto Highway 550 for the ride down to Silverton. It was a strange start to a bikepacking trip but it proved fun as we rolled quite quickly… to a stop. There was construction on the road in which one lane was being completely rebuilt. This required a short pause before we began moving again.
The stoke was high and the weather was holding nicely despite some foreboding forecasts for precipitation. We pedaled more of 550 beyond Silverton and returned to dirt at the Ophir Pass Road. This would be the first of three attempts over the San Juan mountains on the journey. Ophir Pass pedaled rather well for such a rugged pass. The aspens were showing off great colors as the road continued to climb and climb. Fall colors always make climbing more fun, a bit less painful. As we left the trees behind and began to have the pass within view, the drops began to fall. The clouds around us had been darkening and building in the minutes prior so the rain was no surprise. The forecast about a week out showed that the first day of the ride would be wet one. The forecast improved as we approached the ride but sometimes it doesn’t matter in the mountains, anything can happen. The rain offered us a bit more motivation to pedal harder to the top. The rain waxed and waned as we approached the pass. As more riders arrived at the pass the hail came. At first it was kind of cute hail. Tiny little hail balls that didn’t sting…until they did. The group rolled on pretty quickly off the pass down into the town of Ophir. Before arriving at the quaint little town the road offered some aggressive talus fields in the shape of roads. Some large pieces made descending with loaded bikes quite interesting for the group. We managed to move faster than the vehicles, but not faster than the moto’s. After a mile or so of some amazing road despite its rockiness, we paused to look back at a beautiful view. The rain and hail had drenched the pass which now, from our vantage point glimmered in the light of the sun. Such a different perspective to enjoy. Looking down the valley toward Ophir with steep mountains and fall colors was a great feeling after pushing hard over the pass and ripping the talus.
Returning to smooth dirt roads and higher speeds we arrived at our first stop on the route. We pulled into Lizard Head Cycling Guides where we had dropped some beers the day prior. John and Dan were very hospitable folks who were cool with us dropping a beer cooler for a nice addition to our lunch that day. The day prior we had dropped off a cooler and we were stoked on how kind the guys were as well as laid back. I guess that’s a requirement if you live in the small hamlet of Ophir. They run a touring business in the southwest part of the CO and worth checking out if that’s up your alley, solid folks. We had managed to drop below the hail and rain descending the pass and Ophir was a sunny contrast to the pass bearing the same name. Enjoying cold beers and lunch was a relaxing break as the sun shone down. Mother nature continued to play water colors with the sky, the rain began to build again in the distance so the ride pushed on down the valley.
The route each day offered additional mileage merely called the singletrack route. Today’s singletrack featured a right turn upon joining CO Hwy 149 heading north toward Telluride. It was very near the turn when the rain began to fall with more urgency. We climbed the pavement in a pretty strong downpour and the weather broke shortly as we approached the top of our paved climb to descend the Sunshine Trail. We regrouped before the descent and were able to get moving on the trail before the rain returned. The dirt in the area was riding great, which we needed to hold on as we ripped down into the valley. The trail itself zips through a marvelous aspen stand that was blanketing us in golden light, hard not to feel like any mountain bikers happy place. Fall singletrack, especially when aided with the kindness of gravity is certainly my favorite riding. As the group popped out of the trees at the bottom, we were all smiling ear to ear. We then began what we thought was an easy roll back to the Ophir interchange as a section of the Galoping Goose was closed on our trip so we had a bit more road in our future. The dirt road was on the soggy side and offered some rather stout pitches for us to ride as we worked to gain back the elevation lost on Sunshine. Eventually we found pavement and began to pedal toward Lizard Head Pass, still managing to only have light rain or none at all. As we began to pedal uphill toward the pass we rolled over the crossing of the Galloping Goose trail. One should never say no so singletrack, especially when it’s shrouded by aspens. The Goose was a great ride and went along the flume until popping out near the Matterhorn campground.
Given weather and some tired legs the group decided to climb the pass using the highway as more weather was approaching. Upon arriving at Lizard Head pass we took a moment to really soak it in. Just a moment. Our campground was a few miles down the pass and in that same direction was some rather active lightning that appeared to have it’s buddy rain along for the ride. The group used various approaches at this point; rip down fast and try to beat it, wait it out near the pass with some shelter, or be like a troll and chill under a bridge. In this case the trolls had the best idea. Damn trolls. This writer attempted the first option and only had the tent body set up before the skies opened up unleashed a torrent of rain. After the cell moved through we had an hour or so to cook dinner, enjoy some libations and also try to figure out what was still dry. We built a fire and tried to dry some shoes off before the storm came to offer another strong round of weather. Nearly the entire group found shelter in their respective sleeping setup’s and most were sleeping before dark, a rare occurrence for this gang. A few managed to return to the bridge for a more libations and some protection from the weather. The rain came hard that night and continued to soak the mountains as we slept.
