National forest provides getaway for serious bikers

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— It's the time of year to swap boards for bikes.

The change of seasons means some of the best biking trails around are drying out. Steamboat Springs is home to plenty of gearheads. The town's proximity to the Routt National Forest makes it a prime gateway to a memorable afternoon or all-day riding experience.

Local bike experts at any one of Steamboat's bike shops can suggest plenty of tried-and-true rides for the beginner and seasoned mountain biker. They also have the tools and gear to equip bikers for easy and rigorous outings. People who come to Routt County without wheels shouldn't worry; there's a huge selection of mountain, road and kids' bikes to rent.

Drew Gunn, a mechanic with Sore Saddle Cyclery, advises novice riders and bikers not accustomed to the elevation to know their limits and plan their rides accordingly.

Below is a list of trails to keep in mind before heading out.

Spring Creek Trail

This is one of the more basic trails and it starts right in town. Starting just east of Steamboat Springs High School, the approximately 5-mile trail winds through a shaded valley -- which is great for a hot day -- and ends up in a campground.

Many people ride up to Dry Lake Campground on County Road 38 (Buffalo Pass), a long climb on a mostly dirt road, and down the single-track Spring Creek trail to town. A parking lot at Dry Lake provides an opportunity for riders who would rather skip the climb, drive to the top of the single track and enjoy pure downhill. The only drawback for riders is that hikers and horseback riders use the trail extensively, so watching your speed is key on this trail. Bikers should always give horses the right of way.

Howelsen Hill/Emerald Mountain

Howelsen and Emerald Mountain trails promise a friendly ride for bikers of all ability levels. The mountain's series of loops cross each other and create several riding options.

The Orton Meadow Loop remains a favorite. Many people start out on the backside of Howelsen Hill, where the Quarry Trail (Blackmer Drive) begins, and ascend the brief, steep climb to access the series of loops. Keep an eye out for signs intended to keep riders on the trail and off private property.

Hot Springs Loop

This more advanced trail offers less-seasoned riders a few challenges. Newer riders can always hop off if the technical, rocky portions unnerve them.

This trail is key in the spring because it's one of the first to dry out. Bikers who wish to access the trail should take the Strawberry Park Road to the Strawberry Park Hot Springs and ride until the road ends -- the Hot Springs Trail starts there.

The first 200 yards of the trail is technical and steep with rocks, but it mellows out a bit during the ride.

The Hot Springs Loop connects with the Mad Creek and Red Dirt trails for bikers looking for a longer ride with more varied terrain.

Lower Bear/ Elk Park trails

This trail is a popular loop close to Steamboat, but it's not for novice riders. The Routt County Riders and Rocky Mountain Youth Corps recently refurbished sections of the Lower Bear Trail, which connects to the Elk Park Trail. The ride begins just off County Road 36, or Strawberry Park Road, about a mile from the Strawberry Park Hot Springs. A sign on the right-hand side of the road marks the entrance "Elk Park Trail," but bikers focusing on the climb may miss it, so keep track of your mileage and keep an eye on the right hand side of the road as you approach the hot springs. Riders should prepare for several steep, rocky parts may require dismounting.

Steamboat Ski Area

Mountain bikers replace skiers and riders once the snow melts from the ski area. Popular spots include rides up Zig Zag and down Valley View and Pete's Wicked Trail.

A good hour of uphill riding is necessary to make it to the good stuff -- but the payoff is worth the effort. Sunshine, which cuts through the aspen and spruce trees of the Shadows and Closet runs, promises a pleasant ride at sundown.

Those who want to focus on the downhill won't be disappointed. The ski area provides several fast runs that switch-back down the sides of the mountain. People who don't want to huff and puff up the mountain can purchase a pass to take the gondola to the top and then ride down.

Continental Divide

Bikers who want to spend the day, or a few days on the trail, should consider the Continental Drive Trail. The ride begins at the Dumont Lake Campground on Rabbit Ears Pass. Later trails link up with the ski area and Buffalo Pass. Some riders shuttle down from Dumont Lake.

A good portion of the Continental Divide Trail offers breathtaking views and solidarity. People who seek the quieter, more serene qualities of this trail should remember that the U.S. Forest Service allows no mountain bikes in the wilderness. Would-be riders should keep the no-mechanized rule in mind, said Ed Patalik of the U.S. Forest Service.

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