Thursday, August 20, 2009

Struggle in the San Juans

Priest Gulch, Calico, Horse Creek loop
29.8 miles
4790ft vertical Garmin, 6875ft Topo
4hrs, 33min moving time, over 5.5hrs total time

I've known about the Calico Trail for some time, since AspenMike (Mt Washington Unicycle record holder) first suggested I give it a try a few years ago. He knew I had a fondness for high altitude ridgeline riding. The topo data looked enticing - long segments of trail that followed knife edge ridgeline at 12,000ft. Of course, you had to get up there somehow.

Many trails in the Rico area are open to moto's. Bikes only, not ATV's. There are great trails all over Colorado that are open to moto's. One of my favorites is the Rainbow Trail coming down from the Monarch Crest Trail near Salida. This does not deter me. Some times moto's can make a trail a mess to ride. ATV's are really bad. Trail bikes, not so much. All of the trails I rode today are open to trail bikes, and none of the trails were any wider than 12".

I studied route options a good while for this loop. Originally, I planned to go big, parking at Priest Gulch trailhead on CO-145, then ride 25 miles of pavement to pick up the most distant access point. It was hot today. I also worried that I could no more than get into the singletrack and need to bail due to not having the legs for it or running low on water. My ride would have consisted of a state highway then. So instead of normal Hill Junkie format, which is big road climb, trail descent, I opted to hit trail first. Then I could maximize the amount of trail ridden. There were three intermediate bailout points down to CO-145 along the route.

In summary, the plan was to climb Priest Gulch Trail for eight miles, gaining about 3000ft from 8000ft starting level. This seemed quite easy, actually, as Whiteface Mountain in NY gains more in same distance and it is only 8% grade. Priest Gulch terminates on the Calico Trail. I could have started right away on Calico, as both trails start from same parking lot, but Calico was labeled with many double black diamonds on that section, and I didn't want to bury myself so early in the ride. Once up on Calico Trail at 11,000ft, it was supposed to be contour city until I wanted to get off. Burnett Creek Tr was first exit chance, just a mile into the Calico Trail. Then there was Horse Creek Tr, about 3mi in. About eight miles in was Dunton Rd, and finally I could continue on Groundhog Trail all the way to CO-145 not far from Telluride.

I was rolling shortly after 9am. The air was frigid and I needed the long layers again. The first three miles of Priest Gulch Trail went smoothly. A couple dismounts over huge waterbars was about it. The deal was, I wasn't gaining significant elevation. That meant only one thing. The climb was going to be heavily back loaded. Again, I was relying on sketchy data from the web. Mile 3.5-5.5 turned into a heinous hike-a-bike. I don't think the grade ever got less than 15%, and I saw 34% in one section. That is barely hikeable with a 30 lb bike. To make matters worse, often the trail was a trench filled with scree. You'd slip, slide, twist ankles, skin shins and knees up. It sucked. It really sucked. What I didn't know at the time, this was just a taste of things to come.

After mile 5.5, the grade moderated some, but nearly all of the climbing was in 15-25% range. I'd carry up a section, get on the bike, only to give half that vertical back again, get off, carry, ride 10sec, carry up, over and over and over. After a while, I learned it was more efficient to just stay off the bike. There were many water crossings, and there were no MTB tracks. Only moto tracks. I wonder why?

After about 2hrs, I reach the Calico Trail right on the edge of treeline. The view was nice. I could see the mountains I biked up two days earlier. I started riding the Calico Trail, come around this bend, and see the most despicable fall-line trail ever. The sucker went up at 30% grade and again was a trench filed with grapefruit sized rocks. It was utterly unrideable and barely hikeable. I gained another 200ft off my bike. Now the view was getting pretty nice indeed, and maybe, just maybe some of my frustration with this ride would wane. I found anywhere the trail went up or down, it was a rock filled rut. Going up, your pedals would go bang, bang, bang on the sides of the rut and your rear wheel would go slip, slip, slip on the loose rocks in the rut. It was easier to walk.

There were a few very tasty morsels of contour trail on the ridgeline. These were fleeting instances. Most of the trail went up and down fall-lines, the descents uber sketchy. I reached the high point of the ride, about 12,100ft elevation in three hours moving time. At least two hours of that was spent off my bike. Yeah, this ride became my biggest hike-a-thon of all time. In fact, I'm quite certain I could have hiked to this point much faster than carrying a 30 lb bike with me.

