For decades now, I’ve only witnessed Pueblo from its gas stations nearest I-25. The Steel City’s reputation for being a bit rougher than the average Colorado town — and appearing that way from the stretch of highway passing over its graffiti’d storm drains and abandoned industrial buildings — have left little intrigue to make it more than a quick pitstop. Though it is known for its mountain bike trails around Pueblo Sate Park just west of the city that generally stay dry throughout Colorado’s winter, the 2.5 hour drive from home has always been just long enough to have kept a day trip down there from ever happening.
Without getting into the boring details of my girlfriend and I being in two different towns that happened to make Pueblo a perfect midpoint to meet up for a weekend of mountain biking, Emma and I met at the south entrance to Pueblo Lake State Park on a warm and dry, albeit windy and brown, winter afternoon. It’s $8 per vehicle for a day pass to the park, which isn’t good for overnight parking(campsites are $33), but is valid through noon the following day, making it easy to get two days of riding in with one pass. For those looking to tack on a few extra miles, there’s a bike path system from town to the park entrance, which would net roughly 16 miles for a round-trip commute. We made the rookie mistake of meeting in separate vehicles at the park, paid our $16, and opted for a spot near the marina. Several parking areas were almost half-full with what looked like vehicles of cyclists, and it didn’t take long to spot a few groups of riders coming or going to the nearby trails. Even the camping area was riddled with an assortment of RV’s, trailers, and tents — in February, in Colorado. A quick trip to the unplumbed bathrooms, and we were chamois’d up and spinning past the map kiosk towards the trailhead. We opted to use a trail app for navigation, as it’s generally more updated than large kiosk maps printed on the government’s dime.
Consisting of mostly mellow, purpose-built singletrack that follows the lake’s meandering shoreline, there’s almost always a view of the water, along with a backdrop of snowy mountains in the distance. Out of the 40-ish miles of trail, most seasoned riders would consider all but a handful of the fun little ravine chutes to be green-level trails. Those little chutes labeled black and (laughably) red are separate from the main trails and are quite fun, challenging in a few spots, and are a classic example of trail builders working with what they have. In other words, Pueblo Lake State Park is a great place to skip the spin class or indoor trainer session, and bang out some actual miles for a day or two, though don’t expect an endless network of challenging trail. For reference, a popular 25-mile route of green and mellow blue trails will only net about a 950-foot elevation gain/loss, all of which will happen in segments that take less than a minute or two, with a business-casual average time of roughly three hours. We saw all types out on the trails that weekend, from retirees taking their department store bikes off the RV and out for a spin, to a couple of guys in full DH kit sessioning some of the black trails, but mostly groups of us lifestyle riders that were out to get our winter fix in.
Most of the trails are two-way traffic and ride similarly in either direction, which lends itself to making a weekend out Pueblo’s 40-miles without getting too repetitive. The only one-way trail exceptions are the little black and red options, some of which would be challengingly fun to climb if it didn’t entail such poor trail etiquette. The trail system is well-marked with wooden trail name signs, though there’s no difficulty/color designation labeled once past the kiosk. For most riders, the bigger concern will be avoiding large cactus that flank the trails in several spots, verses worrying about little rock gardens on one of the short black or red sections. Most of the challenging trails are close to the main park entrance, and accessible from green trails that essentially encircle those little black and red routes, making it easy to hit almost everything in that zone without having to cover much ground, or simply bypass the zone entirely for smoother, faster trail. In general, Pueblo’s singletrack gets easier as it wanders farther northwest away from the trailhead.
The city’s main little historic downtown was surprisingly charming, and offered a few food options that ranked high on the usual websites. We opted for a tasty Indian restaurant, though it was laughably expensive at almost twice the price of our favorite Indian spot in Boulder. Yes, more expensive than Boulder — the nerve! Mr. Tandoori is around the corner from where S. Union Avenue crosses over the Arkansas River, and its accompanying riverwalk, which seemed to be the anchor of Pueblo charm. We were almost smitten from the couple of bars hosting live music, funky thrift stores’ window displays, and the rehabbed early 1900’s architecture, until a big flatbed truck rolled coal several times along the main drag. Oh, Pueblo. In retrospect, while we’d definitely go back to S. Union Ave. to wander around, we’d probably opt to camp out at the State Park, instead of staying in town where the hotel desk clerk not only suggested we bring all valuables inside, but even talked us into taking her parking spot up front in the name of keeping a pair of motorcycles safe(r) for the night.
The riding at Pueblo Lake State Park isn’t world-class by any means, and the town of Pueblo is still a bit rough around the edges. But, the trails are a great winter option for those in need, and the impressive-for-Pueblo’s-reputation scene off of S. Union Avenue offers up enough charm to make a weekend out of it. After decades of avoidance, Pueblo is now on my winter edition go-to list for weekend ride trips, especially when other Colorado zones are buried in snow or iced over.