Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The GWO Tour: The Alpine Tunnel & Monarch Crest

After saying goodbye to Crested Butte, we spent a short week in Salida, our favorite Colorado mountain town. Our rental was minutes from downtown and the Arkansas river. Our first meal was Mo Burrito
 and our first ride was up S mountain with former local Emily Skiles, who now works at Absolute Bikes. A few years ago she had a bad crash at Jewel and seeing her now, shredding very technical terrain, in the rain no doubt, was a beautiful thing! So if we ever move here, we have a friend in town! 

The week went by pretty quick since we both had to catch up on work. By the weekend, we were back in the van. Emily had suggested riding The Alpine Tunnel route, a high altitude loop that begins in the abandoned mining town of St. Elmo, at the base of Mt.Princeton, in the Sawatch range. The trail is railroad grade the whole way, starting first on gravel for about 7 miles to the actual trailhead where only non-motorized traffic is allowed. 


A former rail line, remnants of railroad ties still very much intact, creating some technical riding scenarios. Knowing we were in the same place steam engines traveled over a hundred years ago made it all the more special. The flowers only added to the already amazing views, including clumps of columbines growing right out of cracks in the rock.

Eventually the easy grade ended and it was time to hike. A few switchbacks took us up through a rock fall area but once at the top, we had the sky to ourselves. 

At the top of the scree field was classic high alpine riding through scrub and across narrow rushing streams. The wet summer kept the drainages pretty active. The higher we climbed the more we could see some cloud activity gathering and soon enough, we were hearing thunder. We weren't far from the summit, a saddle, that would then point us down the other side. The rain came quick enough. We didn't have our warm rain jackets but we did have our emergency jackets, with hoods, that would only be affective as long as the rain didn't get too heavy, nor the temps too low. Just below the saddle, the rain turned to sleet and the lightening was getting closer. We scanned the landscape for shelter, of which there was none. I did start to worry a bit, knowing we were very exposed. We trudged on and up, having to hike a bike once or twice more before heading down the other side of the saddle. We only saw two other rides, a couple and their dog, early in the ride on the gravel road. We wondered if they turned around. 

The other side of the saddle we linked up with the Colorado Trail. Those two words, in mountain biking mean one thing: FUN! The trail was classic flow trail, with wide switch backs and loam for days. We had to check our speed though, as we came up on many hikers. We warned them of the weather up top, most agreeing to stay in tree line for the night. 

We exited the trail onto 4wd road and down, down, down we went, eventually arriving in St. Elmo. The main street was busy with tourists. The roads and trails were busy with side by sides and dirt bikes. At that elevation, it was no longer raining so we packed up the bikes and looked for some fishy waters. We got to try out the new 7ft 4wt rod that Ryan bought on a therapy shopping spree after losing a big brown trout the day before because the handle on our net was too short. He bought a new net but then he also needed a rod and reel to go with it (hey, it has our initials on it). Our souvenir, he said. Mmhmm. 

But it is a really fun rod with a lot of action and great for small creeks. I caught a small rainbow on it. He caught a few on the other rod as well. All in all, it was a great day on the water and on the trail!

That night we tested the 4WD ability of the van, taking it up a narrow road, to a high campground with a lake that we visited using the Toyota a couple years ago. After an hour and still not finding the campsite, plus the loss of daylight, we stopped in an open turn out that was flat and had a view. It was too late to try to fish the lake and because we had to be at the shuttle pick up by 7:45 the next morning, it was going to be an early morning. So we snacked on some chips and guac, had a drink by the fire and then called it a night. 

The next morning we were up early and were greeted with the sun reflecting off the peaks.

After coffee, we began the slow descent. The van did great. It was I that was a mess. I don't really like off-roading like that, let alone in a 16 x 11ft box. At one point I got out, at Ryan's request, to take photos of a particularly gnarly section and it was just at that point when the right front wheel came off the ground. I couldn't watch the rest, but it did just fine. After driving that road, Ryan exclaimed he had finally bonded with the van. I just wanted to change my drawers! 

We arrived in plenty of time for the shuttle up to Monarch. I wasn't sure about doing the entire thing, including the rainbow trail, so it was going to be a game-time decision. There was a small group of women on e-bikes, a few couples and a bunch of dudes all on pedal bikes. The e-bikers started around the same time we did and we would yo-yo with them until we finally dropped them for good just before arriving at the drop in point that's near the warming hut that saved our fingers and toes a few years ago when we started a Monarch Enduro stage in the snow! 

And again because of the daily rain showers that have been a constant in the high country, the trail was tantalizingly tacky. With grip for miles, we could really push the speed. We popped out at a familiar trail head with a bathroom where a group of side by siders were convening, trying to figure out where they were and wondering how we got there on bikes. From there, it was part hike a bike, part steep climbing up another 4wd road until we reached the next segment of the Crest trail, Silver Trail. It starts our loose with some pretty tight switchbacks and then flattens out a bit before heading into the trees for more rowdy good times. There were a few areas where we had to pump the pedals a bit but for the most part, it was mostly ripping down to where it finally met the river and where we would decide to continue on the Ribbon Trail. 

The last time we did it, it was an ass kicker because the trails were sandy and slippery from moto traffic plus it was really hot. This time, the trails were tacky, and the tread surface was sublime. We only saw one other rider and a few motos on that stretch. By the time we hit the pavement, it was pretty hot so we tucked our tails and time-trialed the 5 highway miles back to the van. Then we celebrated with burritos and margies at Mo's before heading back out of town to camp for the night.

Our visit to Salida was just what we'd hoped. A reminder that it is where we hope to set roots and play bikes with all the people and maybe actually become smarter than the fish!

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