The Arkansas and San Luis Valleys are hot spots for recreation thanks to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve near Alamosa, the Sangre De Cristo Mountains, and the Collegiate Range which has the highest concentration of 14ers in the country (read more about taking in the splendor of the mountains in our scenic byway feature on page 30). Then there is Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, one of the most popular places for rafting in the entire US. But the area is perhaps most appealing to mountain bikers as the area has trails galore.
DEL NORTE AND SURROUNDS
Directly west of Alamosa and not far from Monte Vista,
Cat Creek is the longest trail in the region at just over 14 miles. A loop trail, it starts with a steady climb for just over seven miles before turning into a well-deserved descent back to the start. Designated for intermediate to advanced riders only, this trail promises spectacular fall foliage thanks to the glut of aspens in the area. Expect to spend at least half a day including traveling to and from the trailhead.
Nearby is the Middle Frisco Trail at just over 12 miles long. The best alpine trail in the region, it is a hiking trail in the Rio Grande National Forest that is open to mountain bikers. The first six miles and 2,500 feet is a pretty solid climb, first through beautiful aspen groves and then through open meadows and eventually spruce and fir forest before arriving back at Frisco Lake. There are a few sections where you will need to walk with or carry your bike, but the lake and the fun descent make it worth it.
The Stone Quarry Trail System is managed by the BLM and is less than five miles east of Del Norte. The purpose-built trails have plenty of large boulders to act as fun obstacles. As scenic as it is interesting, the trails here are technically challenging. Pronghorn Loop is one of the most popular trails in the Stone Quarry system and the region. A relatively recent addition, it is within pedaling distance of Del Norte (so no need for the car). The almost nine-mile loop is 100 percent singletrack and was purpose built for bikes. It meanders through beautiful rock formations before climbing into meadows where you can see across the valley to the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. Testing for beginners, the trail is fun for more experienced riders.
North of Del Norte is Penitente Canyon, an area with a special place in the hearts of endurance mountain bikers in the region. Another BLM-managed system, there are lots of trails here with something for everyone. A total of 21 miles, there are over a dozen short trails that are classed as easy and are therefore great for beginners. Rock Drops Trail is just a mile long but as the name suggests it isn‘t for the faint of heart. If you want something a little longer, Rock Drops is part of the larger, and fantastically named, Sunshine Kitty - Rock Drops Loop, an eight-mile loop that can be started right from the Penitente Canyon Campground. The area is also an internationally recognized rock climbing area with more than 300 incredible climbing routes. South-facing routes can be climbed year round.
Visit fs.usda.gov for more info on camping and climbing. Delnortetrails.org is a great resource for mountain biking in the San Luis Valley.
Moving north into the Arkansas Valley, Salida has over 50 miles of trails. Sitting at the entrance (or exit) to the Arkansas Valley and on the Arkansas River, Salida is an awesome town.
There are two trail systems in Salida, the Arkansas Hills Trail System (aka Tenderfoot Trails - a stacked loop design with more challenging trails higher in altitude and farther out from the trailheads) and the Methodist Mountain Trail System which contains the Little Rainbow beginner trail, as well as the Rainbow Trail. The Arkansas Hills trails are the closest to downtown and are on the warm side of the valley so many of them stay relatively warm and therefore snow-free during the winter.
For those who want a long day in the saddle, the Cottonwood Tour at 23 miles is the longest.
With a good amount of climbing (just under 9,000 feet) and several kinds of terrain, this trail can take experienced riders over four
hours, assuming you stop occasionally to take in the views, that is.
At the other end of the temporal spectrum, the
Sand Dunes Trail is one of the shortest at 1.5 miles but it is one of the most difficult. With a descent of over 700 feet over the short course and some sections that require your full attention, Sand Dunes is a work out.
The good people at Salida Mountain Trails, an allvolunteer organization committed to building and maintaining sustainable, non-motorized, multiuser trails on public lands adjoining the city of Salida, have a great website with interactive maps.
Much of the area covered in this mountain biking section is wilderness. That means riders need to be personally responsible. Bear and elk sightings are not uncommon and you may hear coyotes. Mountain lions are also common, so use extra caution on the trail. Wear blaze orange during rifle season. Know your abilities, and remember - it looks like wilderness because it is wilderness.
Photos: Ben Knight (top), Kristi Mountain Sports (right and below)