I love drawing lines on maps and dreaming of sufferfests to do. I seem to squeeze out the most enjoyment from long ridge runs. I love being up high, teetering on top of a knife edge between two drainages, without the need of a trail to follow, yet having an obvious route in front of me. I revel in the exposure the position gives me to wind, weather, and of course: gravity.
The Continental Divide makes an obvious target for my doodles, and many of my past fastpacks have used segments of it already – either in whole or in part. Last year, I traversed the CD between Milner Pass and Berthoud Pass – located just outside my back door and earlier in that same year I traveled from Loveland Pass to Guanella Pass with a bike lashed to my back. Previously, I took on the Mosquito/Tenmile Range in total, where the CD makes an appearance for a few peaks (McNamee, Clinton, Wheeler), before bowing out. And of course, I’ve even ridden the Tour Divide Race on a mountain bike, which crosses the Continental Divide some three dozen times or so. All these trips had their unique aspects, and each one I believe is an ultra classic. What to do, next?
The Colorado Trail is an awesome thru-hike route! But I noticed while hiking the CT, that much of the time that the best parts of an area you hike through just aren’t really showcased. The trail just weaves itself along a contour line below treeline, and you miss out on seeing most of the high country just outside your grasp.
Are you an advanced hiker?
If so, spice up your thru-hike by summiting a 14er or two (or all of them!) you can find right off the main trail! Below, I’ll describe all the 14er routes I’ve taken off the Colorado Trail, and some high 13er peaks that are also easily accessible. Most of the routes of the CT are in the Sawatch Range, between Leadville and just outside Salida. One is located in the San Juans outside of Creede, CO (San Luis).
For most of these routes, I would suggest dropping your main packs, and taking only what you realistically need from the out-and-back summit bid (hang your food, etc – of course). I describe the route mileage as one way, rather than RT, unless otherwise noted.
For some of these peaks, I do suggest an alternative loop which will ascend one route, and descend another, if you don’t mind missing a small portion of the Colorado Trail. For those options, bring everything, but realize that this makes the hike to the summit much harder. Make sure to time your hikes to miss the seasonal monsoon/thunderstorm weather (start early), and be mindful you’ve brought enough food for these CT alts. – they’ll take longer than the main trail.
Adventure Cycling‘s Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR for short) is one of my favorite off-pavement bike routes in the country. I’ve done two tours of it myself while racing it, and have used segments the route itself quite a bit while doing shorter bikepacking tours. It’s well-designed, lots of beta about accommodations exist, and you’re bound to find like-minded people traveling on the route to bump into.
When I designed my Tour 14er, and later Highest Hundred tour, knowledge of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route was key in piecing together my own custom route. It’s actually pretty surprising how many 14ers can be accessed without getting too far from the main GDMBR.
Here’s some of the more convenient detours off of the GDMBR to Colorado’s 14ers. Names of mountains will be linked with the appropriate route to the summit from the trailhead my directions give access to.
The Weminuche. This was the make-or-break section of my tour. A large project within an enormous project. Lots of terrain to cover, lots of mountains to top. Technical scrambling in a desolate setting. For example, Jagged Mountain’s easiest route rated at 5.2 is one of the technical cruxes of the whole trip and is located more than a dozen miles from any trailhead. Jagged is also one of the more remote peaks in the Highest Hundred itinerary. I also planned to take Vestal’s Wham Ridge (5.4) to summit, rather than the easier, if much looser, Southeast Couloir. I would have to descend the Southeast Couloir anyways, but Wham Ridge seemed too incredible to pass off in the name of speed.
Let’s talk logistics of even getting in there. There are nine peaks of the the Weminuche (sans the isolated Rio Grande Pyramid, which I did in a separate trip). First the good news. Five of the them: Jupiter, Windom, Sunlight, North Eolus, and Eolus are clumped into one area, easily accessible from each other in the quite popular (for Weminuche standards) Chicago Basin.
Now the bad: Turret/Pigeon, Jagged Mountain, and Vestal Peak are spaced quite far away from each other, separated by gnarly mountain passes, with no trail connecting them together.
Further complicating matters is the weather: it can be terrible, especially in the monsoon season, which is when I inevitably hit the area. With the trip being a multi-day affair and my goal of moving quickly, I could only afford bringing just so much food in my 35 liter pack, which limits how long I can stay out for. Margin of error is low, or I would face the problem of needing to go back into town to resupply, and making yet another unplanned backpack approach in, which I imagine would feel completely demoralizing for someone like me going for clock time.
For Seekers of the Self-Powered Way, there are only a few access points that make sense to gain these summits. The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is often used to cut down time/distance to access many of these peaks. For me, that would be of course: off the table.
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is without a doubt one of the preeminent off road touring routes in the US/Canada. Now that I’ve ridden the route essentially twice and have done some extensive touring within Colorado, I can’t help but think how one could enhance it.
Personally, I enjoyed my time more when the route stuck close to the actual Continental Divide, rather than opting to drop down into a relatively easy going valley or basin to gain some mileage towards the end goal (finishing!). I always greatly anticipated gaining the summit of the passes, then rocketing down. Knowing Colorado a little more intimately now, it’s a shame how much of Colorado is missed with the relatively easy path the GDMBR takes.
The GDMBR has many goals, and one of the most important one is to get a heavily laden bicycle and rider (cyclists on a mountain bike, pulling a trailer) eventually to the end of the route. If the route is too long, too hard, and/or with too many Divide crossings, it’s just never going to realistically happen for a good majority of people. If we throw these constraints out of the window, and focus on the goal of staying as close to the Divide as possible, while also keeping the route terrain somewhat similar: gravel roads to 4×4 trails, we start drawing out something a little different.
Below, I’ll be describing a route that takes you off the official GDMBR just before Ute Pass, and rather takes you up and over the Continental Divide at Rollins Pass, parallels the James Peak Wilderness as you travel south to Idaho Springs, then brings you back west to go up and over the Continental Divide again at Argentine Pass, finally depositing you once again onto the official GDMBR in summit county. It circuitous and it’s a whole lot of fun .
Ah, a good nice long ride in the Colorado Front Range foothills. If you’re like me, you like your rides to be challenging and engaging – as well as avoiding perils, such as traffic. A ride from Boulder to Idaho Springs (and beyond!) should be an easy target to hit. Idaho Springs makes a good resupply point, if you’re hoping to go further into the mountains, as there’s a good bike route from the Springs that you can take up and over Loveland Pass and onto the other side of the Continental Divide.
Unfortunately, between Boulder and Idaho Springs are the old mining townsites of Black Hawk and Central City, which now are home to gambling towns. Black Hawk seems to have quite an aversion to cycling in general, going so far as banning it outright in town. The reason? Traffic from people coming into town to gamble – one of the only reasons one would come to Black Hawk and stay for any extended period of time. No gambling, no Black Hawk. This ban was overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court, but Black Hawk has made it uncomfortable for cyclists to go through town, as they’ve made an out of the way detour that bicycles need to follow – you can’t use the main street, that goes right to Central City! Thus, cycling is still banned in most of Black Hawk.
I don’t necessarily like going through Black Hawk/Central City. You lose and gain a tremendous amount of elevation to essentially ride through the middle of a high-traffic area (ie:no payoff!)- an area that doesn’t even like you being there. But, if you don’t mind some gravel and a more adventurous route, there are alternatives: