Steamboat Springs For seven days and 215 miles, from Durango to Moab, Utah, eight Steamboat Springs mountain bikers rode together.
They climbed as high as 12,600 feet and pedaled through mud so thick it turned their bikes into anchors, but it was “a trip of a lifetime,” rider Nate Bird said.
Bird, a sales manager at Honey Stinger in Steamboat, and seven others conquered the trail along the San Juan Hut System, a string of fully stocked huts that provide riders with shelter, beds and necessary kitchenware. With about 35 miles of separation between each hut, riders like Bird and his fellow Steamboaters traversed segments of the trail that provide “mind-blowing” views of scenery and wildlife.
“You’re incorporating the beauty and serenity of backpacking but covering so much ground on your bike, along with the exhilaration of riding downhill,” Bird said. “It was insane.”
Local rider Greg Grasso started planning the group's adventure in February. Because of the San Juan Hut System’s popularity, he said, reserving a spot along the trail many months in advance is critical.
The trip features standard and alternate routes and, as the group experienced, myriad ways to exhaust yourself. On their first day, the cyclists took the alternate route that begins at Molas Pass on the western end of the Colorado Trail. The route took the group to 12,600 feet, the highest elevation of the entire trip, and neck-deep into the wilderness.
“It was a long, trying day,” Bird said. “It was definitely a new experience for much of the riders, especially with that extra weight in your bag on the bike.”
After taking in sprawling views and testing varying terrain, the group encountered trouble on Days Four and Five.
The recent storms across Colorado dumped days' worth of rain on the last third of the trail. As the group descended from high terrain, mud covered the desert floor.
“That desert mud will kill you; it’s crazy,” Bird said. “Your bikes turn to 100 pounds.”
Two miles from the hut they stayed at the previous night, the eight riders soon realized it was time to turn around. The group desperately tried to hose down their bikes with water to clean off the mud, but it took five hours to return to the hut.
Fortunately for Bird and company, a San Juan Hut System worker was at the Steamboat group's previous destination restocking the facility, and a mixed group of eight Steamboat Springs residents and New Zealand visitors found themselves sharing the one hut.
Grasso said the two groups crammed about 15 people into an eight-person hut, bunking together so everyone had a bed. The following day, half of the group was shuttled the next full stretch by the San Juan Hut System worker, and the other half biked some of the roughly 35-mile trail. All eight Steamboat cyclists met at Geyser Pass later that night, but Bird said the shuttle was just as wild as the bike ride.
“It was one of the gnarliest drives I’ve ever done,” Bird said.
With the toughest part behind them, the riders embarked on the trail's final stretch, which took them into the LaSalle Mountains in Utah that culminated in a 6,000-foot descent on the final day. With the sound of elk bugling “nonstop,” the eight capped off their trip Friday riding one of Moab’s most famous trails, the Whole Enchilada.
“It’s one of those bucket-list things out there for mountain bikers,” said Bird, who has been mountain biking for about a decade now. “I’ve known about it for a long time, so I’ve always heard of the trips.”
Bird said bikepacking — the mountain bike version of backpacking — is gaining popularity. The group’s trip took plenty of “powwowing,” as Bird put it, and map consultation along the way, but he already is looking forward to the next opportunity.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Bird said. “Now, knowing more, you have to be prepared for all weather and all situations.”
To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll
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