Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Colorado Adventures: Mountain Biking Crested Butte

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Crested Butte, Colorado – a place I had heard about for a long time, but had never had the chance to see for myself before. As an adventure destination, CB's reputation proceeded it, as I had long heard that it was a great place to go mountain biking. As it turns out, the town easily exceeded my expectations, delivering great opportunities for riders of all skill levels.

For those that don't know, Crested Butte is considered one of the birthplaces of mountain biking. As far back as 1976 local riders were heading out across mountain passes on single-speed bikes that were hardly made for the conditions. In the 80's the sport really started to gain traction as riders took part in a number of grueling races and group rides, including the Pearl Pass Tour, which has been around for nearly four decades. CB is even home to the oldest mountain bike association in the world, something that they are rightfully proud of.

Located about 4.5 hours southwest of Denver by car (or a short hop to the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport), Crested Butte is a quintessential mountain town, complete with plenty of outdoor activities and surrounded by breathtaking scenery. With just 1500 permanent residents, you would expect it to be a sleepy little place, but the opposite is actually true. Not only is CB home to an interesting and eclectic blend of locals, it has plenty of visitors who come to partake in its outdoor playground pretty much any time of the year.

During the winter, the town is a wonderful ski destination, with Crested Butte Mountain Resort just minutes away. With more than 120 ski runs, and an average snowfall of about 300" (7.6 meters) each year, it has plenty to offer snowboarders and skiers alike. And for the more adventurous amongst us, the area also has outstanding backcountry opportunities as well, giving visitors a chance to shred untouched powder on a regular basis.

My visit came just after the end of the summer rush, but still prior to the start of the fall season, when the local aspen trees begin to take on their legendary golden hues. At some of the higher elevations that was already starting to happen, giving me a hint of what was to come. But while I was there summer was still in full swing, with cool mornings but warm afternoons that were perfect for hitting the trail.

With more than 750 miles of trails to explore, my four days in Crested Butte was only going to be enough to give me a small taste of what the area has to offer. Still, it was enough to give me an idea of what to expect, and it most definitely did not disappoint.

One of the things that I loved about Crested Butte was that riders can access a wide variety of trails without ever having to load their bike onto a vehicle. You can quite literally hop into the saddle and set off down the road, and be on a spectacular trail within a matter of minutes. As someone who has to drive a half hour or more just to reach a decent mountain biking trail, this came as quite refreshing change of pace.

On my first ride, I grabbed a rental bike from The Alpineer, a local bike shop with a very knowledgeable staff that will not only set you up with a great bike, but give you some good intel on where to head out for a ride too. After getting acquainted with my bike, I was soon headed off down the road in search of a trail. After about 10 or 15 minutes on pavement, my tires found some dirt at last.

For that afternoon, I rode the Lupine Trail which I'm told is covered in wildflowers throughout the summer. My guide for the ride was none other than Janae Pritchett of Colorado Backcountry Outfitters, and organization that not only teaches mountain biking but organizes excursions into the surrounding mountains on both bikes and skis. Janae offered plenty of insight into the local bike scene, and even had some good tips to help improve my own riding.

The Lupine Trail is listed at an intermediate difficulty, which I would say was pretty accurate. It was also the perfect for for me, as my lungs hadn't acclimated to the altitude just yet (CB is located at about 8500 ft (2590 meters), and often left gasping for air on some of the approach hills. If you're a low-lander like me, keep this in mind when you first start to ride. I'm in excellent physical condition, but still had a difficult time keeping up.

The seven-mile long Lupine Trail isn't very technical, but it does offer some great scenery and flows along very nicely. You'll have some nice downhill sections, but nothing overly crazy, and the climbs aren't particularly challenging unless you're still getting acclimated like I was. Even then, it was a fairly easy ride that even beginner mountain bikers will be able to appreciate.

The end of the trail deposited us out onto a paved road, which we used to access another trail system that would take us back into town. This time we road the Upper Lower Loop, which was an offshoot of the Lower Loop trail. The latter offers an easier ride back into Crested Butte, but if you want more of a challenge, with some technical aspects, then head to the Upper Lower. Both provide spectacular views that are worth the effort.

With my first taste of Crested Butte mountain biking under my belt, I was eager to see what else the area had to offer. On my second day of riding I caught the local bus (free!) up to Crested Butte Mountain Resort, where I grabbed another bike from the rental shop. This time out, I would be riding a downhill bike, which felt very different from the all-mountain machine I had the day before. After getting acquainted with this bike, I grabbed a ride on one of the lifts that whisked me away to the top of the mountain.

The resort has more than 30 different trails stretching out across 35 miles, with new ones being added each year. Those trails offer everything from easy routes designed for beginners to crazy double-black diamond runs that are built to get the adrenaline flowing in even the most experienced riders. The routes that I rode varied nicely in terms of challenges and terrain, but there were relatively few climbs, with most of the trails flowing downhill, where riders could simply hop right back on the lift and head to the top again for another run.

The resort literally has everything you need to get out on the trail. There are several different shops that rent bikes and equipment, so you can grab helmets, pads, and body armor depending on the style of your ride. You can also purchase lift tickets there and then set off for a full day of riding, simply stopping to grab lunch or to take a break in one of the various restaurants or pubs that can be found there.

The riding at the resort was very different than what I had found back closer to town. It was all about the downhill, which is fast, fun, and exciting. But, there was less of a chance to ride cross-country, so if you're looking to do some touring, you might focus your rides elsewhere. If you're a thrill seeker however, Crested Butte Mountain Resort is where you'll get your fix.

With two solid days of riding under my belt, it was nearly time to head home. But before I left for the airport on my final day, I had the chance to take one last ride in the morning. I dropped by The Alpineer again to grab another bike, and set off by myself to ride the Lower Loop Trail, which can be easily accessed from town. This ride was very easy, and gave me a chance to really soak in the scenery as I pedaled along. While I certainly enjoy the thrilling challenges of a good trail ride on a mountain bike, sometimes it is also nice to just enjoy all of the spectacular views of nature that can be found all around you. That's exactly what I did, breathing in the crisp, cool mountain air as I rolled along peacefully.

Over the course of several days, I was fortunate enough to get a good taste of the mountain biking scene in Crested Butte, and came away incredibly impressed. The place more than lives up to the hype, offering trails for all skill levels and even opportunities for newbies and experienced riders alike to improve their skills too. Whether you want a simple cross-country trail that allows you to take in the dramatic Colorado backdrops, or you're searching for crazy downhill madness, you'll find something to love on the trails in CB. They are beautiful, well maintained, and simply a joy to ride.

What more could you ask for in a mountain biking destination?

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