Desert Southwest (CO,AZ,UT,NM), Trip Reports » Vapor Trail Minus


For my first “real” bikepacking experience I chose to ride most of the Vapor Trail Race course near Salida, Colorado. I planned on spending 3 or 4 days out solo, depending on food, weather and trail conditions.   Generally the route followed a portion of the Colorado Trail, then dirt roads, railroad grades and trails on the west side of the Continental Divide, then to a portion of the Monarch Crest Trail.

The first day began in Poncha Springs, riding up paved and dirt roads to a section of the CT between the Shavano TH and Chalk Creek.  From there, I planned to head up Chalk Creek to the ghost town of Hancock. The CT in this stretch suprised me with its rideability, with just a few hike-a-bike sections. I met a half-dozen CT racers, who were weary from all of the wet weather.

On to the Shavano Trailhead

Small Sample of the CT

From Chalk Creek, I turned westward towards ATV land following an old railroad grade and then a dirt road to St. Elmo.  I had decided to try to make it to the old mining ghost town of Hancock that evening, but my plans seemed to unravel as I encountered barriers and keep out signs erected by the forest service on the road I had planned to take.  The road had been washed out and, according to someone, the road was now sliced by an impassable 40′ gulley .  I thought to myself, “This is where the adventure begins”.   I continued on, a little cautiously, and was able to slide across the gulley and the side (with possibly only a little deviation into non-public land).

Railroad Grade in Chalk Creek Canyon

Chalk Creek Canyon

I spent the first night in Hancock at the Alpine Tunnel trailhead.  The next morning I followed this beautiful trail up an alpine drainage to the collapsed tunnel entrance.  From there, I hiked up a steep trail 1/4 mile to the top, then rode down to the unique and historic Alpine Tunnel station.

Alpine Tunnel Railroad Grade

Alpine Tunnel Station

 Until that point in my adventure, I had only done a minimal amount of hike-a-bike.  The next several hours, however, began progressively more difficult due to steep, rocky terrain chewed up by ATVs.  I had now entered ATV land where anything other than a personal 4-wheeler was an oddity.

ATV-Land "Road"

I rode/hiked up to Tomichi Pass, then onto the single track Canyon Creek Trail.  The first mile or so nearly killed me, it was extremely rocky and steep and I had to lift my loaded bike up to the top of Paywell Mountain.  I couldn’t believe these last few stretches were part of the 150 mile Vapor Trail Race; it took me about 1.5 hours to climb the mile to the summit and I felt completely crushed at the top.  It would have taken me even longer but I was nervous about getting to the top before the lightning started.

Paywell Mountain

From the top, it was all downhill through some of the sweetest single track I’ve ridden.  Mt. Paywell was  appropriately named after all.

Canyon Creek Trail

It’s a great trail, with a good little stinger at the end up a steep, loose motorcycle trail.  From Canyon Creek I rode out along the Tomichi Creek road to Highway 50, bypassing the Vapor Trail route which climbs up the Old Monarch Crest road.  Frankly, I was beat and just wanted to get some junk food at Sargents and find a good campspot.

I camped along Marshall Creek up the Marshall Pass Road.  The next day I climbed up the MP Road, which has a great easy railroad grade up to the Monarch Crest Trail.   

Marshall Pass Road

The rest of the day I followed the CT to the standard Silver Creek Trail, then Rainbow Trail out to the highway and back to Poncha Springs. 

Rainbow Trail

All in all, it was a great 3 days with lots of mountainous terrain and scenic vistas.  My GPS reported over 14,000 feet of climbing, and 115 miles total (I can share my gps file if desired).  I learned to moderate my expectations about how much distance I could cover – with this terrain, 35 miles a day was more than enough and took me around 8 hours with a lot of short breaks.  There are plenty of other possible loops in the Salida area for bikepacking.  In particular I would suggest explorations of the area southwest of Sargents, which appear to have an extensive network of trails bisecting the Colorado Trail.

Comments (17)

CarneyAugust 11th, 2010 at 10:26 am

So that’s what Chalk Creek Canyon and Alpine Tunnel look like in the daylight – I’ve only ever seen that stretch at about 4am by headlamp! Very cool!

Jeff KerkoveAugust 11th, 2010 at 11:18 am

Yeah, what Carney said.

paxton coyoteAugust 11th, 2010 at 11:33 am

where can an out-of-stater find maps/info on trails like that to do if I only had 3-4 days to show up & do it, thinking of some type of loop, park somewhere & do a loop & return. How did the rear rack perform? looks like a GREAT trip in some GREAT country!

DaveHAugust 11th, 2010 at 12:41 pm

TopoFusion using the MyTopo basemaps is a great place to start a “virtual” exploration of the area. Just about every trail is represented on those maps. Draw your routes in TF and you’ll see how much vert and distance you are considering.

wildersfamAugust 11th, 2010 at 2:24 pm

I used a map of the Taylor Park area from Latitude 40 Maps out of Nederland, CO. Also filled in with a Nat’l Geographic Map. Plus my GPS software. I’ll have to check out TopoFusion to see if it could bring everything together better. The Old Man Sherpa rack worked great – hard to find but seems to be well liked in the bikepacking community (at least those who don’t mind the extra weight). I figure that you have to find the right combo of storage that works for you – For me, I wanted the external seat bag for repair and water bottles on the bike (plus a handlebar bottle holder which is kind of unique) which dictated where to put the other stuff. I guess the bonus is I could ride on the rack if I lost my saddle! (wink, wink, nudge nudge)

wildersfamAugust 11th, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Did you Vapor Trail guys rig up some sort of backpack last year for the hike up the gnarly rocky steep-ass portion of Canyon Creek from Tomichi Pass? That was pretty hellacious, probably even w/o bikepacking gear. