A friend of mine – who happens to own a bike shop – once told me he doesn’t bother bringing his bike to Telluride because the riding just isn’t worth it. Last week, I headed to Telluride to prove him wrong, and in the process realized my definition of a stellar mountain bike trip is probably a little different than that of most people. My goals were to spend entire days on my bike, climb to high elevations, and loop together routes that felt like alpine adventures. I was okay with some hike-a-bike as long as it felt like a full body workout, and because most of Flagstaff’s trails are currently closed due to fire danger, I went into the trip thinking of riding singletrack as more the icing on the cake instead of the cake itself. My cake in Telluride was riding in the alpine and, along with the baked goods from Cowboy Coffee I carried in my pack, it was delicious.
Artec, Bender dog, and I parked the Guiness van at Alta Lakes and stayed there for three days. This was by far the best part of the trip because it meant five things:
- Bike commuting to Telluride by way of the Prospect Trail which is, arguably, Telluride’s best singletrack.
- Midride espressos and baked goods in Telluride (either before the real bike adventures began, before the commute back to Alta Lakes, or both).
- Free camping and less money spent on food (and, the money spent on food, coffee, and beer felt earned and well deserved because we had to ride down to it and also pedal back up to Alta Lakes afterward).
- Bender got play in the water in the morning before curling up in the van the rest of the day while we rode.
- The camping area is at 11,000 feet. Hello red blood cells!
Our first evening in Alta Lakes, we rode to the upper lake and out an old mining road into a gorgeous green cirque. I hit my max heart rate just trying to get up the last punchy climb, and I was immediately annoyed that Artec – who kept chitchatting away – didn’t seem bothered at all by the elevation. Just to prove I was stronger, I rode one more lap at dusk into the cirque after he went back to the van.
The next morning, I told Artec to be patient while I set out down Alta Lakes Road to get in a few intervals before we headed out on our ride up to Bridal Veil Basin and down the Wasatch Trail. I hadn’t slept at all due to a nasty nighttime cough I assume was allergy related, and I’d taken four Benadryl during the night, which meant I woke up feeling like royal shit. The intervals nearly killed me, and the watts I saw on my Garmin made me want to cry, but I did what I needed to do and when I got back to camp we tucked Bender dog into the Guinness van (with the roof fan blowing) and headed out toward Telluride. We descended Prospect Trail to Mountain Village and then Jurassic down to Telluride. It was super fun! When we got down into town, though, I once again became aware of my elevated heart rate. I felt groggy and had a headache, but, of course, didn’t let Artec know any of this. Instead, I talked him into letting me stop at the Coffee Cowboy to fill my water bottle with an iced espresso.
Then, up the chunky road to Bridal Veil Falls we pedaled. It was hot. Near the base of the falls, a local in a cowboy hat descending on an e-bike fat bike passed us, and Artec said, “If I lived here, that’s exactly what I would do.” At the top of the falls, we turned right past the old power plant toward Bridal Veil Basin and the route quickly got steeper and looser. Artec talked the entire way into the basin. He monologued about everything we passed – the remains of an old Weber grill, the rusty old pipes left behind from the power plant, the marmots, the pikas, the flowers. He speculated about the lives of the miners in the area and how fast the water once ran through the old pipes toward Bridal Veil Falls. I’d heard stories from friends of Artec doing this to them two years ago while racing the Telluride 100. At the time, I thought it was hilarious, especially because I was a full half-hour ahead of them during most of the race. But today, gasping for air and struggling to keep up, I wanted to kill Artec.
The harder I panted, and the shittier I felt, the more he jabbered on and on. Just below the saddle, before dropping down Wasatch Trail and into Bear Creek, I finally told him I needed to take a break. I could not catch my breath. I sat down in a sorry heap, and instead of asking me if I was doing okay, he took photos of me and told me I looked like crap. That, of course, motivated me to get right back on my bike. Bridal Veil Basin is stunning: rolling green benches, deep blue tarns, talus piles surrounded by purple and yellow wildflowers. All my favorites were in attendance: Elephant’s Head. Munk’s Hood. Columbine. Paint Brush. Unfortunately, most of what I remember is wondering why I was struggling so hard to adjust to the elevation and trying to figure out a way to blame Artec for how horrible I felt.
