I love this time of year. The weather is great, cyclocross is here (see previous post), and so many of the fantastic trails that we are blessed to have here in Colorado are even more beautiful than usual, as the aspens are turning. I took the opportunity to head up to the Winter Park/Fraser area to ride some of my favorite trails. There are so many spectacular trails in the area – truly among the best trails I have ever ridden.
But my real connection to them goes way beyond the terrain. Flume trail, in particular, holds a very special place in my heart. In October of 2002, I was up visiting my parents at their cabin outside of Fraser. My mom had been battling cancer since 1997 and, as tough as she was, the disease was starting to get the best of her. She was having a relatively good day when I was up there, though, so she decided to go for a ride with me on the tandem mountain bike. My dad and Kara, my girlfriend at the time, joined us. The sky was blue, the air was crisp and pleasant, and the aspens were the grandest hues of orange and yellow I had ever seen. As we pedaled up the gravel road that lead to the top of Flume trail, my mom was awestruck. She has seen photos of aspens like this, but had never actually seen them so spectacular in person. Later, on our way down Flume as it snaked gently through an area with particularly large aspens, the trail beneath our tires was paved with yellow leaves. My mom directed us to stop so she could rest and enjoy the moment. All four of us just stood silently and took it all in, appreciating the beauty and at the same time understanding the gravity of it, knowing that this would likely be the last time that my mother would ever see it. We finally continued on our way and, about a quarter-mile later, came to a rest area with a bench and a beautiful view of St. Louis Creek and, far beyond that, Byers Peak. (It was at this location, not quite three years later, that Kara and I would be married.) My mother did indeed pass away a few months later and, shortly thereafter, my father and I selected that location among the aspens as the place to scatter her cremated remains. Ever since, every time I visit the area, I make a point to ride (or ski or snowshoe) down Flume trail and spend a few quiet minutes with her.
So here I was, 17 years later, on a day that mirrored that day in 2002. There was no question that Flume Trail would be on the route. The trails that I chose to complete the route are all classics in the area – out on Tipperary Creek, Spruce Creek, Flume, Chainsaw, Broken Spade, Iko, and then back on Chainsaw, Lower Creekside, and Northwest Passage. The outbound route (other than Broken Spade and Iko) is the same as the first part of the King of the Rockies race course (the final race of the Winter Park Epic Singletrack Mountain Bike Series). Starting the ride from the intersection of Country Roads 5 and 50 made sense as it is the official start line of King of the Rockies and it also provides a great warmup on the gravel road before the real mountain biking begins.
Country Road 50 is a smooth gravel/dirt road that is pretty lightly trafficked. It is fast and level, with the exception of one short, steady climb that always feels harder than it looks like it should be. After 2.7 miles, I turned left off of the road and onto Tipperary Creek Trail to begin the real fun. It starts as a two-track trail that only recently was blocked by a large boulder, probably to prevent people from thinking it is a passable option for 4-wheelers (which it is not). The trees densely line both sides of the trail and after a short and very gentle climb, the trail turns right at a creek crossing that will usually get your shoes a bit wet but is easily rideable. The trail then becomes single track that climbs more steadily through trees and switches back through a couple of beautiful sloping meadows before continuing on the steady climb.
The terrain is generally smooth and it is all easily rideable, but the grade is pretty unrelenting and by the time the trail finally crosses back over a creek (the upper portion of the same creek that you cross at the bottom) and the grade starts to level just a bit, fatigue definitely sets in. The total climb is 3.3 miles without much of a break. After a short and well-deserved rest at the top, hit the descent down Spruce Creek (aka. the Backside of Tipperary). This descent is not very steep or technical so it tends to invite you to go faster than you probably should – and that is where it can get a bit tricky if you’re not careful, because many sections are deceptively loose and rocky, with occasional blind corners that sneak up on you if you are going fast and not expecting them. And the consequences of not making some of those turns could be, well, let’s just say it is best to stay in control. Towards the bottom there is an unavoidable section of mud thanks to a year-round spring, and then the trail levels out for the final stretch before spitting you out onto St. Louis Creek Road (Country Highway 73). The total descent is 2.2 miles.