Morning came slowly on day two as we were greeted to a rather damp and chilly start to the day. Many were just pleased that today was likely to be a drier day and to have the chance to enjoy camp a bit more warmth this evening. The second day route would climb from Cayton Campground up to Bolam Pass, then either over Bolam down to Hermosa Creek or up and over Blackhawk Pass before all ending up at Sig Creek Campground. The air was calm and cool as we pedaled up a very nice dirt road toward the pass. It was even remarked amongst the group how nice this road was. We should just keep our mouths shut. After a couple miles of a fairly chill road, we were given some of the San Juan treatment in the form of a sign that read “Rough Road 10 miles”. Hmm, it was only 6 or 7 miles to the pass from here, this should be interesting. For vehicles, this would be a rather rough road but the two wheeled steeds that we piloted did well on the way up the climb. The challenge lied in the pitch of the road that just was a bit much for most of our gang to pedal so we began to push and push. The climb itself was long and cool, but mainly in the trees. The group giggled a bit when one of the riders encouraged the gang to, “look behind you”. Interesting…those mountains didn’t have snow on them yesterday. It’s often such a surprise to see the beauty that merely stands beyond a change in perspective. When winter and fall collide it’s the finest display that Colorado can offer.
Near Bolam Pass the pitch flattens out and offers some amazing views before cresting the technical pass. The singletrack route today would not go to the pass proper but would detour south on the Colorado Trail. The group found a nice spot for lunch and a spot of whiskey before starting the series of saddles on our way to Blackhawk Pass. The view near Section Point was hard to describe as well as photograph. The view offered an unrestricted 360 view of the surrounding mountains with most sporting a new white coat. Descending from Section Point was a hoot, fast and fun trail that was enjoyed by all. After emerging from the forest, our goal was now in sight. Blackhawk Pass is a hefty pass along the CT and looked like it would require a good bit of effort to reach the saddle. Though the majority of the mile or so to the pass required pushing, it was impressive to see a few in the group ride the last section up to the pass. Greeted by a large group of hikers, the crew sat down to enjoy a snack on the wind protected side. Passes that rise high above treeline and offer rare perspectives are one of the amazing reasons to live and ride in this state; they are far from easy to accomplish but the rewards are worth it.
After enjoying some grub, bikes were pointed downhill on the Colorado Trail south toward Hotel Draw. The back of Blackhawk Pass was truly some amazing singletrack to descend. The group broke up to allow everyone a chance to enjoy at their own pace and would regroup with everyone sporting the same facial expression from time to time. The singletrack rolled fast and we made great time relative to the hours climbing the pass at the beginning of the day. Emerging onto Hotel Draw Road the group discussed if we would follow our planned route to descend Corral Draw Trail or to take Hotel Draw Road. Given some crashes for the day and some tired legs, the decision was made to ride the road down. Assuming it was pretty much downhill to Sig Creek it should be an easy ride to camp. Aren’t assumptions interesting? After descending down to Hermosa Creek road and climbing up to camp there was a nice sense of relief across the group as it was sunny and warm so that we could enjoy a dry camp more, as well as dry out clothes. One of the added benefits to this trip was that some of the group had already arrived at camp. Night one was unsupported but when arriving at camp on night two there were coolers of beer and food as well as friends to welcome us. The gang broke up to get items hung up to dry and start setting up tents. That night the group cheered as others arrived, all with smiles. We dined on pulled pork tacos and beans with some garden squash. A rather extravagant meal compared to the prior night’s “hurry up and eat before it rains again”. The campfire burned long into the night as stories of the day were exchanged, it was nice to enjoy camp vibes with this crew. We do it right.
Day three began with a very different goal in mind. The tents would remain set up and the bags would stay off the bikes. This day was intended as a Fun Day in which you could choose your own adventure. Fishing or just relaxing at camp were two of the options, but since this is a bikepacking trip, there needed to be some biking option for day 3. Those who chose to pedal on this day were treated to a shuttle ride on Hermosa Creek. Hermosa is an iconic Durango staple in the world of mountain biking, something everyone should ride once. Though it boasts no alpine views or passes, the trail follows the Hermosa Creek watershed south and comes out about 10 miles north of Durango. The gang pedaled the ~25 miles from the Upper Trailhead to the lower Hermosa Trailhead and waited for the Hermosa Tours shuttle to pick them up. Trail conditions were a bit on the wet side but things rolled fast and fun as it always should on Hermosa Creek. Given the rains that have been continuing to pound the San Juans all summer, there was plenty of puddles and fun along the creek. A bit of bonus riding on Jones Creek trail as a quick up and back rounded out the day of riding.
