Gunnison County, Colorado’s Backroads Cycling Playground

By Bill Plock

October 5th, 2022–Now is a perfect time of year to go ride some new “gravel” and see the changing leaves, especially in Gunnison County. Fall, in my opinion, makes the rest of the year jealous. The crisp air and powder sugar-like snow sprinkled mountain tops crowning the green and gold canopy of pine and aspen trees create more photos per second than any time of year. I’m guessing. 

Photo by Emma Brophy

I recently rode for three days in Gunnison County. If you haven’t explored that area, now is the time! Gunnison County has some of the best alpine gravel riding in the state. One road in particular, Kebler Pass located near Crested Butte is also home to the largest stand of Aspens in Colorado (and is debated as the largest living organism in the world.) 

I was invited by Eric Larsen and Maria Hennessey of Smak Strategies to experience riding the backroads of Gunnison while “glamping” on the Taylor River between Almont and Taylor Reservoir. It’s part of a project by Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) to create more interest in backroads riding, a.k.a gravel riding, but I think that “gravel” really doesn’t describe these roads. They are just good ol’ Colorado Jeep and ranch roads we used to ride with non-suspension mountain bikes “back in the day”, but I digress.

photo by Emma Brophy

The “writers”

I was joined by writers Hailey Moore (the Radavist), Maureen Gaffney (Singletracks) Jayson O’Mahoney (Gravel Cyclist), Ron Frazelle (Bike Rumor), and Laura Killinbeck (Freelance, Laurasstories.live) 

Me in camp with Springbar tents and some JackWolfskin gear, photo Emma Brophy

We got to test ride some wonderfully made Revel Bikes of Carbondale, experience some clothing from Gore and JackWolfskin, tinker with cool accessories from Peak Design, Topeak, and Luci Lights while sleeping in some roomy, American made legendary Springbar tents. 

We stayed at Campfire Ranch outside of Gunnison founded by avid cyclist Sam Degenard in 2019. It’s a well-maintained campground with a mission to offer accessible camping to encourage people to enjoy the outdoors more easily and to take the work out of camping. They don’t take reservations more than two weeks out and offer plenty of firewood and other amenities and plenty of access to the gold-medal fishing water of the Taylor river.  

Eric Larsen and happy hour

If that wasn’t enough, our host Eric Larsen is one of greatest polar explorers in history, but he calls himself a professional camper and I wouldn’t disagree. He shared some of his incredible adventures to the north and South Pole—more on those another day.  The slide show of him toiling over the ice flows that looked like a giant ice maker went crazy while pulling a 450-pound amphibic sled he also swam between flows, making our sometimes hard hills on bikes seem like child’s play. So Eric, thanks for the motivation, you are a badass! 

Check out Eric’s exploration here: http://www.ericlarsenexplore.com

Top of Spring looking at Collegiate Peaks

Despite the wonderful camaraderie and use of some top notch gear, the star of camp was the roads and views and challenges they offered. We experienced a minuscule part of what Gunnison County has to offer, but it gave us a good idea of the variety contained in the 3,260 square mile county. 

There are almost 1,200 miles of unpaved roads in Gunnison county to explore. The Federal Highway Administration’s data says that in Colorado 57% of our roads are unpaved or approximately 105,000 miles. A good chunk of those roads are in Eastern Colorado, check out this heat map of unpaved roads in Colorado. 

Gunnison County has it all.  From more technical (a.k.a larger rocks and washboards) type rides like Spring Creek to more gentle, flowy roads near Cathedral and Powderhorn–you will be challenged. We explored the Waunita Hot Springs road starting near Sargents and the high desert road that connects Sapinero on the Blue Mesa Reservoir with highway 149 that connects to Lake City. All of those roads have majestic views and plenty of Aspen showing off its golden leaves. 

These were the rides we were supposed to ride but modified them a bit because of the weather. But all in all, they have lightly traveled roads with mixed terrain, some good climbs, and plenty of views. 

Waunita Hot Springs

Here are files for the routes we rode:

Day 1: Spring Creek 

A bit of a bouncy climb but very quiet and spectacular views of the Collegiate Peaks before descending to Taylor Park Reservoir where you will encounter some ATV traffic and the road is paved along the Taylor River.