Turn right and take an immediate left onto County Highway 725, which crosses over St. Louis Creek and climbs about 100 yards before dropping you at the top of Flume Trail. Flume is one of the most popular trails in the area due to its beauty, gentle terrain, and close proximity to town. It is a gentle 2.2 mile descent that can be ridden at pretty high speeds as it winds through the trees, but keep your eyes open for other trail users – bikers, hikers, and dogs – as you are almost certain to encounter them (and even an occasional moose or two) along the way. It is a fun single-track that derives its name from the long-abandoned logging flume there, the ruins of which are easy to spot along the trail if you keep your eyes open. It snakes through trees and offers the occasional glimpse of St. Louis Creek, which parallels the trail on the left, and then through a meadow, over a short wooden bridge that carries you over a small spring (this bridge is easy to miss but as it was funded by some of our family friends in memory of my mother, it has special meaning to me) and then through a short but semi-technical rock garden section before diving back into the dense trees. The trail is relatively smooth otherwise, with the exception of some roots that are easy to navigate but can get pretty slippery when they are wet. This densely-wooded section is the one that I love most. The pines are interspersed with towering aspens and, this time of year, the trail is yellow with leaves. Before I know it, up a small rise and around a gentle bend, it is time to stop and rest and visit with my mom for a bit. This is always a special place, but on this day it was even more special because the blue sky and the yellow trail tool me back to that ride on the tandem bike – one of the best memories that I have with my mother. As usual, I am kind of torn when a few minutes have passed and it is time to move on. But I know I will be back before long and I know Mom understands – probably telling me to get back on my bike and keep riding, doing what I love. Only about a quarter-mile later, I look to my left and see Byer’s Peak and the spot that Kara and I were married, and pedal on. Moments later, I am at the bottom of Chainsaw and excited for another one of my favorite climbs.
I have ridden all of these trails more times than I can count, and they never get old. Chainsaw trail has had quite a bit of work done over the past few years and it keeps getting even more fun. It starts pretty flat and then climbs steadily, switching back through trees on smooth trails that have received a lot of improvement and, to my surprise, have even had some work done since I last rode here just a few weeks ago. More features and banked turns, small drops, jumps, and alternate lines. There used to be one short climb that was a bit of a rocky and loose grind before the trees give way to slightly more open terrain, but the trail-builders have obviously been hard at work because much of that section has been rerouted. Nothing major (and I later noticed that Strava still recognizes it as the same segment) but it was certainly enough to notice. The steady climb persists with a few slightly steeper sections that remind you that you’re at 9,000 feet of altitude. At the top, more recent trail work has been done, with a short off-shoot rock feature to play around on. This is where I diverged from the King of the Rockies racecourse and headed up Broken Spade rather than continuing down the remainder of Chainsaw into Elk Meadow where the racers would go before continuing on their way towards the base of Winter Park ski area.
Broken Spade is a trail that has been around for several years but I still consider it a “new” trail. In fact, it has been rerouted several times and the current version has only been in place for about a year – another example of the great trail work that continues to be done in the area. It is all smooth dirt and flowy, with nice bermed corners and few purpose-built rises and jump options (if that is your thing). It is another steady climb through the trees, and a grade that can be ridden fast but you will definitely feel it at the top, where it intersects Zoom trail and feeds into the new Iko descent.
Iko trail has been around in name for several years. It started as a small unmarked trail that was only lightly traveled, but late last season all of that changed. The trail builders clearly put a lot of work into this trail and it is a blast. Much like the other recent trail work done in the area, the corners are bermed and there are plenty of fun little feature options if you want to catch some air. If that isn’t your thing, no worries – the trail is generally smooth and can be easily managed by novices. Then again, with the banked switchbacks and optional features it can be made as challenging as any rider wants it. It is fun for all and the descent into Elk Creek Meadow is long as it flows through switchbacks, meadows, and trees. Getting to the top of the trail makes your legs and lungs burn. Getting to the bottom brings about a similar sensation to your shoulders and forearms — not to mention your face as you are sure to be grinning the whole time down. From the gravel road at Elk Creek Meadow, I chose to head back towards home by climbing up Chainsaw – another new section of trail that was only completed in the last month or two, replacing a fairly straight and loose descent with a smoother and more flowy trail through the trees and with a few alternate routes and features (I am seeing a theme here). It was just enough of a climb back to the top of Chainsaw (and the intersection where I had previously turned onto Broken Spade) to get my legs and lungs burning a bit. Then back down the same section of Chainsaw that I had climbed up earlier, until it joins with the bottom of Flume, crosses a bridge over St. Louis Creek, and joins up with the flat and tame trail that is Lower Creekside. From there, right across St. Louis Creek Road and onto Northwest Passage – another flat and easy trail that, after about a mile and a half of easy riding, spits you back out onto County Road 50 near the starting point of the route.
Objectively, these trails are amazing and the day could not have been better. The fact that it reminded me so much of a very special day in my life, shared with my mother, only added to it. It also got me thinking about what makes a “great” ride. The terrain and trails, of course, but there is so much more. Perhaps it is the people we share the ride with (in some cases even when those people are not actually present in that moment) but also the deeper meaning that a ride, or a route, might have. It might even be the thoughts that are dancing around in our heads as we ride, or even the entire lack thereof – the active meditation that can erase all else but the very moment in which we are riding.
Whatever the reason might be on any particular ride, and for any particular person, I’m just thankful to be able to get out and pedal.
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.