The shuttle had people back at camp around 4:30 pm, which was good because another special meal was in store. After three days on the bike, what would be better than pizza? Not much really. The folks at Paradise Pizza hooked us up with take out pizzas that were hustled up to camp for the group to devour, and devour they did. Though it was unnecessary to have such comforts on the trail, it sure made the night more enjoyable.
Riding out of camp we passed through Purgatory Ski area and hopped onto 550 for a mile or so before turning onto Lime Creek Road. This road is an interesting one as it was the old highway that connected Silverton to Durango prior to building the Million Dollar Highway (Hwy 550). The road rolls through an older growth aspen forest as a result of the Lime Creek Fire in 1879. The forest is predominantly aspen as you skirt around Coal Bank Pass and follow Lime Creek up to the intersection with Hwy 550 en route to Molas Pass. The road has some nicely built barriers that were intended to keep vehicles on the road, though it certainly has it’s share of rough spots. The weather on day 4 appeared to be working in our favor as we moved between stormy patches. We were able to ride past the Spud Lake trail and climb to a nice section overlooking the Lime Creek valley to the south. The foreboding weather kept breaks short and many people just kept rolling. As we began to climb up to 550 the colors were some of the best of the trip. Shimmering golden aspens lined the roads and their surfaces were blanketed with fallen gold coins to mark the path ahead. The overcast skies made them appear even more intense. Though thunder cracked in the distance, it was amazingly pleasant and surreal moving through the aspen tunnels knowing the end of the trip was at the top of the pass. It’s always weird when you are riding the final climb of a trip. An opportunity to reflect on the up’s and down’s seems to come with the territory as you finish things up. Though we had to detour due to weather, this alternate route was quite enjoyable. When Lime Creek finally pops out at 550, it’s a tough 4 miles to Molas Pass. Offering that it was likely 1-2 miles to the pass at the road did not earn friends as everyone had to ride by the “Molas Pass – 4 Miles” Sign. An odd contrast to the serenity of Lime Creek, the highway had vehicles ripping by at high speeds. To add to the fun in the climbing the pass, the rain finally caught up with us. It was a strong rain that quickly soaked anyone riding and only sounded as if it were to get worse. More and more lightning and thunder were heard, but only a few more miles to go. The rain let off for a second and didn’t go away completely but lightened up to the point that made the last few pedal strokes up the pass to be more enjoyable. Very few things are as exciting than seeing a green Mountain Pass sign, adorned with stickers and the appropriate elevation, they are like a big smile waiting to greet you as you crest the pass on so many roads in Colorado. Rolling into the parking lot at Molas Pass it was time for a beer and do a quick gear exchange with those who had offered support. The lightning and thunder increased in their intensity during this time resulting in a quick burst of hail. Those who were at their cars simply jumped in and sat, those who were still on the route fared more poorly. The small hail cell moved on and we resumed for a brief moment on our post ride chat and beverages. A couple more riders funneled in and then it hit. Hail like I haven’t seen in a long time, relentless and pounding. Hard to hear or talk to anyone it’s so loud. The group scrambled to get gear into place and bikes on racks as the hail came in sheets. Normally, the end of any ride features a nice chance for everyone to discuss the fun however this created an odd ending as many of us just looked at each other from the various vehicles we rode in and gave a wave saying “See you back on the front range.”
After the pounding of hail and the odd departure it was a unique ending to an amazing ride. In the distance you could see a rainbow forming in the sky replacing the dark clouds and reflecting off of the ground that now appeared to be covered in snow as the hail had produced a bit of depth. Bikepacking trips can be such an adventure. Hours of planning and numerous route changes before you even get there but nothing is more fun than surrendering to the flow of the experience. It’s said very often in this community that it’s about the journey, not the destination. Though sometimes there are sweet things like beer and warmth at that destination it really is the experience of adventure that drives people to enjoy pushing their bikes up mountains and enduring whatever the mountain throws back. Sometimes we get the trail, sometimes it gets us but we always enjoy the ride.
Colin Pinney – Kelpie Cycles — http://kelpiecycles.com/ — https://www.instagram.com/kelpie_cycles/
Jillian Betterly – Betterly Photography — https://betterlyphotography.smugmug.com/ — https://www.instagram.com/betterlyphotography/