By Ryan Wichelns, Special to The Denver Post
Colorado isn’t all backcountry trails, wilderness lakes and rocky summits. Between all those backpacking destinations are a thick web of gravel roads, mountain bike trails and equally beautiful campsites accessible on two wheels, which have turned the state into a mecca for multi-day cycling, known as bikepacking.
With the backpacking gear and bike you may already own, a couple bikepacking-specific bags (or even a jerry-rigged system of bungee cords) are all you need for a self-supported ride-and-camp trip. And thankfully, Colorado has no shortage of epic, established routes for all ability levels. Whether gravel, pavement or singletrack, a single weekend night or a multi-week expedition, high alpine or low desert canyon, there’s a bikepacking route for everyone.
Indian Peaks Traverse
Biking off-trail in wilderness is always a no-go, which makes the Rollins Pass Road so special. Surrounded by a lot of protected wilderness and cutting a switchbacking route through the heart of the Indian Peaks to over 11,600 feet, it facilitates a bikepacking connection between Boulder and Winter Park. While options for making the connection abound, the 71-mile Indian Peaks Traverse route is a work-in-progress ride connecting Boulder Canyon to Gross Reservoir, Magnolia (with great camping) and Rollins Pass before descending directly into Winter Park along mostly singletrack and gravel, making the through-ride an enjoyable — albeit difficult — weekend trip directly from Boulder.
The Alpine Loop
For those looking for a taste of the alpine without committing to weeks in the saddle or singletrack, the 80-mile Alpine Loop out of Silverton offers big-mountain vistas and lung-scorching mountain passes that you can crush on your gravel bike. Along the way, look for clues of Colorado’s mining past with ghost towns and debris left high in the Rockies. Roughly halfway through, you’ll pass Lake City, the perfect place to refuel before taking on the second major climb.
Escape the mountains (and eventually the state) along this classic mountain biker’s long-ride connecting Fruita with its desert mountain biking sister mecca, Moab. Along this 158-mile route, you can link canyon rims with technical singletrack and dirt roads. The route can usually be done in three to five days, but it doesn’t hurt to pack in a couple extra days to explore the riding available off of the main route.
Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
Aside from arguably jumpstarting bikepacking as a genre, the GDMBR is one of the most coveted and important long (and we mean really long) rides in the world. But no one is saying you need to tackle the entire nearly 2,700 miles from Canada to Mexico in one go. Instead, ride the 75-plus-mile section from Steamboat Springs to Kremmling along quiet roads through aspen trees, open fields and across the Colorado River.
The CT isn’t only for backpackers. Well, parts of it are — the six Wilderness Areas the trail crosses through need to be detoured by cyclists — but the 500-mile through-route from Durango to Denver is a bikepacker’s dream and a world-class multiday bike trip. Be warned: Riding the CT isn’t for the faint of heart. Tackling its entirety will result in a burly 72,000-plus feet of uphill climbing, some of it at a lung-crushing 13,000 feet. But if you can stand the roughly two-week challenge, you’re in for a spectacular mix of singletrack, gravel and some pavement. The route will lead you over peaks, around glacial lakes, through mountain forests and more. As an added bonus, you’ll get some of the best camping found anywhere — on bike or foot.
Tools to find more
Don’t see something that piques your interest? There are plenty of tools to help you discover off-the-beaten-path forest roads with free camping or long stretches of singletrack that you can link together to devise your own route. Motor Vehicle Use Maps from the local U.S. Forest Service office give clues to the difficulty of some forest roads, and the availability of free dispersed camping along them. Check Forest Service and local regulations for specific sections of trail to see if biking is allowed. And use websites like Gravelmap.com and Google Maps to hunt out roads suitable for biking, then compile your route into your activity-tracking app of choice (like Strava or RideWithGPS.com) to plan your route and follow it while you’re on the road.