Mountain biking on Aspen’s pioneer trails

Barrelling over ridges and speeding through pristine Rocky Mountain forest, James Henderson pedals (furiously) along trails marked out by Colorado’s legendary boomtown miners

The author negotiates the rough single-track descent at Johnson Creek
The author negotiates the rough single-track descent at Johnson Creek | Image: James Henderson

The gold rush. It’s endlessly fascinating. It was full of adventure. But what’s the most fitting way nowadays to follow the remote, mule‑borne mountain trails of the old prospectors and pioneers? On a mountain bike, of course. And Aspen, the exclusive Colorado ski resort that started out as a mining boomtown, has been laying down mountain-bike trails in recent years. No one will tell you it’s easy; quite the opposite. But it brings past and present together rather neatly.

Friday 1450

It’s a long haul on a Friday afternoon to reach Aspen, with a quick change in Denver, so there’s time for some background reading. The ski resort, now known for its immensely wealthy habitués – and, intriguingly, its annual Ideas Festival – had its first heyday with the silver rush in the 1880s; at one stage Aspen produced a fifth of the world’s silver. Fortunes were made. The town formerly known as Ute City became so wealthy it even built an opera house.

Friday 2200

Smuggler Mountain, where the relentless ascent begins
Smuggler Mountain, where the relentless ascent begins | Image: Dirk Braun/Red Mtn Productions

On touchdown I discover Aspen has rarefied air in another sense too. At 8,000ft, the oxygen is thin, so even climbing stairs makes the pulse race. It’s a first hint of how challenging mountain biking here will be. I don’t need to be told to drink, though; I am permanently dehydrated.

I arrive at Hotel Jerome, the Auberge Resorts property at the heart of town, recently redecorated in a mix of period and contemporary styles: conspicuously Victorian brass lamps standing hard by modern art and vintage mining gear. The bar is humming. There’s time for a quick meal of steak and chips and a hearty Californian red. Then I check over the mountain bike that has been delivered, and turn in. Even sleeping is not easy; vivid dreams intervene.

Saturday 0800

The next morning Nate, a mountaineering and biking guide, arrives early to brief me on our route. It’s set to be a long, tough day, so we head straight out to the eastern end of town and the foot of Smuggler Mountain. At this point I should mention that this is not “downhill” mountain biking – chairlift up, body armour on and play-chicken-with-the-brakes on the descent (though Aspen does offer that). “There’ll be no need to get airborne…” says Nate. This is more hardcore, backwoods mountain-bike touring.

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And so begins the climbing – the unceasing strain of lungs, thighs and calves, cranking the pedals against the slope. Smuggler Mountain Trail leads relentlessly up the hillside. Even this eight or 10 degrees of climb requires effort, but I’m fresh, so I push hard. Turns out this trail is also the exercise path of choice for the good ladies of Aspen. They’re a fit bunch, and they like a hill for their morning constitutional. I snatch conversation as I struggle past: “Well, I’m remodelling the bathrooms, you see – all six of them…” Yes, real estate is big business in this part of the world.

At a pause, looking back over town, I begin to congratulate myself on making it this far, but Nate just smiles. “We don’t think of this climb as a test. Smuggler Mountain is just the entry ticket to play in the park…”

Blimey. Hell knows what’s ahead.

Saturday 0930

Margy’s Hut mountain cabin, where one night is spent
Margy’s Hut mountain cabin, where one night is spent | Image: James Henderson

At 9,000ft we cut into the forest on a single track, meandering among the light-leaved aspen trees. There are abandoned mining works all over the mountaintop, such as Bushwacker mine, a flat circle and huge hole in the ground. Everywhere there are “tailings”, piles of grey mineral spoil. Tunnels ran for miles into the mountain. At valley-floor level, 1,000ft beneath us, the Cowenhoven Tunnel allowed Bushwacker and other mines to lower their ore for removal so it could be worked on. Somewhere beneath our feet, the largest-ever single nugget of silver was discovered. It was 1,840lb of 93 per cent pure silver, and worth a fortune.

Over the ridge, the downhill begins. Whoopee. We flash between the trees, in and out of sunlight, sliding down ridgelines and wending around gullies, ankles slapped by shrubs and bush. All too soon, we arrive at the meadows of Hunter Creek Valley floor.

