Fat tires, phat rides in Aspen, the valley
ASPEN ” When you think of mountain biking near Aspen, the Smuggler/Hunter Valley loop and vast network of trails it accesses pop quickly to mind ” with good reason.
Smuggler Mountain is the most popular route in town, thanks to its accessibility and versatility. Smuggler Mountain Road rises up on the edge of town. Riders can make a quick loop after work or take various forks in the road and turn it into an all-day adventure on a combination of Jeep roads and single track. Smuggler is the gateway to Hunter Creek Valley, Four Corners, Van Horn Park, the Sunnyside Trail, Lenado and even the Rocky Fork trail to Ruedi Reservoir.
Riders experiment with the various permutations all summer, rarely follow the same exact route twice and never get sick of the premium riding. This loop is as important to cycling in Aspen as Bell Mountain is to skiing on Ajax.
A word of advice if you don’t know the area: Get a map at one of the local bike shops and chat up the shop personnel for options and directions.
What: Red Hill
Where: Just outside Carbondale
Elevation gain: 850 feet in 1 mile
Time: 90 minutes at least
Difficulty: Strenuous with technical sections
Red Hill and the network of trails in the Mushroom Rock area used to be the best riding that no one knew about in the Roaring Fork Valley. Now it’s just the best riding. The trail is one of the earliest to dry out in the spring, so it has a tendency to get hammered early.
The area’s popularity has soared since 1996, when Davis Farrar and the other volunteers with the Red Hill Council persuaded the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to let the group use some old deer trails and informal routes scratched into the area – taking the pressure off the steep Three Poles trail to Mushroom Rock. This route takes off from the north side of the intersection of Hwy. 82 with Hwy. 133. About one-quarter mile up the gravel road are the trailheads for Three Poles and the newer Three Gulches.
Riding Three Gulches is about as satisfying as eating your first meal after a lengthy backpacking trip. Three Gulches is a steep, technical climb that really makes you practice your riding skills. It hooks into the Blue Ribbon Trail that leads to Mushroom Rock and great views of Carbondale and the surrounding area. From there, the aptly named Roller Coaster trail leads to the Faerie and Bogus trails and the optional out-and-back on the Elk Traverse. The loop takes about 90 minutes with a nice break to check out the scenery at Mushroom Rock, but without the Elk Traverse.
There is no better 90 minutes of riding as far as Farrar is concerned. “I have yet to talk to anyone who doesn’t rave about it,” Farrar said. “It’s Moab-style riding, minus the slickrock, right in our back yard.”
What:Red Table Mountain
Where: From Basalt Mountain east to Red Table via single-track trail and old Jeep roads
Elevation gain: Roughly 5,000 feet from Basalt to Red Table Mountain
Time: 4 to 6 hours
Difficulty: Strenuous and tiring
It’s not often that public land managers do you a favor by closing a trail, but that’s exactly what the U.S. Forest Service did for mountain bikers by closing the Ruedi Trail between the reservoir and Red Table Mountain. How is that a favor? Now riders can concentrate on the fun part of the Red Table Mountain ride rather than completing a loop on a section that jars teeth (downhill) or rips out lungs (uphill).
Start the ride in El Jebel or park in the Forest Service parking lot on Basalt Mountain, accessed via Missouri Heights. Take the smooth, former logging road up a steady climb and through the aspen trees. After a final steep stretch, the road levels out and heads northeasterly. Eventually, after some of the best riding in the valley through the rock gardens of the Basalt Mountain single track, riders reach a T-intersection where the left fork falls to Cattle Creek and back to Missouri Heights. The right fork leads to endless, rolling miles between Basalt Mountain and Red Table Mountain, mostly on single track. After several miles of rollers, steep switchbacks take riders up to a Jeep road on Red Table. That leads to a more established gravel road. Masochists can keep climbing until the roads tops out at about 11,775. feet.
Now that the Ruedi Trail is closed to bikes, turn around and retrace your route. You won’t be sorry, the switchbacks you grunted up now charge your adrenaline as a fast descent. Take the route back to the T-intersection, then catch more superb downhill by taking the fork that leads to Cattle Creek. Pare some time, and one of the more tedious sections, by turning around sooner when the single track intersects the Jeep road on Red Table. You still hit the ride’s sweet spot.