So I see the sign for the first escape route, Burnett Creek Trail and decided I didn't suffer 4000 vertical feet of this crap to ride a mile above treeline. The sign said next exit, Horse Creek Trail, was 1.5 miles. I figured how long could that take, you know? Well, it can take a long time, and it turned out to be 2.0 miles. At the 1.5mi mark, there is no sign of a trail. I was BS. I keep going, lose hundreds of vertical feet on the nastiest scree filled trench you can imagine, thinking I better NOT have to go back up that again. I found Horse Creek Trail, right near Calico Peak. At least the scenery was about as good as it gets anywhere in Colorado. Horse Creek Trail looked barely travelled, and it went over an edge reminiscent of Tuckerman's Ravine by Mt Washington. It didn't look good, but I wasn't pushing my bike up any more fall-line trails.

Horse Creek started out riding pretty nicely. Steep as heck, at least 20%. It certainly was a good test of sphincter control. Then the trail passes trough some scree and very steep switchbacks. Dismounts were required, but no extended hike-a-bikes. The temperature rose dramatically as I descended from 12,000ft. Glad I brought an extra bottle along. Most of the way down I encountered the first person of my ride, about 3.5hrs into it. A solo male hiker with a dog, just like yesterday. This guy was from Texas and similar age to guy I met yesterday. We talked very briefly.

Horse Creek Trail dumps out on a two-track that bombs the remaining 1-2 miles to CO-145. Once on the pavement, I was welcomed with a 25mph headwind. Sweet! What a way to end a ride from hell. The good thing was the 15 miles back to the car was downhill at about 1% grade. That helped mitigate the headwind, but only partially. I was past cooked. Hefting a 30 lb bike around for over 2hrs on foot really worked all parts of my body over good. Maybe this is a good thing. Even my abs hurt. I hurt around my hips too, in a similar way when I start rollerskiing in the fall. Maybe this ride was a good workout in disguise. It certainly wasn't what I expected. The views were certainly nice, the descent help smooth over the frustration too. But I would never do this ride again. It is no wonder the Calico Trail doesn't even show up on There are other ways to get up to the Calico Trail. I wonder if some of them are more bicycle friendly.

Friday is supposed to be another cloud free day. No more adventure rides. Chance I may do Blackhawk Pass, a loop Dave P and I did last year. It has some minor hike-a-bike bits (for me, I think Dave cleaned Blackhawk Pass). It hits a nice chunk of the Colorado Trail with great views. I would like to get some heat training in too. An alternative plan would be to head into New Mexico, ride Alien Run and then hit the trails by Farmington. Pretty flat, and sure to be hot. I'm afraid the SM100 race will be hot in two weeks and all my riding this week is in very cool air.

Priest Gulch Trail starting out at 9am. Looks harmless enough.

This was first greeting of the Calico Trail. More 25% grade hike-a-bike.

First bail-out on Calico Trail ridgeline. Burnett Creek Trail drops to the left back to CO-145.

Finally some high country singletrack you can actually cruise on.

Calico ridgeline.

Multi-color Calico Peak, thus the trail's namesake.

An impossibly steep pitch to climb on Calico Trail. Lots of stuff like this.

There were some fairly exposed sections along the Calico Trail too. Maybe not fear of death, but certainly scary looking down.

The Calico Trail tends to follow fall-lines. IMBA doesn't build trails like that anymore for a reason.

More contour trail on the Calico.

Lizzard Head in distance (pointy rock), overlooking Horse Creek basin before beginning my 4000ft plummet.

Nice views, but crap surface on much of the Horse Creek Trail descent.

Many meadows along the Horse Creek Trail descent were filled with blue and yellow daisies.

A mile or two of this brought me back to pavement.


Anonymous said...

No, what a bummer. I think you went the wrong direction, we rode north to south and really enjoyed it. Do you still like me :)

Hill Junkie said...

I wondered how riding south to north might change the ride. That was my original plan. The north end starts at a much higher elevation, above 10,000ft where the singletrack starts. That would have cut out the worst of the Priest Gulch climb at least. So did you ride the entire length of the Calico Trail?

Dave said...

If you can hang in there on suffering like that, the S & M 100 will not be too hard. Just substitute in heat instead of hell climbs in thin air. There are some hike a bike sections but not alot of time or distance involved. A strong rider like yourself should clean all but a mile or two at most.

Anonymous said...

we picked up the calico trilhead on the dunton rd. and road the upper and lower calico trails from north to south, all the way to priest creek. For us unicyclists, that was the best option. we never rode onto priest gulch trail. there still was tons of climbing from that end. close to 25 miles of singletrak that way

Hill Junkie said...

I'm not worthy! I couldn't ride it with the "training wheel." Don't know how you guys do it. Maybe next year, with fresher legs, I should give it another go from the north end. I rode only about 30% of the ridgeline. More to ride and see up there.

Anonymous said...

Much more fun riding north to south from the Dunton Rd. side.Still fair amount of hike-a- bike, but downhill makes it worth it.Plus there are several options for the downhill. Connecting with the Stoner section eliminates several hiking sections and gives you a 16 mile downhill.The Calico section down to the trailhead is pretty technical with fair amount of hiking but still great downhill.