When you have enough time to put the bike on a rack and head out of town, Colorado has more than enough mountain options, from sweet, gentle singletrack to get-some gonzo. Because the state was in on the clunker craze right from the beginning, the choices include many classic rides along challenging routes, with jaw-dropping vistas and varied terrain suitable for first-timers willing to hike-a-bike, as well as blazers looking to test their pedal mettle on the toughest trails around. Here are ten time-honored and iconic off-road bike rides, in alphabetical order:
Trailhead on Boreas Pass Road, 3.5 miles southeast of Breckenridge
One of the many successful conversions of old narrow-gauge railroad grade to modern mountain-bike routes, the 12.5-mile, out-and-back Boreas Pass in the White River National Forest starts out above 10,000 feet, which gives an otherwise easygoing ride some heft courtesy of the thinner air. This is a good place to start, though, if you want to increase your stamina or get your bike legs pumping, because the majority of the ride runs along hard-pack road that requires little navigation, with a few opportunities to run through the blue spruce and aspen stands on singletrack spurs along the way. There are also some nice distractions courtesy of the area’s mining history, including a century-old log cabin and a water tank, as well as the peaks of the Tenmile Range and sweeping views of the Continental Divide and South Park from the top.
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Buffalo Creek Recreation Area
Multiple trailheads, Pine
Easily accessed from Denver — the Buffalo Creek trail system sits about an hour west of the city — this series of loops and spurs often finds itself on lists of the best mountain biking in Colorado, because its terrain is so diverse and options abound for all skill levels along the fifty miles of routes. The Pine Valley Ranch Park trailhead is the most user-friendly, with restrooms, picnic areas and fishing along the creek bank; from there you can put together anything from a hardcore up-and-down 4-miler to a 20.6-mile loop that includes quad-busting climbs, barreling descents, slickrock, roots and rocks, sand, gravel and creek crossings, as well as several sections of burned forests from recent and long-ago wildfires. Beginners will appreciate the many bail-out points, and experts will get plenty of practice navigating the tricky, sandy switchbacks.
Cheyenne Canyon Road, just west of Colorado Springs
Over the past two decades, the signage and route-finding on Captain Jack’s has vastly improved, making this narrow singletrack ride even easier to navigate and a fast, fun leg-stretcher for intermediates on up. The trail system has front and back sides, offering a variety of out-and-back and loop options of 4 to 8 miles once you get past the mile or so of doubletrack. Be prepared for very short, very steep climbs that make for screaming-fast downhills, and expect sandy and loose gravel sections that change substantially in dry or wet conditions. Payoffs include panoramic views of Colorado Springs and the surrounding mountains, and mileage can be upped by adding Chutes or the Spring Creek Trail to the Columbine Trail.
Flowing Park Loop Trail
Trailhead at Flowing Park Reservoir on Flowing Park Road (109), 1.5 miles from Colorado 65, Grand Mesa
Situated on top of the Grand Mesa, the mostly flat Flowing Park Loop is unusual in that it has no downhill to speak of as it winds through meadows and sparse pine stands — just a lot of gentle wavy-gravy and intermittently bumpy singletrack in a 15.2-mile easy-intermediate lollipop that hugs the cliff edge 5,000 feet above the City of Delta a big chunk of the way. The view overload includes Mount Sneffels, the West Elks, the North Fork Valley, the Uncompahgre Plateau and the San Juan and La Sal mountains. You can add another 7 miles to the ride by riding straight from Colorado 65. Extra credit if you take the 63-mile drive along the Mesa Scenic Byway, through the national forest.
Galloping Goose Trail
Trailhead at Frontage Road 626 at the summit of Lizard Head Pass, Telluride
Railroad ties still linger alongside the old Rio Grande Southern route that was carved into the cliffs backdropped by the San Juan Mountains on this 20-mile point-to-point (that means arranging a shuttle) overlooking Telluride’s Ilium Valley and the San Miguel River. Because this is a converted rails-to-trail, the grade rarely gets too steep, though the ride is one continuous moderate climb, and there is a lung-searing singletrack segment leading out of the Trout Lake section. Old mining roads, a train trestle and a robust waterfall hint at days of yore (and ore); save some energy for the relentless climb at the end to 10,222 feet atop Lizard Head Pass.
