The Monarch Crest loop just outside of Salida, Colorado still remains my favorite trail ride on the planet. It has all the magic ingredients: Endorphin raising climbs, ridge line singletrack with killer views, and harrowing singletrack descents. The loop runs about 53 miles with 8200ft of climbing.
The ride begins with a 17.5 mile climb up highway 50, gaining 3800ft on pavement. On this Sunday morning, traffic was light. At Monarch pass, 11,300ft, singletrack is picked up. This follows the continental divide, hoovering between 11,000 and 12,000ft for a good ways. Most of this is above tree line, and the scenery is surreal. The trail is 100% rideable with only occasional tech bits. There are some pretty serious upward grinds, however, especially for us oxygen challenged low-landers.
The High Valley Bike Shuttle website says this ride requires a shuttle. Bull. This is the second time Dave and I have ridden the full loop without relying on fossil fuel to haul our lazy asses up to the pass. The initial climb took us 1hr, 48min. The Monarch Pass gift shop was open, suitably stocked with replenishments. But the ride was less than 1/3 over, and I would learn how quickly a 100oz Camelbak can be consumed at high altitude and warm conditions.
When we arrived at Monarch Pass, another rider on an old hardtail came up immediately behind us. Turns out the three riders we saw in the visitor center parking lot are a like minded bunch. In fact, this guy (I never got his name), was a man after my own heart. He said the 17.5mi highway climb was the best part of the ride! I couldn't agree with him in this case, but a true hillclimber none the less. I did get the name of one of his friends after we said where we were from. His friend was Matt Daigle, an ex pro roadie from New England and former overall winner of Mt Washington back in the 80's. Matt was built big and did not look like a hillclimber, but he sure was a good mountain biker. This trio was following the same route as Dave and I. We didn't agree to stay together, but we cris-crossed each other on the trail many, many times and finished at about the same time. They were all on old-school hardtails with V-brakes. It was interesting they asked me for trail directions a couple times, since they were from Colorado. Dave and I also cleaned a couple steep pitches some of them walked (he-he).
After flying high on endorphins and a Starbucks Frappuccino along the ridgeline, it was time to descend. The initial descent takes place on Silver Creek Trail. It starts with a wicked steep set of switchbacks. Loose slabs of rock fly all over the pace as you bomb this. Eventually you enter the woods and follow the creek. At times, the exposure was quite extreme. You did not want to look down through the trees to the stream, lest you become one with the water a hundred feet down. There was a pretty nasty 2ft drop in a steep, loose rocky section too. After Dave cleaned it, I had no choice. I think both of us walked it last year. Penalty of error here could have been way worse than just endoing into pile of jagged rocks. The bottom was a long ways down.
When we got to the Rainbow Trail cutoff, I was out of water. We were lower now, and it was very hot. Without water, I couldn't eat either. My stomach wouldn't allow it. Dave brought his filter, but we figured the car wasn't that far away. It was at 1.5+ hours though. With legs trashed by the Mt Evans race the day before, the last part of the ride became a deathmarch for me. Rainbow Trail no longer descends monotonically like Silver Creek Trail. It undulates something fierce, adding 1500ft of climbing to the ride. It would have been tempting to take the Silver Creek dirt road the rest of the way down, but the Rainbow Trail is one of the best parts of this loop. The trail has incredible flow if you have the legs to power up the many steep grinds.
We eventually hit the final set of switchbacks down to Hwy 285, the road we'd be taking down to Taos, NM after the ride. This last bit of pavement brought us back to the car parked in Poncha Springs. Total riding time was about 5.4hrs, and total elapsed time was nearly 6.5hrs. The last 4.5hrs out on the trail have no support. Many of the epic loop rides out here are like that. It adds a bit of suspense to the rides.
Monarch Crest Trail
Classic crown drift at nearly 12,000ft. First week in July this was still 30ft high.
Matt Daigle figuring out how to come down the crown drift. I slipped and fell here, tweaking my knee.
Dave on buff section of Monarch Crest Trail
Dave and the other three ahead
Prestine treeless ridgeline
Silver Creek Trail. Where's Dave?
Oh, there's Dave. Ouch, me bum! There was a bit of a lip on the skinny trail here, and if your eyes or brain wandered, it would rip your wheels out from under you in a heartbeat. Speeds were high on this no-brakes section of the descent.