The Monarch Crest Trail. Do it. Enough said.
This one has been on my radar for a couple years, and it’s increased in popularity since it gained “Epic” status from IMBA. Epic is an understatement. A video game couldn’t create a world as perfect as this. Remember Leisure Suit Larry? Anyhoo…
The ride starts at Monarch Pass on the Continental Divide around 11,300’.
Unless you’re doing it as an out-n-back (which some folks do – riding to Marshall Pass and turning around… but then you miss out on the descent back to town)… this ride needs to be shuttled. It’s only 1/2 hour or so from Salida to the trailhead, so it’s pretty easy to park a car up there if you’re riding with a friend. But if you’re riding solo like me, you’re best bet is paying $20 and booking a shuttle from High Valley Bike Shuttle in Poncha Springs (4 miles from Salida). Rack up your bike, jump in the van, sniff the sunscreen party, judge the other passengers based on attire, and enjoy the views. Next thing you know, you’re at the trailhead ready to tear it up! Bring an extra roll of film!!
Much of the shreddery is above the tree line in one of the most majestic alpine settings you’ll ever find. Views of the Saguache Range, The Elks, and the San Juans are massive. You dip in and out of the trees, with most of the ride between 11-12,000’ as you traverse across what feels like the top of the world. The terrain ranges from super fast flowy smooth ST through grassy meadows to semi-techy rooty rock gardens. Nothing too hard. No matter what floats your boat, this place is bliss for any rider. Period.
This ride is basically a point to point, but there are a few variations of length and difficulty. After consulting a few locals and our shuttle driver Matty, I decided to do what they all recommended – and I couldn’t have been happier. Here’s what I rode:
- Monarch Crest Trail to Marshall Pass (mostly you just stay on the Continental Divide Trail, pretty easy to follow, signed well)
- Marshall Pass to Silver Creek Trail (again, you basically stay on the CDT until a sign on your left at 14.8 miles guides you to Silver Creek
- Enjoy a bomber descent down Silver Creek (one might call this section mind-blowing) until you meet up with the Rainbow Trail
- Enjoy the ups and downs of the Rainbow Trail (this tacks on roughly 1,000′ of climbing and the descents are worth it) until you hit Highway 285 around 30 miles into the ride.
- Start heading down Hwy 285 towards town for a couple miles until you hit Mile Marker 124.
- At Marker 124 cross the highway to your left, look for the pink ribbon and jump on another 2 miles of desert style singletrack with cacti lining the trail.
- Eventually, you ride through a shooting range with shotgun shells all over the ground and meet back up with the highway. In a couple miles you’re back at High Valley Bikes.
Get a map and and/or a guidebook for a more detailed approach – my description is very general. All in all, this route was about 35 miles (roughly 30 singletrack), 3000’ of climbing and 6,000’ descending according to my Garmin. It took me around 4 hours, riding at a decent pace and stopping often for photos, snacks, smiles, etc. The guidebook says anywhere from 3.5-7 hours so plan accordingly. I had perfect sunny weather in the high 60’s after raining the night before. You know what that means – Mutha F’n Hero Dirt for me, Sucka!!!
I rode my ss rigid and it was a blast. However, this ride is better suited for some squish… a 4-6” travel bike that can climb well would be perfect. There are many smooth sections, but also lots of rock gardens and rooted sections that I had to pick careful lines through… and my forearms took a beating… with some cushion you could just point it and send it!! The descent down Silver Creek is sick!! Did I already say that? Don’t miss it!!
The climbing is deceiving. You’re so stoked on life that you forget about much of it – until your lungs start searing your skin from the inside. There are a couple pretty steep parts… that will have you panting for what little oxygen is available at 12k elevation… nothing too long, but gradual sustained bits with a couple full on out of the saddle efforts (at least for me)… you do climb 3k to earn your 6k descent, so don’t take it lightly. Even though it’s a “shuttle” ride, it doesn’t feel like it. Be prepared, enough said.
After the ride, head to Amica’s Pizza and Microbrewery in downtown Salida and enjoy a Single Speed Red Ale (of course)… the IPA is good too, and so are the wood-oven pizzas. If you’re a Tour Divide fan like me (it’s on my bucket list too) then stop in to Absolute Bikes. Great shop, super nice peeps. Hoot!!