Colorado Trip, Part 1, Buena Vista to Lake City, Places to Explore off the Beaten Path

By Bill Plock

Gravel or road? Road or Mountain? Pavement or dirt? Colorado or……Colorado? We have it all. Recently 303 embarked on a journey to discover some new places, or at least be reacquainted with places like Buena Vista, Salida, Gunnison and Crested Butte. But some places, a bit off the beaten track offer amazing cycling options as well. Places like Lake City, Westcliffe, LaVeta, Cuchara, Mosca, Victor, Canon City and Pitkin. 

The trip started by following the WeRide4 cycling team as they did a four day loop from Crested Butte to Crested Butte. We sagged for photos or “just in case” but found some side roads to explore on our own. 

If you haven’t been to Buena Vista recently, you might be surprised, like we were. Once upon a time the vibe was perhaps a bit industrious, maybe not so hip and didn’t really compare with the other “cool city” in Chaffee County—Salida. Now it’s more of a toss up with a brand new river walk neighborhood complete with a high end hotel, The Surf. There is outdoor music space and a collection of new shops and eclectic homes much different than downtown.

For roadies there are significant miles of lonely paved roads all around Buena Vista in the shadows of the Collegiate Peaks. It’s very possible to crank out 40 miles without touching highway 24. And of course the amount of gravel roads and mountain bike trails makes Buena Vista a well rounded cycling destination. Maybe more so than Salida. Both offer cyclists of any type plenty of choices. The entire valley between the two cities has countless options and if you want to go the “hard way” over the continental divide, you can ride up Chalk Creek to St. Elmo and over Tincup pass into Taylor Park—this is the dirt alternative to Cottonwood or Monarch passes. 

As the cycling team headed towards Gunnison over Monarch pass, we found a delightful, very sparsely traveled paved road that went from Parlin on Highway 50 (about 15 miles East of Gunnison) to Pitkin. The gradual climb leads to this 300 person town still appearing much like it did in its hey day in the early 1900’s. The Pitkin Hotel operates year round with a charming main floor and humble amenities. But if you are looking for quiet, this is the place. The road from Pitkin then becomes dirt, climbing much higher to the small town of Tincup. Eventually you can connect to Taylor Park and the Taylor Park reservoir and ride towards Gunnison or Crested Butte. This would be a great gravel loop with about half paved and half gravel roads. You could also explore the famed Alpine Tunnel area above Tincup and see an old roundabout used in the late 1800’s. You could also connect to Cottonwood Pass and return to Buena Vista. So many possibilities! 

Gunnison, our next stop, offers gateways to Crested Butte and Kebler Pass with both paved and gravel options. A fun combo ride is to ride a gravel bike north over Ohio Pass to the top of Kebler Pass and down into Crested Butte and back on highway 135 to Gunnison. 135 has an amazing, wide shoulder but be ready for some afternoon headwinds heading south. Ohio pass is very gradual until the last few miles and there is little to no traffic on a very smooth dirt road that includes some old ghost towns and a wonderful spring to fill up water bottles about 2/3 of the way into the ride. 
Gunnison, like Buena Vista sits in a big valley and offers miles of paved roads in the area and many gravel options that head Southwest towards Lake City. If you are up for a huge ride, you could follow the West Elk Loop that takes you on the north side of the Black Canyon towards Crawford and Paonia and over Kebler pass to Crested Butte. That is 135 miles and then if you rode to Gunnison you would add 26 more. Lots of options in Gunnison.

 If you want some hiking, a favorite we found was to park at Pioneer Point on the North Rim of the Black Canyon just off of Highway 92 in the Curecanti National Recreation area. There is plenty of parking at Pioneer Point, and no fees and the Curecanti trail winds to the bottom unveiling deep pools of water surrounded by huge boulders and sheer walls of granite. Here the Curecanti creek meets the Gunnison River and forms a lagoon perfect for swimming and hanging out. It’s a 2 mile hike descending 900 feet and is steep in some places but quite doable. 

The next area we explored was Lake City. Lake City is surrounded by 14ers in the heart of the San Juan mountains. As a crow flies it’s about 25 miles to Ouray or Silverton. But on a bike, its a full day of major, but spectacular climbing. Lake City feels Iike it still wants to be the tough and rough mining town it was in the 1800’s. Boardwalks still line some of the streets and signs remind of us the grisly past with Alfred Packer. But tourist flock here to explore dirt roads over Cinnamon Pass and Engineer Pass that both lead to Silverton. Most of the folks adventure on ATV type vehicles so sometimes you feel like you are on the set of Road Warrior. Engineer Pass is accessed from right in town and Cinnamon pass starts at nearby Lake San Christobol ( a spectacular mountain lake with boating and lodging). This can all be connected and makes up the popular Alpine Loop—a rugged loop of 56 miles and 6,000 feet of climbing. Some is very doable on a gravel bike and some you might rather have a mountain bike depending on your gearing and handling skills. Both work. 

Lake city is a very popular RV destination in the summer. There is one rope tow ski hill in town and locals say the Winters are super quiet and extremely peaceful. There are many miles of snowmobile trails but the draw is clearly in the summer. It’s the kind of town that is really not on the way to anywhere so it doesn’t have traffic passing through. There are some good restaurants and coffee shops but like most everywhere during COVID there might be a wait outside. 

In part two our trip recap we will take your out of Lake City over Slumgullion pass and into the headwaters of the Rio Grande with side trip to one of Colorado’s most unexpected and spectacular water falls….until next week, stay safe and have fun!

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