If you go
What: Continental Divide Trail
Where: Start on top of Rabbit Ears Pass, end at the base of the Steamboat Ski Area
Distance: 18 miles at its shortest, but the potential trails can make it as large and as long an adventure as a biker could want.
How to get there: Head east out of Steamboat Springs on U.S. Highway 40 to the Dumont Lake area on Rabbit Ears Pass. Start either at a trailhead at the back of the campground (the second left from the Dumont Lake access road) or take the third left and follow a bumpy, pot-holed road four miles to the Base Camp trailhead.
When it’s best: Late summer, when the snow has finally melted. The second half of July and all of August should be prime time.
Steamboat Springs The first and last things to know about the Continental Divide Trail is that it’s huge. Massive. Simply epic.
In one 18-mile variation, it contains everything a Rocky Mountain mountain biker could hope for — steep climbs and sharp descents, boulder-strewn singletrack and rock-hopping creek crossings. There are crystal clear lakes that reflect a bright blue sky and wide meadows ringed by aspens and pines.
The course — one of many adaptations, anyway — stretches from the cool, lonely base of Rabbit Ears Peak to the cold-beer-waiting base of Steamboat Ski Area, and it will serve next month as the trail for the 200-rider Ride the Divide Livestrong Ride 4 Yellow event, which will draw the biggest biker of them all, Lance Armstrong, to Steamboat Springs.
My first attempt to conquer the Continental Divide trail ended abruptly. I rumbled up to the trailhead a little after 1 p.m. Thursday afternoon. I was maybe a mile down the often easy singletrack. I already had crawled over three fallen trees and crossed two streams. The going was slow, and as I pedaled, the clouds darkened. The storm had been dousing Oak Creek and Yampa and was tracking east when I left my computer, but in the hour it took me to drive up to Rabbit Ears Pass and on to the trailhead near Dumont Lake, it had built north and suddenly threatened me.
So I turned around.
My second attempt, starting from the same trailhead at 8 a.m. Friday, went considerably better, but the first push, as well as anything else, represents the kind of undertaking a trip down the Divide Trail can be.
It can take capable mountain bikers four full hours of riding time to complete, and much of the trail is on singletrack far from any sort of help. Mosquito spray is just as important as sunscreen, as the pesky insects swarm anyone who stops or even slows along the trail. Adequate water and food are equally important, especially for beginner to moderate cyclists who won’t be able to tackle the entire trail at full speed.
Beware of everything from wildlife to afternoon thunderstorms.
It’s got it all
The Continental Divide Trail is everything a mountain bike trail should be. It’s challenging and rewarding throughout.
There are two ways to start the trail. One trailhead begins at the back of the Dumont Lake campground at the Dumont Lake turnoff along U.S. Highway 40 on Rabbit Ears Pass. The campground is the second left on the access road after turning off the highway.
Another trailhead is available 4 miles farther down the access road. Follow the road past the well-marked campground and take the third left, at the Rabbit Ears monument, then drive straight through a gate and 4 miles down a pothole-ridden, rocky road to the Base Camp trailhead.
The trail pushes away from Rabbit Ears Pass and along a series of lakes. Early Friday they were utterly abandoned, and I had the trail and every gasp-inducing scenic overlook to myself.
Fishook Lake awaits about 1.5 miles into the trip and is followed in quick succession by Lost Lake (which requires a 50-yard detour), Lake Elmo, Little Lost Lake and finally, after hanging a left at a four-way trail intersection to stick on the Fish Creek Falls Trail, Long Lake.
That first half of the trail winds through expansive meadows dazzling with brightly colored wildflowers and into pine forests with trees towering high into the sky. The riding never is very technical and rarely demanding, maintaining a steady elevation for the first 4 miles to the intersection. Boulders sometimes litter the trail but rarely choke it off.
The “Lance Ride” will hang another left right after the lake onto the Mountain View Trail, which grows steadily more demanding as it climbs toward the top of Steamboat Ski Area. The ride doesn’t become more technical, just more grinding as the altitude stacks up. It doesn’t become any less worth it, either, as the views improve with every switchback climbed.
Finally, the vast Yampa Valley laid out below, the backside of the ski area comes into view, the Morningside Lift promises that there isn’t that much more left. The trail climbs into the ski area just behind the top of the Storm Peak Express chairlift and there are multiple ways to reach Thunderhead, including the Sunshine Trail and the Storm Peak Challenge.
The beauty of the Continental Divide Trail is it can be so many different things.
It doesn’t have to be a marathon — a quick ride or hike out to the lakes is plenty rewarding. The main trail, if Mountain View isn’t taken, eventually leads to Fish Creek Falls, and then quickly to downtown Steamboat Springs. Another turnoff leads to Buffalo Pass, or riders can stick to the Wyoming Trail.
It’s deeper than the multitude of potential destinations, too.
The Continental Divide Trail can be an excellent venue for a big ride. It can be a race track for the world’s most famous cyclist or a half-day test for a Steamboat gearhead. For me, someone for whom a four-hour trip was unrealistic, it was something else, though. It was a full-day activity, an 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. ride with plenty of pushing and a half dozen stops, breaks in the shade on logs or rocks high in the mountains that surround Steamboat, and pauses to photograph hard-to-match views.
For me, a self-proclaimed intermediate mountain biker, the Continental Divide Trail wasn’t a test. It was just one enormous adventure.