The Ultimate 5-Day MTB Road Trip
I moved to Durango, Colorado, in 2012 to knock out my undergraduate degree at Fort Lewis College and chase the pro mountain biking dream. Even then, I had the sense that the little mountain town would remain my home regardless of where my racing career did or did not go. Simply put, the Four Corners region in the southwestern United States, where Durango is located, is an outdoor playground unlike any other. Our leaders seem to agree, having protected a wonderfully ridiculous amount of land within a five-hour radius as a national park or national monument.
The Grand Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands and Mesa Verde National Parks, as well as an incredible number of national monuments, dot the varied, rugged landscape. Regardless of whether you’re a kayaker, climber, skier, runner, mountain biker or any other kind of outdoor sport lover, you’re likely to run out of time before you run out of mountains and canyons to explore. I often get asked where my favorite place in the world to ride is, and my answer is always the same: home.
One of the benefits of having to train hours and hours year-round is that you get to cover a lot of distance. I have not found a better way to discover my corner of the world than by bike. I love showing friends from out of town my favorite rides in the area. Without fail, their stoke reminds me of how lucky I am and to never take this home for granted. So, I thought I’d put together an “Ultimate MTB Road Trip” for you all. It includes five of my favorite destinations, along with some of the must-see off-bike attractions. With only eight hours, 440 total miles of driving, you can make a big loop through the San Juan Mountains and see some of the best of what this area has to offer. I love riding my bike in faraway lands, but this tour in my very own backyard is my idea of the ultimate single-track vacation.
One thing that makes the area so special is how isolated it is. The nearest major cities are Albuquerque, Denver and Salt Lake City, but all are three to six hours away. Durango and Grand Junction have the largest airports of the cities on this list. Flying into Albuquerque will give you more flight options but add some driving.
Day 1: Durango, Colorado
This road trip circumnavigates my favorite region to ride, but if I had to choose one place to pedal the rest of my life, it’s still my hometown of Durango. It’s hard to describe the sheer volume and diversity of trails that leave right from town. A couple of years ago a racing buddy and I decided to try to ride all of the “town trails.” After 8 hours, 80 miles, and 14,000 feet of climbing, we ran out of daylight. We vowed to try again with better planning but admitted that we’d barely made it halfway.
Because Durango sits geographically where the high desert meets alpine mountains and boasts some of the greatest geological diversity in the country, there are trails of all types—from sage-brushy, red-rock Horse Gulch to the iconic aspen-lined, black loam of the Colorado Trail. The storied racing history of this town has helped fuel the health and expansion of its trail systems, and innumerable racing legends like Ned Overend, Greg Herbold, and Ruthie Matthes still call Durango home. You could easily kill weeks here and never ride the same trail twice. You could head to Horse Gulch or Overend Mountain Park for a smoother, more flowy option, and then move on to Dalla Mountain Park, Raider Ridge or Gudy’s Rest for more demanding terrain.
The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad remains one of the biggest attractions and is a fun outing for the entire family. Every May it also stars in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, as 3,500 brave cyclists try to beat it in a one-way race from Durango to Silverton over two 10,000-foot passes (you’ll be driving that route on your way to the next riding destination).
Carver Brewing Company serves award-winning breakfast and offers equally good lunch and dinner options, as well as unique, gold-medal craft brews. They’re also huge supporters of the biking community, and you’ll notice framed jerseys of some of the town’s most accomplished cyclists. Cantera is a fun higher-end option with authentic Mexican food and a mean house margarita.
Day 2: Silverton, Colorado
An hour due north along the Million Dollar Highway (the same route as the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic) sits the little historic mining town of Silverton, Colorado. Nestled in a breathtaking mountain basin at 9,300 feet, Silverton has a distinct “hardscrabble” feel—an authentic remnant of its mining heyday. In the high mountains above Silverton, you’ll find possibly the most rugged yet rewarding section of the 486-mile Colorado Trail. For 80 miles, this iconic trail climbs and plunges above and below the tree line. While the lack of oxygen makes the riding extremely strenuous, the San Juan high country is a bucket-list experience for any trail lover. Shuttle to the top of Molas Pass (back towards Durango), and then pick your poison—Engineer Mountain Trail, Cascade Creek or Black Hawk, the options are numerous. Just remember that unless you run a shuttle, the further south you venture down the CT before dropping down towards Highway 550, the longer the pavement slog you’ll have back to the Molas Pass trailhead.
