The Arkansas Valley Ramble

What’s the best way to get to know your new outdoor neighborhood? How about a three-day adventure that combines singletrack, scree fields, drift boats and lots of soggy smiles.

None of us completely cracked, but the squiggly line we’d nonchalantly pointed to from kitchen table comfort the night before turned out to be less squiggly than we’d hoped. The reality was a steep, loose dirt road that essentially climbed straight up the base of Mt. Etna, with barely a switchback to ease the neverending incline. 

At what appeared to be the highest point of the day’s route, and with an obvious chunk of our daylight hours omitted thanks to both a slower pace than anticipated, and photo/video sessions, we looked at the map again in hopes of finding a plan-B. Plan-A was a psychological middle finger, as we began to realize we’d essentially climbed an extra 1,500 feet of elevation, only to descend back down to a point of losing almost all of our vertical gain, then climb back up another slope to the elevation of our current quagmire. 

From the once-again unfolded map, it looked like our route hair-pinned down valley, then back up to within a few hundred lateral yards of our current location. With a “what if…” we defaulted to technology. The satellite imagery showed a hint of a trail pointing in the direction we needed to go, but it definitely didn’t appear to continue through. It was going to take commitment to stray one drainage over from the original route, but we decided to go for it. It was to be a painful lesson in misreading both topography, and the physical abilities of our crew. 


“It” turned into a massive, steep scree field that must’ve been a half-mile deep from the rim we were standing atop, a vantage point offering the faintest hint of double-track in the box canyon below. Eric wasn’t really into straying off trail, but Ross and I were tired enough to take the chance, so we all shouldered our 50-pound bikes and began descending into the stuff ankles have nightmares about. It was slow, sketchy, and we all lost our footing on more than one occasion. But, we all made it down in one piece, and got lucky with the double-track as it led straight to the original route, albeit well past sunset for the last mile or so.

Moving to Salida brought with it a new area to explore by bike, and by boat. I’d already ticked off most of the popular mountain bike rides in the county before I decided to relocate here from the Front Range, but a relatively new relationship with bikepacking had changed the way I was looking at maps of the area: The Great Divide route bisects town. The Colorado and Continental Divide trails pass nearby, and a myriad of similar options point out from town in every direction between. I started daydreaming about multi-day loops I could access from my new front door.

With a handful of routes already brewing in the back of my mind, I ran into my buddy, Eric Porter, at an event in his home state of Utah. Unbeknownst to me, he’d spent quite a bit of time in Salida visiting his wife’s grandparents, who had unfortunately recently passed away. We’d done a few trips together over the years, and usually discuss foreign lands when it comes to our next adventure. But as soon as Eric learned of my recent move, he suggested we do something right here in Salida.

We allocated  three full days for our trip, and decided on a route I’d suggested after all that gazing at the map. I was familiar with the first 15-miles of the route as well as a segment I’d ski toured the winter before, but otherwise all reconnaisance was left to eyeballing various dotted and solid lines on a map. To make things even more interesting, we opted to skip our usual mountain bikes, and ride glorified cyclocross bikes—what marketing types call “adventure bikes”—instead. We also decided to wrap up our three days of bikepacking with a river float back into town, which would be an exception to our otherwise self-supported trip. Photographer/videographer, Ross Downard, signed in as our official documentation crew, which would relieve my back of the usual extra pounds of camera gear. 


After our day one misadventure, a much more manageable second day dealt out less than half of the elevation gain, and most of that came on railroad-grade Forest Service road that was much friendlier to gear-laden bikes than the widowmaker-style climbing we’d suffered on the day before. As a bonus, we hopped on a newly opened and notably more bike-friendly(read: rideable grade) singletrack section of Colorado Trail. We dumped back onto the same Forest Service road, which now appeared to be less traveled thana few miles back. Our uncertainty about the upcoming Chalk Creek Pass was slowly playing out with the fading road ending at a Colorado Trail sign. 

Singletrack it was—but not the bike-friendly version we’d ridden earlier. Steep, tight and technical hiking trail wound its way up. Ascending it required an even split of hike-a-bike and riding, until the trail faded into a sprawling scree field. Cairns marked the way through the rocks and up toward the pass, where once bluebird skies were quickly shifitng to something more sinister. By the time we’d hike-a-biked our way to the pass, thunder was echoing through a giant, scree-filled valley on the other side. Up here, massive booms all but shook each individual rock in the scree fields, making clear our insignificance in this world. We quickly scurried down from the pass to a low spot to wait it out.

Luckily, the storm was all bark. White, wispy clouds and slivers of blue returned to the sky above, allowing a happy, hasty retreat off the pass. Our singletrack exit zigzagged down a rugged slope that looked unrideable from above, and slalomed between turquoise lakes in the valley below. The fun ended too soon, leaving us with nothing but dirt and paved roads from here on out, at least if we wanted to reach the hot springs that night.

Whizzing by abandoned mines and through aspen groves tunneling overhead, we assumed the toughest thing left to do that day would be to get the blobs of our bodies from the soaking pools to our sleeping bags. This daydream was abruptly squashed upon arrival. The hot springs and surrounding area is void of camping options—admittedly my mistake. Discussion spanned from sleeping in a nearby ditch, to pitching in on a ridiculously expensive resort room, before agreeing to climb several miles back up the now-dark road for a proper campsite. 

The following morning dawned with tent-door views of a glowing Mt. Princeton, erasing the aggravation of arriving here the night before—at least in my mind. A quick dip in the hot springs helped buffer the transition from the mountainous solitude of the previous days to getting sandblasted by truck traffic on an unavoidable section of U.S. 285. It was a short, necessary evil that brought us to the boat ramp, where Emma was waiting to exchange our bikes for burritos, and Domonique would hand over her boat for the final 18-mile stretch home down the river. 

The next few hours were all business, as Eric’s determination to avoid getting skunked on another float trip kept the conversation limited to what pockets I needed to stall the boat in or aim towards as he fired off semi-automatic casts from the bow. Emma tossed the first “catch” of the day—a six pack—into the boat as we floated past my house, which was also the technical endpoint of our loop.

Luckily for Eric, our destination, the boat ramp, was still a few miles downriver. On this stretch, he finally landed a little brown. That trout reset the mood: We celebrated with a round of can-cheers and hand-slaps, even as the skies let loose on us all the way to the boat ramp where Dominique was waiting for us. Our soggy smiles felt like an appropriate ending to this great adventure that was riddled with enough lows to make highs more poignant. I can only hope for more of the same this summer.  

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