Mountain Biking the Arkansas River Valley – Something for Everyone

I have lived along the Front Range of Colorado for most of my life and have been an avid mountain biker that entire time.  I have had the pleasure of exploring many of the trails that the Front Range has to offer and have also enjoyed venturing out to a variety of mountain biking “meccas” throughout the rest of the state.  However, I have spent very little time in the Arkansas River Valley and have done almost no mountain biking there.  That is why, when I received an invitation to get out and explore some of the trails in the area with a few of the guides from the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (RMOC) in Buena Vista, I jumped at the chance.  I showed up on a Thursday morning in late September after making the three-hour drive from my home in Fort Collins.  I had considered driving down the night before and pitching a tent at one of the RMOC campsites on the river’s edge, but with my wife out of town for work, I was on dog duty so just decided on an early morning departure after getting the dogs fed and walked. 

I showed up at the appointed time and promptly changed into my regular (and pretty much only) riding attire of tight bibs and jersey.  When I met my riding partners Brandon, Ryan, and Dave and saw them decked out in knee and shin pads, I briefly wondered what I had gotten myself into when I had confidently emailed them a week before that I was up for “anything” and just wanted to be exposed to a variety of typical and iconic trails in the area.  We loaded our bikes onto a trailer and were shuttled to the top of Vitamin B, a nearby double-diamond downhill.  My riding partners briefly described some sections of the trail ahead, discussing the moves that would need to be linked together in order to get through the sections cleanly, and where we would need to stop and scout.  I immediately took note of the blurring of terms that I generally consider more applicable to climbing or rafting or kayaking than the mountain biking that I most commonly do, with my focus on cross-country racing.  The terms made sense given the source, as my riding partners also work as rafting, kayaking, and climbing guides at RMOC.  I was intrigued and soon learned how apropos the terms were. 

The Vitamin B trail offers plenty of sections that flow, with a few punchy climbs, some of which are quite rocky and technical.  It is the multitude of challenging features along the trail that set it apart, however.  With names like “Flight for Life” and “Balls” (reportedly christened as such after one of the first to attempt it reportedly tore open his scrotum along the way), many of them are not for the faint of heart. 

If not linked perfectly, many of the features can be hard on both the body and the bike, with potentially rather high consequences for those whose eyes are bigger than their skills (or even those whose eyes might match their skills but are just slightly off-balance).  The good news is that they are short sections that provide the opportunity to try different routes and lines, offering different degrees of difficulty and challenge.  And for those (like me) who are not up to the level of challenge that some sections offer, as well as for those that simply place a high value on maintaining an intact scrotum, hiking around these obstacles and sections is a simple option.  Through many of the technical sections, I was thankful for the short debriefing and suggestion of lines that were graciously offered by my riding partners.  We would pick our way through many of these sections, then look at and discuss new lines from below, and occasionally walk back up and try them again – sometimes successfully and sometimes not.  Some of the lines are narrow and specific and, as I discovered on a couple of occasions, rather unforgiving to both the body and the bike.  Having said that, the views were fantastic and the trail was a ton of fun.  It is easy to understand why it is a local favorite and I could see riding it frequently and gleaning a different experience each and every time.  Next time, however, I plan to throw on a little more padding.

When we completed the trail and loaded our bikes onto the shuttle that was waiting for us at the bottom parking lot, I was surprisingly fatigued given the fact that the ride was only about six miles long and lost about 2,000 feet of elevation.  The thing is, it was a completely different kind of fatigue that I am used to experiencing on a mountain bike.  Usually for me the fatigue is of the legs and lungs and comes from hammering (as much as I am able) up climbs.  Here, it was fatigue of the upper body and mind due to the level of focus needed.  It was also a pleasant divergence and reminder of how many ways there are to enjoy riding a mountain bike, and the variety of experiences it can offer, depending on what each individual rider is looking for. 

After a short lunch break back at RMOC, we decided to continue the day by driving to nearby Salida and dishing up a little more variety by tackling some of the trails in that area.  On the Vitamin B trail, it is the Mother-Nature-made features that make it special, and the Buena Vista Singletrack Coalition has done a spectacular job of working to link them together and maintaining the trail.  The network of trails just south of Salida that we explored in the afternoon, on the other hand, were purpose-built by the good folks at Salida Mountain Trails, a volunteer nonprofit organization committed to building and maintaining sustainable, non-motorized, multi-user trails on public lands in the area.  These trails were a bit more what I was accustomed to.  Not inherently better or worse than Vitamin B (in my opinion), just different – and that is the beauty of the mountain biking options that this area offers.  We were all quite tired from the morning but still managed to ride a couple of loops, complete with a few short to intermediate climbs.  The trails were fun and flowy for the most part, with a few exposed rocks to keep things interesting in the berms and kickers.  The trails were fast and well-thought-out, and I appreciated that the berms were substantial enough that you could hit them at high speed and lean the bike almost horizontally into the turns, without fear of overcooking and blowing out over the top.  The jumps and kickers were enough to keep you on your toes and keep things as interesting and challenging as you wanted, but were also plenty predictable and fun.  And the views of across the valley – stunning. 

Back at the car with a satisfied smile on my face and a body and bike that came away from the fantastic day of riding with a few minor scrapes and bruises but nothing more, I bid a fatigued farewell to Brandon, Ryan, and Dave and headed back to Fort Collins to feed and walk the dogs before enjoying a meal, a beer, and a well-earned night’s sleep.

Looking back on the day makes me feel so fortunate to live in this great state.  There are so many good trails close to my home and along the Front Range that I rarely take the time and make the effort to get out and explore as much as I should.  The trails in the Arkansas Valley were a great reminder that I need to make that effort more often as it was most definitely worth it the relatively short drive.  I’m not sure if I will ever be up for attempting “Flight for Life” or especially “Balls,” but there are always more moves to link and lines to attempt.  Needless to say, I will be back.   

Even better – take a few days, camp along the river, and have the good folks at Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center take me rafting or climbing when I’m not on the bike.  Next time.  Next time.


Trent Newcomer is a veterinarian and the franchise owner of Velofix Colorado, a mobile bike shop operation that serves the Front Range, from Fort Collins to the entire Denver metro area. Book a bike service appointment and have them roll up to your home or business at velofix.com

 

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