Another word to the wise: In midsummer, the Colorado monsoons run like clockwork. It’s advisable to get an early start and be down and out of the high country before the afternoon storms hit. Lightning and hail are almost guaranteed, but it means the trails are returned to mint, hero-dirt condition almost every morning. It’s a mountain miracle!
As you make your way towards Grand Junction from Silverton—a 2 1/2-hour drive—you’ll get to enjoy the serpentine Million Dollar Highway. This white-knuckle road dumps out in Ouray, Colorado, home to Ouray Hot Springs and the Wiesbaden Vapor Caves—the perfect treat for a weary body.
Thee Pitts Again starred in the television show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and lives up to the hype. If you’re a BBQ fan (like this Texas native is), it’s a can’t-miss.
Day 3: Grand Junction, Colorado
Lunch Loops. The riding in Grand Junction is arid, rocky desert riding at its finest. The greatest concentration of trails can be found southwest of town in the Lunch Loops trail system. As a testament to the quality and density of world-class single-track, the Epic Rides Series has hosted events here for years. Loop options abound, but Gunny Loop, Andy’s Loop and Butterknife are some of my favorites.
The Lunch Loops trailhead is located just below the Colorado National Monument. It’s one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever driven or ridden. You can add about an hour to the drive to our next stop on this road trip by looping through the monument. It’s right on the way!
Bin 707 Foodbar serves higher-end cuisine with locally sourced ingredients but manages to do so without being pretentious. You’re also in Colorado’s wine country now, so be sure to ask about their recommended local pairings.
Day 4: Moab, Utah
After an easy 1 3/4-hour drive southwest on Interstate 70, the most famous mountain bike destination in the world is the star of day four. Moab made a name for itself beginning in the early days of knobby-t knobby tired bikes, as its striking Slickrock terrain was the perfect background for unique magazine covers. Today that mystique remains, drawing off-road vehicle fans of all types the world over. But, don’t be fooled; the terrain is raw and unforgiving. Less experienced riders will likely find themselves in over their heads. In recent years, the city of Moab has done a great job of adding more entry-level trail systems to its portfolio of iconic technical rides. For those newer to single-track, the Brand trail system or in-town Pipedream can be good options. For the more seasoned riders, the iconic Whole Enchilada, Mag 7 and Amasa Back area are challenging rides with massive payoffs. For those looking for a big fitness challenge, the 100-mile White Rim loop is a special way to see the grandeur of Canyonlands National Park.
Love Muffin Café is my breakfast spot of choice. Try to get there early and snag one of their bacon blueberry muffins before they’re sold out! Toss an extra one in your riding pack for that mid-ride snack break at one of the postcard overlooks you’re guaranteed to roll by.
Day 5: Cortez, Colorado
Less than a two-hour drive from Moab, our road trip culminates to the southeast, back in the state of Colorado. Although Cortez may not boast the same volume of trails as some of the other towns on this list, it may have the single most famous stretch of singletrack in the area. Phil’s World Trail System, and the Ribcage section specifically, has made a name for itself internationally, thanks to being the epitome of flow. If ripping an offroad roller coaster sounds like your thing, Phil’s World is your trail. Home to the annual 12 Hours of Mesa Verde race, this treasure right off the main highway is not to be missed. A few times have I felt more one with my bike or like I was rediscovering the joy of singletrack all over again.
Phil’s World sits in the shadow of yet another national park—Mesa Verde. Taking a tour of the cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans over a thousand years ago is sure to leave a lasting impression.
The Farm in Cortez sources all of its ingredients locally, so you know you’re getting the best possible fuel to fill your ribcage before ripping the Ribcage.
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