What: Single-track loop around Snowmass
Where: Various single-track trails rimming Snowmass Village
Elevation gain: 3,000 feet over 24 miles
Time: At least a half-day
Difficulty: Tough climbing
Snowmass Village cyclist John Wilkinson has been a key promoter of the town’s rapidly expanding single-track trail system. He rides a combination that lets him circle the town’s perimeter on single tracks. The route combines the popular Rim Trail with the Highline Trail, Tom Blake Trail, Powerline, Government East and West trails, then the Ditch Trail back to the village. It’s wise to go with a veteran or, at the least, pick up one of the superb Snowmass Village summer trail maps to follow the route.
“To put it all together you have to be a fit person, but it’s not really expert riding,” said Wilkinson. But it is excellent riding, considering that almost the entire route is on single tracks.
Where: At the base of Mount Sopris
Elevation gain: 1,300 feet in 10 miles from Thomas Lakes trailhead to Hay Park
Time: 3 to 5 hours
The Hay Park Trail gives midvalley riders a nice taste of variety in the shadow of Mount Sopris. From the Thomas Lakes trailhead, the route sends riders up a rocky, sandy trail with long, dawdling switchbacks that finally emerge into a meadow. The trail climbs steadily through forested lands and over streams before emerging again in the high meadow known as Hay Park.
Basalt rider Jim Paussa considers the variety of terrain is the big plus. Most of the route is single track, or one primary route on old Jeep roads. From the high point at Hay Park, at about 9,500 feet, there are glorious views of Sopris and into the Capitol Creek Valley.
Riders have numerous options. They can ride West Sopris Creek Road and the Dinkle Lake Road for access, but they can also skip the dusty routes and drive to the trailhead parking lot. From the trailhead to Hay Park is about 10 miles. Some riders choose to turn around at Hay Park and enjoy the downhill back over terrain they grunted up. Other riders hook into the single-track network that eventually – after numerous stream crossings, short climbs and quick descents – spits them onto Capitol Creek Road. From there, it’s a steady downhill back to Snowmass Creek Road and civilization.
To get there: From Carbondale, take Hwy. 133 south for about 1.4 miles. Make a left on Prince Creek Road and follow it for about six miles. When the road forks, take the right fork and drive another two miles, following the signs for Dinkle Lake. Park across from the Thomas Lakes trailhead (an obvious, large pullout on the left). After 1.5 miles on the Thomas Lakes Trail, you’ll reach the intersection with the Hay Park Trail.
Where: Independence Pass
Elevation gain: about 1,000 in about 6.5 miles (one way)
Time: 1.5 to 2.5 hours round-trip
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Lincoln Creek Road is a four-wheel Jeep road that splits off from Hwy. 82 on Independence Pass, east of Aspen. (It’s about 4 miles past the winter gate, 11 miles or so from town.) For the beginning rider, it’s a good place to get a feel for mountain biking’s quick, steep pitches and rocky terrain, but it’s an enjoyable ride for many a hard-core biker, especially for those who venture beyond Grizzly Reservoir, our recommended destination for the novice rider.
The drawback to this road is it sees a fair amount of summer traffic, especially on weekends, from people seeking out one of the camping spots along the road, one of the trailheads it accesses or who are simply out on a four-wheeling expedition. On the other hand, if you’re camping there, it’s an ideal ride right outside your tent door. The best bet is an early morning or evening ride, or tackling it on a weekday.
It’s about 6.5 miles from the parking area on the highway to Grizzly Reservoir, where there’s a dam, a small campground and a private home for the water system’s keeper. The ride’s steepest and rockiest sections are at the beginning; the road smoothes and levels out as you get closer to the reservoir. It follows tumbling Lincoln Creek the entire way. Enjoy some time by the water, then return the way you came.
For those looking for a far greater workout, follow the road around to the left of the home and beyond the reservoir. It gets considerably rougher and steeper, but offers profuse wildflowers and views of the Collegiate Wilderness peaks. Stay on the road as it parallels the creek and you’ll wind up at the former mining town of Ruby, which consists of crumbling remains of cabins. Ruby is at 11,400 feet and it’s where riders who love this route turn around and head back down.
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