Mule trails may largely be gone nowadays (and hiking trails are usually too steep, up and down, for comfortable riding), but with so many mountain bikers, the community is actively creating other trails. Hummingbird was brand new in 2015, so new that the banked corners are still uncompacted. The curves and contours are fluid to ride down – but quite a struggle on the way up for a bloke short of breath. Even so, the effort is surprisingly rewarding. Thirty minutes later we are rounding a near-vertical hillside, with a huge view of Hunter Creek Valley.

Saturday 1230

The author riding above Hunter Creek Valley
The author riding above Hunter Creek Valley | Image: James Henderson

We stop for a sandwich – and a welcome rest in my case – in a meadow of wildflowers. Then it’s back on a single track – the ominously named Hobbit, which stretches uphill and away into a forest – clambering over roots and rocks. Squirrels scoot away. Flies and the scent of resin hang in the air. At 10,000ft, after the sweltering graft, there are dappled patches of cool.

From Four Corners junction, Tinpot is a superb descent – 1,200ft that started as a mule trail, then took jeeps and now is crumbled and overgrown. It clutches the hillside, contouring and eroding, while we jump logs and broken stone, whose shards ping in our spokes.

Saturday 1430

At the tiny settlement of Lenado, it’s decision time: I could head back to town, for a night of comfort back at the Jerome… But no, let’s press on, fulfil the plan.

The author’s biking guide, Nate
The author’s biking guide, Nate | Image: James Henderson

Once more unto the slope then, cranking out the slow miles up Larkspur Mountain – 2,500ft of vertical ascent into thinning air. This is where it counts. I pant like a dog, I get angry, trying to push on. I promise myself a pause at that bend… No, the next one… No, the one after that. It’s a three-hour haul, with barely a break in the ascent. At the (very) occasional stops, Nate points out thimble berries and tiny wild strawberries.

Momentarily, deliciously, there’s a section of flat where a quad-biker passes with his hound bounding alongside. But then there’s the final climb. There are two gradients here, gradual at eight degrees, and then steep, front wheel meandering, at more like 15. I am nearly extinguished and make just 500 yards at a time, chest heaving. Even walking up is hard. By the end, my eyeballs are thumping. But by then, we are at 11,000ft.

Saturday 1900

Margy’s Hut is a mountain cabin sponsored by the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, who trained here in the second world war. I totter as far as the balcony, collapse and take in the last of the sun. There’s not a human imprint in any direction, just forest forever. Turns out that besides being alarmingly fit, Nate cooks well. Even with the low oxygen levels, I enjoy the sleep of the dead.

The lobby of Hotel Jerome
The lobby of Hotel Jerome | Image: Hotel Jerome

Sunday 0900

Next morning we walk to tailings nearby. They were mining even up here; nothing grows on the grey spoil, even after 100 years. Once the sun is over the mountain ridge and has warmed the air, we set off. Yesterday’s final, painful, hour-long climb rolls out in about 10 minutes. The gradual gradient takes one brake to hold me back; for the steeper slope it’s two brakes full on and a skidding rear tyre. It shows how efficient mountain bikes are.

Nate throws in some fun at Johnson Creek, a rough single track. It’s all juddering arms and cramped hands, jinking left and right over logs and lurking boulders, splashing through streams, wildflowers grabbing at my ankles. I can smell burnt brake rubber.

We turn towards Lenado, with the crisp whirr of mountain-bike tyres on gravel as we weave around roadside stacks of base rock. It’s clear how Colorado got its name – the coloured rock that leached into the Colorado River is right here, whole strata of sandstone in roseate pink and ruddy scarlet. Houses flash by, then pasture, farms, and finally we reach the main valley floor.

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Sunday 1030

Onto the Rio Grande Trail, which is streaming with bikers. We pull into the Woody Creek Tavern. This, once the hangout of Hunter S Thompson, is the raw antithesis of rarefied Aspen. They’re sympathetic to bikes, though, allowing us to refill with water.

There’s a bit of fun to finish. Above the airport are the Sky Mountain Park trails – specially built biking tracks. On unrepaired legs it’s a sore slog to get the 700ft-plus up Cozyline, but then it’s plain sailing on the way down the aptly named Airline, weaving around the banked turns and flying along the hillsides. We are delivered to the edge of Aspen.

Sunday 1550

After a quick shower I’m back at Aspen’s small airport. As we take off, I scan the scenery below. No mules slogging over hills laden with silver ore; just a tiny mountain biker, scooting down the trail.

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