Cycling Guide: Designated Gold Level riding, RFV has gained serious cred in the mountain-biking world

Scott Condon
Cycling Guide 2020
Trails abound at the Snowmass resort, which in the summer has turned into a mountain-biking mecca for cross-country and downhill riders.
Anna Stonehouse / Aspen Times
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO One of the best ways to research trails in the Roaring Fork Valley is to use Riders can search by area, such as Basalt or Aspen, or look up a specific trail. They can get directions, a map, elevation gain and loss and the high and low points on the trail.

A steady addition of mountain biking trails in recent years paid off last winter when the Roaring Fork Valley was designated a Gold Level Ride Center by the International Mountain Biking Association.

The valley was recognized for more than 300 miles of single-track trails and dozens of miles of additional routes friendly for mountain bikers between Aspen and Glenwood Springs.

It was the first gold-level designation in Colorado and just the seventh worldwide.

The recognition will alert people traveling to the Roaring Fork Valley that there are challenging trails to seek out throughout the area, said Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association.

The nonprofit organization plays a key role in designing trails and organizing volunteer labor and professional trail building. The designation may also build greater awareness about the superb system within the valley, he said.

“We want people who live here to appreciate what we’ve got and support it,” Pritchard said.

All areas of the Roaring Fork Valley — which includes Snowmass Village, Basalt and Carbondale — contribute to the outstanding network. The days are long gone when riders had to travel to Aspen exclusively for good trails.

The city of Aspen, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program and U.S. Forest Service have expanded the Smuggler Mountain-Hunter Creek Valley-Four Corners trails into a world-class network with slow, steady additions and improvements over the last decade.

Josh Fanshel climbs the Airline Trail into Sky Mountain Park outside of Aspen.
Jeremy Wallace/Aspen Times file photo

Pitkin County’s acquisition of the property that became Sky Mountain Park allowed for intermediate flow trails — without technical challenges — that attract a wide variety of riders. Aspen Skiing Co. keeps adding trails for downhill thrill seekers at its bike park at Snowmass. Challenging cross-country trails also abound around the village.  

 Some of the biggest draws in the midvalley are the various loops possible by combing the Glassier Trail, Buckhorn Traverse, Buckhorn Trail and Vasten Trail, all relatively recent additions. The Glassier-Buckhorn Loop, rideable in either direction, provides 15.5 miles of run. The addition of the 6-mile Vasten single-track trail creates a longer day in the saddle for riders.

All those routes are single-track trails and all are located on a geographic feature called the Crown, a prominent hillside between the valley floor and Mount Sopris. The trails are generally buffed out, with just a few technical spots. They provide a moderate physical challenge.

“They were designed to be pretty friendly for climbing,” Pritchard said.

The trails on the Basalt/Emma side of the Crown can be linked to the Prince Creek trail network, making for a long, challenging day.

Pritchard said the trails are getting more popular because of easy access from Willits and El Jebel, and a slightly longer journey from Basalt via the Rio Grande Trail.

He said the Emma side of the Crown is as popular with midvalley riders as Sky Mountain Park is in the upper valley.

A biker rides down a Monte Carlo trail at Prince Creek Trails in Carbondale on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Despite the growing popularity, the trails aren’t overwhelmed yet. They are open to foot and bike traffic. The farther a rider gets from trailheads, the less likely to run into trail runners or hikers, Pritchard said. Other trails are dedicated to equestrian use.

Riders in the midvalley also have Basalt Mountain’s single-track routes available again after closures during and after the Lake Christine Fire in summer 2018.

The Mill Creek Trail as well as the longer Upper Basalt Mountain/Cattle Creek loop transformed over the course of the summer from a barren wasteland to routes lined with blooming fireweed and rapidly growing aspen tree saplings. Blackened conifer tree trunks will be part of the landscape for decades, but the fire opened up big vistas along the trails.

“Basalt Mountain is a pretty cool place to visit after the fire,” Pritchard said.

Mill Creek is a popular route when riders are pressed for time. It involves an easy climb up a Forest Service road and a quick descent via single-track trail.

The Upper Basalt Mountain trail provides a stiff climb though one that isn’t technical until the road gives way to a single-track route. After additional climbing through rock gardens, riders connect to a steep, technical descent on the Cattle Creek Trail.

“It’s just a good, physical challenge,” Pritchard said.

Both trails provide a ringside seat for fire recovery ecology.

Zach Nichols zips down the Mill Creek Trail in June 2019 on Basalt Mountain. The trail has everything from apocalyptic stretches to unsinged meadows after being in the middle of the 2018 Lake Christine Fire.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

In the lower valley, the Grandstaff Trail in Glenwood Springs’ backyard and the new network in South Canyon have been popular additions.

The Roaring Fork Valley received bronze-level recognition for its mountain bike trail system in 2014. The International Mountain Bike Association provided a detailed report on strengths of the system and what was lacking. That provided a guide for local cycling enthusiasts to add trail types, mileage and services. Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel will play an increasingly important role in appealing to a broad spectrum of skills, according to Pritchard.

The park in the El Jebel area currently has a BMX racetrack and a kids’ strider track. In the spring it is scheduled to add two lanes of mirrored asphalt pump track that can accommodate races and a progressive dirt jump park with features to accommodate beginners to experts, according to Nate Grinzinger, park and recreation manager at Crown Mountain Park.

By early July, the park hopes to complete a cross-country cycling skills course with a variety of features. It will be a place where individual riders can sharpen their skills and families can take a short spin.

“This park will be designed for all ages and all abilities. This will be one of the top parks in the state. A learning progression like this is very unique and will evolve our biking community significantly,” Grinzinger said. “We are creating a new generation of bikers who will go out into our gold-level biking trails.”

Scott Condon is a longtime reporter for The Aspen Times and hardcore mountain-biker.