The Colorado Trail is a winding high alpine route that traverses over 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains from Denver to Durango. While there are a few hardy souls that take on the entire thing in one go, it’s more normally ridden in small little chunks. Starting from Kenosha Pass is one of the more common variations, and that’s what we chose for this late season attempt to get above treeline.
The Impending Storm
In most years, the snow barely melts up here until the middle of June. By early September the leaves have changed, and October signals the first serious snow. We set out from the trailhead knowing a storm was on its way. The first proper winter weather was scheduled to hit that afternoon, giving us a glorious window to get the goods. We’d made a late start; most of the people we saw on the trail were already heading home by the time we started out. The trail heads from Kenosha pass along an Aspen lined ridge, before dipping down into the trees. The views south across the orange-tinged hills looked cold and foreboding, and we knew we’d be on our own for most of the ride. It’s these conditions that really hammer home how self sufficient you need to be in the mountains. When there’s no one around to call, and absolutely no phone service anyway, it’s a great incentive to double-check your hydration pack to ensure you’ve got all the essentials. After crossing Jefferson Creek, the trail winds in an unbroken climb to the top of Georgia Pass at over 11,000 feet. We stopped at the creek and took in the warm sunshine filtering through the trees before attempting the rest of the climb.
Heading into the Unknown
As we started the final climb towards Georgia Pass, I had this eery feeling of being the only person for a long way around. It was already past noon, the sun was high in the sky, and we hadn’t seen anyone for a good hour. The trail is well trodden – it’s busy and popular in the summer months. The rooty switchbacks are polished from thousands of bike tires winching themselves towards the summit, and the sharpest corners are rutted and bumpy from over-enthusiastic riders enjoying themselves on the way back down. While nothing material had changed since we left the car, the smell of cold weather seemed to fill the air, making the ascent seem ever more lonely.
Getting Above Treeline
The climb to Georgia Pass is about 10 miles long. Not a huge distance, but with serious elevation to contend with, it makes for a great challenge. After leaving the creek at the bottom, you first tackle a series of ever-tighter switchbacks that gain a long east-west ridge. You’re now in the high alpine. Blue sky appears above, and you can see more light leaking around the edges of the hillsides, suggesting there isn’t much higher to climb. The switchbacks are replaced with a swoopy trail that traverses around the hillside, until a wide meadow opens up in front of you. After the muffled sounds of the forest, emerging into the open is like entering a new universe. The trees rustle as they sway in the breeze, and the soft bed of pine needles on the trail is replaced by the rough stones and rock that give these mountains their name.
We stop and listen. Not another human sound around. We’re barely 15 miles from the road, but we might as well be 100 miles. The wind seems to die down as we come to a stop and set our bikes down right in the middle of the trail. No one else is riding here today. With the storm that’s coming, we’re certain to be the last riders this year. It gives the mountains a new perspective; it’s just them and us.
It’s hard to pull ourselves away from the sunny spot in the meadow. We had set out with a destination in mind, and having reached it, the motivation to be back in the valley below was minimal at best. The sun crept ever closer to the trees around us, and as its warming rays left us, the temperature plummeted. It’s October in the high country. Any illusion of this being an inviting place was quickly dispelled. All that was left now was the descent.
There’s the checklist that every modern mountain biker knows before descending a long and fun trail. Dropper post: down. Suspension: unlocked. Pull the brakes a couple times and check your tires. You don’t want to have any reason to stop from here until the very bottom.
That traversing trail gives us a chance to get into the flow before getting thrown into the switchbacks. Ready and warmed up, those braking bumps in the corners pose no challenge. That hesitation between going faster and relishing the descent pulls at me. I’m normally cautious of hikers and other riders, but I let the wheels run just slightly more today. It’s quiet out here.
The rush ends sooner than you ever hope. Pushing your tires into the final pine-laden corners, knowing this is the last high alpine descent of the year. What to make of it? Sadness that the season is over? Or joy for being perhaps the last people to ride up here this year?
I’ll take the happiness any day. While snow is the curtain that drops to end our fun in the mountains, it’s also the necessary weather that keeps our mountains alive. The trails are now buried under their protective blankets for another season, and will be sure to reappear next summer ready to go. Braking bumps magically repaired, new lines created by the weight of the snow and the rush of water.