Dreaming of a mountain biking mecca? If you live in Colorado or are planning a riding holiday, an all but mandatory summer riding destination is the Monarch Crest Trail, offering quintessential high country riding.
Starting on the ridge of the Continental Divide at the 11,312ft Monarch Pass and climbing up from there, the 34-mile point-to-point route consists primarily of singletrack that keeps riders above 11,000ft for approximately 11 miles before gradually dropping to 7,000ft.
In the Crest’s upper elevations the paths occasionally run perfectly atop the Continental Divide, offering unrestricted, 360-degree views of the Colorado Rockies.
So is it a 34-mile downhill? Not quite. There are amazing descents that last for miles but they’re buffered by long, steep and sustained climbs that shatter the egos of the unprepared – or misinformed – on a daily basis.
You should go into the ride thinking that it’s a great cross-country route with some fantastically long descents – such as the roughly 7-mile drop down the Silver Creek section.
The classic 34-mile route to Rainbow Trail usually takes competent riders three to five hours. Most of the ride is along buff Colorado singletrack but it’s riddled with more than a few technical sections (exposed roots, scree fields, rock gardens, and so on) that will keep you on your toes.
There are also several options to make the ride shorter or longer, and there are a few key turns that are essential for making it home on the same day, so it’s best to pick up a map in one of the local shops before giving it a try.
The Rainbow Trail section is a favorite for many riders
By elevation and exposure alone, the Crest trail is an intermediate to advanced ride, and probably shouldn’t be attempted by beginners on their own. Be prepared for snow, sleet or freezing rain, even in the peak of summer.
Prime time for the Crest is in mid-to-late September, when the Aspen leaves are glowing gold and the weather is slightly less prone to afternoon thunderstorms. A fantastic option for that time of year is the Monarch Crest Crank fundraiser, which not only benefits the Chaffee County Alliance Against Domestic Abuse but offers a one-stop option for breakfast, shuttle service, support, and food, music, new friends and brews in Salida afterwards.
Bike wise, the Crest trail doesn’t demand any specific setup, although there are more than enough rocks to warrant tubeless tires. Any fun, efficient trail bike that’s well sorted for a day in Colorado’s backcountry should do fine. If you don’t have your own bike there are several rental options in and around Salida. BikeRadar have opted for 5in travel trail bikes more often than not over the years, and will probably continue with that choice for the Crest.
Like the Arkansas River it sits by, the small mountain town of Salida is surrounded by Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks – many of which are above 14,000ft in elevation – and offers great riding along with an impressive amount of culture for a place its size.
If there isn’t music by the river, a farmer’s market in the city park, or creative homemade vessels floating through town during America’s oldest whitewater festival, known as FIBArk, ask around – there’s probably a roller derby or twilight pump track session somewhere just outside of town.
The town offers an interesting mix of old and new in terms of its buildings
Salida’s trail system is also growing at an impressive rate, with fun, well-maintained singletrack literally on the edge of town.
‘S’ hill is currently where the majority of the goods are, and the trail system itself is considered a city park, complete with excellent signage, including maps at the trailhead. It’s a great option for an afternoon ride before tackling the Crest trail the following day, and on warmer summer days you can take a trailside dip in the Arkansas River.