At the top of the pass, we dropped into the Bear Creek drainage and the singletrack rolled relatively gently down into another green basin. Then, the trail shot down the side of the ravine, turned steep and loose, and was crowded by lush green vegitation. I got my hike-a-bike back on for a few short stretches and then we were at the bottom and riding fast down to Telluride. We made it back to town around 7 p.m. and stopped at Baked in Telluride for a sandwich before riding the gondola up to Prospect Trail and pedaling back up to Alta Lakes. We made it to camp at sunset, and despite feeling like death all day, I couldn’t resist acknowledging that it had also been an awesome day. I mean, when your Garmin tells you you’ve climbed over 8,000 feet, and the sun is setting across a pristine alpine lake with a jagged ridgeline in the background, how can you not be stoked?
On day two, while pedaling into Telluride on the Prospect Trail, we ran into an area local named Andy from Ridgeway who offered to show us how to ride singletrack straight to Telluride Brewery (where Artec had a beer and Andy and I had iced coffees). Then, he showed us the singletrack up Mill Creek. I felt better on this day and made a point of proving to Artec that although I couldn’t quite keep up with him at elevation, I could still ride flowy singletrack faster than him. After Mill Creek, we refueled on iced Americanos at the Coffee Cowboy before jumping on the gondola and pedaling up Prospect Trail to Alta Lakes. Once again, we made it to camp just before sunset with a sense of “oh hell yes” accomplishment because we’d logged another 7,000 feet of climbing that day.
We got our adventure on again for day three and decided to try a new route into Bridal Veil Basin. First, we followed really fun local trails (not on Trailforks – we sniffed them out all on our own) down from Alta Lakes to the highway. Then, we pedaled through the town of Ophir (where we bought a cup of limeade from a kid selling it in his driveway) and up to Blixt Road (it’s marked on the map, but doesn’t even have a sign at the bottom of it). It was as steep and loose as we had imagined. Full body hike-a-bike, with a few sections of pedaling, all the way up to 13,000 feet. Descending down into Bridal Veil Basin proved to be way more fun than pedaling up (it feels magical to ride down an alpine basin, coasting over green benches and cornering around piles of scree!). Once down in Telluride, I ditched Artec for my daily iced Americano at the Cowboy Coffee. Before heading back up to camp, we lounged in the grass in front of the gondola for awhile (and, to be perfectly honest, stalked our friends Kurt Refsnider and Liz Sampey on Instagram – they were out riding an amazing multiday route nearby and we tried to piece the route together on our map based on their photos and descriptions). Back at camp, we celebrated another 8,000 foot of vertical and watched the sunset.
The next morning, I woke up feeling like shit again from taking too much Benadryl and Nyquil, but lucky for Artec two of our friends from Flagstaff randomly wondered by. Like I always say, Telluride is to Flagstaffians as Hawai is to Alaskans. It’s our favorite vacation spot, and we always run into each other there. We drank coffee with our friends and this put me in a much better mood. Later, I admitted to Artec that if our friends hadn’t shown up I was on track to be a real bitch for at least the first two hours of the morning. He talked me into a rest day. That was probably a good idea.
In total, I rode only 125 miles – but gained nearly 25,000 feet of elevation – over the course of 3.5 days. I drank five iced Americanos from the Coffee Cowboy and three iced coffees from the little cafe next to Telluride Brewery. Artec would have probably liked a few more beers, but too much beer made the hour commute back to Alta Lakes feel harder than it should. On the way back to Flagstaff we camped near the Calico Trailhead and added another 20 miles and over 3,000 feet of climbing to our total. In short, I’ve decided Telluride has amazing mountain biking – as long as your idea of amazing is long days in the alpine with a healthy dose of hike-a-bike.
All photo credit goes to Artec Durham (@artec_rn on Instagram).