Mountain Biking

Ken Hulick – Durango, Colorado

Mountain biking in Durango, Colorado, home to the first-ever World Mountain Bike Championships, is an attitude as much as anything. According to a friend from Texas, you can tell the quality of a town’s recreational spirit by the number of roof racks on the cars. In Durango, it seems that half the vehicles you see look like some neo-20th century Christmas tree — decorated with bikes, skis, kayaks, sailboards, and canoes.

Possibly the best mountain bike ride directly from town goes out 25th Street to the southern terminus of the Colorado Trail. From there, various options exist. A local favorite is an out-and-back on the main trail. The trail generally follows Junction Creek for a few miles, before climbing up the opposite side on a series of steep (but ridable) switchbacks. Each switchback presents nice mini challenges, and each is different both up and down. Above the switchbacks, the trail leaves the conifers to enter a rustling aspen forest, home to elk, deer, and the occasional black bear or mountain lion.

The Hoffheins and Dry Fork trails soon dive downhill back to Durango by other routes, while the main Colorado Trail continues some 470 more miles to Denver. Take a lunch.

This section of the trail is also the end of another classic Durango-area ride — from the ghost town of Mayday, across the crest of the La Plata Mountains at Kennebec Pass, and down the Colorado Trail to the trail head at 25th Street. Most riders run this as a shuttle, as the ride from Mayday to Kennebec Pass consists of 3,000 feet of elevation gain on 10 miles of four-wheel-drive road, and then there is still the 15 miles of technical single track back to Durango. (The car shuttle only takes about 30 minutes each way.) This is a local test-piece, and a serious undertaking. Most fit riders take 6 or more hours for the ride.

Rising from the north end of town is a horseshoe-shaped, gently rising plateau — Animas City Mountain. Animas City Mountain is covered with a pleasant conifer and oak-brush forest that invites laying on your back and listening to bird songs. It’s also a place for constantly looking down at your drive train and thinking, “Am I really already in my smallest chain ring?”

Finally, at the high point, your reward is a sweeping view of the Animas River valley and of hundreds of miles of forested ridges and jagged peaks. One looks, and wonders at the miles of riding possible in that vast green landscape.

One of the truly great rides in the entire U.S. lies just a few miles to the north of Durango — the Hermosa Creek Trail. Hermosa Creek is ridable by confident novices, yet is still listed as an all-time favorite by world-class riders like Ned Overend and Sara Ballantyne. (Incidently, if you do enough riding around Durango, you’re bound to see the local legends. World Champions Overend, Juli Furtado, Lisa Muhich, John Tomac, Missy Giove, and Greg Herbold all call Durango home.)

Most mortal riders will chose to ride Hermosa Creek as a shuttle, beginning above Purgatory ski resort (25 miles north of Durango) and ending at the small community of Hermosa, on the main highway north from Durango to Purgatory.

In between the two trail heads lie nearly 20 miles of the smoothest, most scenic single track imaginable. There are some steep hillside traverses and some steep sections of the trail that many riders will choose to walk. But generally, the trail is downhill for its entire length.

Hermosa Creek is one of the most popular multi-use trails near Durango, and it’s not uncommon to encounter hikers, horseback riders, and even motorcycles (legal there). The screaming downhill single track beckons, but watch those blind curves. Motorcycles and horses can generally be heard, but people are more silent. As are cows.

Cows, to me, are like horses or heavyweight fighters — I don’t trust anything bigger and stupider than I am. There is some summer grazing on the national forests around Durango, and I’ve encountered cattle on the trails at various times. My personal mode of coping is to ride real slow, talk to them sternly (“Please get the hell out of my way”), never get between what looks like a calf and it’s mother, and then ride like crazy as soon as I’m past them.

In 1990, just before the World Championships, the employees at Purgatory resort had to round up a wayward cow which had been wandering around the ski mountain for weeks. Fortunately, the cow was contained before the races, and no rider was faced with a bovine road block while going 30 miles-per-hour down the Worlds course.

Except by accident, there are no cattle around Purgatory, so the Worlds course becomes exciting and inviting. Winding for eight rugged miles around and across Purgatory’s ski mountain, the trail gives a feel for the challenges of a race of that caliber. Now imagine doing it four times in a row. All out.

Purgatory’s summer bike program continues to grow, and the resort offers inexpensive lift rides, mountain bike rentals, and a trail map detailing an additional half-dozen rides for all abilities.

In summer, the mixed spruce and aspen forests are alive with birds and animals, and the meadows are ablaze with wildflowers and cool, green grasses. The temptation is to linger rather than to hammer. All the trails at Purgatory are open at no charge (only rentals or lift rides cost), the only entry fee being the legs and lungs necessary to climb the challenging hills on the routes beginning at the base area.

These rides represent just a small sampling of the mountain biking in and around Durango. Hang around Durango mountain bikers long enough and you’ll find still more excellent rides in the area. Crested Butte and Moab have traditionally been cited as the mountain biking “Meccas” in the southwest U.S., but the diversity of rides around Durango is just as extensive. Add to that a funky town, a river to paddle all summer long, and a World Championship course to ride, and you’ve got mountain biking heaven.