Shuttle from Hermosa Market on U.S. 550, Durango
Fans of the uphill will relish the brutal, seemingly never-ending vertical slog into the San Juan National Forest near Durango. What goes up must come down, though, so the return is thrilling and fast on smooth, switchback-studded singletrack. Book a shuttle, because the return on this 18.6-mile point-to-point is only for the truly buff. Watch out for cattle grazing everywhere, along with fallen trees in the tight-squeeze alpine sections and lots of creek crossings, and revel in open meadows and a dense alpine portion. If you want to skip having to take a shuttle, you can ride this as an out-and-back from the southern trailhead.
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Mary’s Loop and Horsethief Bench
Trailhead at frontage road off I-70 Loma Exit #15, Loma
Don’t let the climb over craggy rocks and loose gravel that serves as the start of Mary’s Loop — part of the system of Kokopelli Trail rides at the Loma exit near Fruita — deter you. Once you get to the rim of the sandstone cliffs, this is a kick-in-the-bike-kit pants as you negotiate rocks and boulders on four-wheel-drive while the Colorado River sparkles below and eye-popping views of the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Area, West Pollock Canyon and Rattlesnake Canyon beckon from across the way. One of the crown jewels of the trails built by the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, Horsethief Bench is a 4.9-mile sand-and-slickrock, S-curves loop in the basin below Mary’s that requires you to carry your bike down about 100 yards of boulders and ledges (there are a few skilled enough to bike down, and it’s mind-blowing to watch). If that’s not enough, Mary’s, which combined with Horsethief comes in at 12.4 miles, also leads to Mary’s Cutoff, Wrangler’s Loop and Steve’s Loop (which adds 12.5 miles), along with the 1.5-mile Lion’s Loop that can be linked at the end.
Monarch Crest Trail
Trailhead sits atop Monarch Pass, west on U.S. 50
Alternating gradual climbing, long stretches of alpine meadows and easygoing jaunts through old-growth trees, the Monarch Crest trail is deceptively tough, but it’s hard to beat the expanse of Continental Divide that appears like a scene from a pop-up book at every saddle. The altitude — the ride starts at over 11,000 feet — and the rocky, rutted technical segments, added to the above-timberline exposure and the super-fast, wide-open, loose-gravel final descent, combine for a long (30 miles point-to-point) day, so it’s a good idea to start early to ensure that you’ll be down before the area’s notorious afternoon thunderstorms roll in.
Tipperary Creek Trail
Trailhead sits 5 miles west of Winter Park on County Road 50, Fraser
The 10.9-mile point-to-point Tipperary Creek Trail is a piece of the 29.6-mile Tipperary Creek Classic that was one of the first nationally ranked races in the United States and still serves as a fat-tire mecca for Winter Park bikers. From dirt roads to clean singletrack in the shadow of the Vasquez Mountains, Tipperary starts with a sustained, easy climb, then runs through all of the hallmarks of a time-honored mountain trail: rocks-and-roots, tight trees, steep switchbacks, fast descents, creek crossings (you will get wet), strenuous climbs, short wavy-gravy segments and an overall roller coaster of a ride. This is a good one on a hot day, because most of it runs through deep, dense forest, the water bars make for some good launches, and for most of the summer, the open areas are covered in a carpet of wildflowers.
Multiple trailheads in Vail, Breckenridge, Frisco and Copper Mountain
Beginners and advanced riders can find their groove along this paved path, which offers steep climbs that return as smooth descents, with 2,000 feet of elevation change en route and inspiring views of Vail Pass. The altitude is not to be underestimated, but the really great part about this ride is that you can do as much or as little as you want, depending on whether you set it up as a shuttle or segments as an out-and-back. From Vail to Breckenridge totals 43 miles, with parking lots and trailheads at several places along the route, which periodically runs parallel to I-70 and gives you a chance to race the truckers uphill. You can extend your ride another six miles round-trip by climbing down the east side of the pass into Copper Mountain.