I got a call from a friend in Salida, a small town on the other side of the Continental Divide from the Gunnison Valley, on New Year’s Eve, the final day of 2011. “The Salida mountain bike crew is coming over to ride in Gunnison, do you want to come ride?”
This request was bizarre but possible because of the wonky winter weather, or lack thereof, that we had been having in Colorado. Normally, the Gunnison trails are hidden deep below the snow by this time of year and it’s the mountain bikers in Gunnison calling Salida to check the status of their trails.
Upon arrival, the dozen riders from Salida shot up the hill like caged animals finally set free, only pausing long enough to lament the snow on their normally dry trails and ice on their sidewalks. Three weeks later, roles had changed as the Gunnison Valley sat under a layer of snow and Salida riders were putting in miles on their trail networks that leave directly from town.
Nestled in the Arkansas Valley in central Colorado, the small town of Salida boasts an impressive number of trails (with more being built yearly by Salida Mountain Trails) and is a perfect start and end point for a shuttled ride of the famed Monarch Crest Trail.
Located on the bank of the Arkansas River and at the base of several 14ers in the Collegiate Mountain Range, the town is obsessed with outdoor recreation ranging from boating to mountain biking to hiking. Blended with an appreciation for art and coffee shops with live music on a regular basis, the town offers more than just outdoor recreational opportunities. With plans of transforming the area into a mountain bike Mecca, Salida Mountain Trails has worked tirelessly to build new trails in the area with results such as the new North Backbone trail off of S-Mountain and the Little Rainbow Trail south of town.
The best place to start all rides in Salida is Absolute Bikes, the famous bike shop where the walls are adorned with vintage mountain bikes from generations past. Owner Shawn Gillis is actively involved in the construction and maintenance of the area trails and has built a community for the mountain bikers in the area with the shop at the center of it.
Just north of town is S Mountain (named for the giant S that adorns it) that is covered in a network of trails ranging from beginner to extremely technical. Beginners can find smooth singletrack on Lil’ Rattler, Backbone and Tenderfoot while those looking for some extremely challenging singletrack can tackle Unkle Nazty.
The newest addition to the trail network is North Backbone, which is a gem of a trail that can be ridden in either direction. At 3.2 miles long and rated More Difficult, the trail contours northwest from S Mountain and while there are no extended climbs, the route is peppered with short and steep ascents and descents with enough rock features and tight turns to require complete concentration. Unfortunately, giant views of the 14ers in the Collegiate Peaks can often cause a rider to lose concentration, requiring a stop to enjoy the surroundings.
The trail system is mostly south facing and is passable for much of the winter but check with the crew at Absolute Bikes for current trail conditions.
The crown jewel of riding near Salida is the world-famous Monarch Crest Trail. Most riders shuttle this ride as it begins on Monarch Pass (Elevation 11,312 feet) and follows beautifully smooth singletrack high above the Arkansas Valley. The quality of the trail is only bested by the quality of the scenery. After many miles of high-alpine riding, the trail crosses Marshall Pass and climbs along the ridge to the Silver Creek Trail, which provides a fast and rocky descent back down towards Salida. Ambitious riders can finish the ride with the roller coaster Rainbow trail while those who wish to can coast back to town on a series of dirt roads.
While there is a net elevation loss with this trail, it should not be taken lightly. There is still significant climbing at high altitudes and mountain weather can change rapidly, especially on summer afternoons.
The town of Salida hosts a variety of events throughout the summer. Two events of importance to mountain bikers are the FIBArk and the Vapor Trail 125.
Held in June, the FIBArk is known as America’s ‘Oldest and Boldest Whitewater Festival’ but has since expanded to include a mountain bike race on the S Mountain Trails. Participants can choose from three different loops and race distances suitable for beginners, intermediate, and advanced riders. While the mountain bike race in Sunday morning, the entire weekend is filled with boating contests, running races, music and festivities.
Vapor Trail 125
Hosted by Absolute Bikes as a fundraiser for Salida Mountain Trails, the Vapor Trail 125 is one of the toughest ultra endurance races in Colorado. With a 10 p.m. start, racers ride from town in parade format, cheered on by many Salida residents before climbing to intersect the Colorado Trail. The route then follows trails and railroad grades through the high passes of the Collegiate Peaks before dropping down to the famous Snowblind Aid Station manned by Dave Wiens and a crew from Gunnison.
Wiens serves up his famous peanut butter bagels in addition to pancakes and bacon for racers greeting the sunrise. The route then climbs back up to Monarch Pass and traverses the Monarch Crest Trail with an extra credit loop on Starvation Creek before descending the Silver Creek Trail and finishing on the Rainbow Trail.
The field is limited to 50 handpicked racers and takes riders between 13 and 20 hours to complete. The race finishes at Shawn Gillis’ house where riders are treated to BBQ and homemade baked goods.
The race embraces all that is great about Salida mountain biking: Amazing trails, friendly people, and an appreciation for a good day out on a bike.
Best of Salida
Best Bike Shop: Absolute Bikes
330 West Sackett Avenue
Absolute Bikes serves as the heart of mountain biking in Salida. Drop by to ask about current trail conditions, new trails in the works, to get a bike fit, or just to see the vintage collection of mountain bikes. The mechanics are top-notch to help take care of any parts broken while riding in the area.
Best Coffee Shop: Salida Café
300 W Sackett Ave
Located right next to Absolute Bikes, the Salida Café provides excellent coffee, breakfast, and pastries during the day. At night, the space hosts live music on a regular basis and have a superb selection of beers on tap.
Best Pre-ride Breakfast: Patio Pancake Place
640 East Rainbow Blvd
If a giant stack of pancakes or French toast with a side of bacon and eggs is your idea of a good breakfast, look no further than the Patio Pancake Place. Serving up copious amounts of food for an affordable price, the diner is a favorite among Vapor Trail 125 finishers.
Eszter Horanyi lives and mountain bikes in Crested Butte, CO. She has dabbled in road racing, cyclocross racing, and cross country mountain bike racing, but has gravitated towards ultra endurance and multi day self supported racing in the more recent past. She firmly believes that nothing tops a good ride with good friends on good trails, thus she spends her life in search of all of the above. All articles by Eszter.