A cool place to refuel in Pitkin

Day 2: Sargents to Middle Quartz (really to Pitkin)

This roller coaster-type route has no major passes and goes by the Waunita Hot Springs where you can stay and frolic in soothing water. You can connect to Pitkin via Waunita pass, but be ready for a pretty rough ride, probably better for a mountain bike. The road to Pitkin is paved and passes through the very small village of Ohio City.

Blue Mesa Reservoir

Day 3: Cochetopa Dome to Blue Mesa

This is probably one of the most remote, unpaved and rideable roads in the state with very little car traffic and good views from Los Pinos pass of the distant mountains surrounding Lake City. After a short paved climb, the Sapinero Cutoff Road, (county road 26) offers incredible views of the Blue Mesa reservoir area. 

Gunnison County houses many historic attractions. Crested Butte, while a busy ski town has one of the most charming and authentic downtowns in the Colorado mountains. Original storefronts line Elk Avenue and you get a sense of the mining history with the rugged backdrop of Hogwartian-sounding  mountains like Snodgrass, Gothic, Whetstone and Scarp Ridge.  But towns/sites like Pitkin, Tin Cup, and Ohio City offer similar, but much smaller, sleepier-paced experiences. 

The Castles

Speaking of Hogwarts, The Castles seen from Ohio Pass road that connects Gunnison to the top of Kebler Pass is a wonderful gravel ride. The first few miles are paved, and then it’s a gentle climb that becomes pretty steep for the last 4 miles or so. But the finish takes you through some thick Aspens and falling leaves that carpet the road like the one that went to Oz. About 10 miles in there is a continuously running fresh water spring to fill your bottles with some of the most delicious Rocky Mountain Water anywhere. Look for a pipe coming out of the embankment.

Tin Cup Store

Like much of Colorado, the Ute Native Americans were historically the first people to populate Gunnison County. It was discovered by European mountain men in the mid-1800s eager for furs and gold. Later ranching dominated the valley and the town of Gunnison became the trading area for the region. The train arrived in the 1880s and Gunnison has thrived ever since. There are remnants of mining camps and activity scattered throughout the region. 

At the ICE Lab, photo Emma Brophy

Gunnison is home to Western Colorado University and has about 7,000 residents. Like many Colorado mountain towns, they are striving to attract sustainable businesses not solely reliant on tourism. Gunnison has developed in partnership with the University a business incubator program called the IceLab. They assist small outdoor product manufacturers to get started and thrive. 

We enjoyed some locally made spirits and wine while getting a presentation from several of those businesses with some very innovative products. More on that in a separate story! 

Go try some new roads and take in the colors and enjoy no traffic and lots of variety, and if you fish, bring a rod, it’s some of the best in the state, or take in one of many hikes. 

The Revel bike I rode, was fantastic

In Ohio City, photo Emma Brophy

Here is a link to stories from the other writers:

Maureen Gaffney (Singletracks) https://www.singletracks.com/mtb-trails/gunnison-gravel-glamping-riding-the-little-known-backroads-of-crested-butte/

Jayson O’Mahoney (Gravel Cyclist)  https://www.gravelcyclist.com/videos/gunnison-gravel-camp-colorado-day-two-sargents-to-pitkin/

Hailey Moore (The Radavist)  https://theradavist.com/a-gunnison-gravel-glamping-experience/

Ron Frazelle (Bike Rumor) : https://bikerumor.com/riding-the-great-gravel-roads-of-gunnison-county-colorado-part-one-a-photo-journal/

Links of Interest:

Gravel Cyclist’s Route Libraryhttps://gunnisoncrestedbutte.com/gravel-biking-in-gunnison-and-crested-butte/

This is by Crested Butte Cycling writer Jason Sumner https://cyclingtips.com/2022/08/glorious-gravel-grinding-in-colorados-gunnison-county/

https://gravelmap.com/browse/colorado/gunnisonhttps://cyclingtips.com/2022/08/glorious-gravel-grinding-in-colorados-gunnison-county/

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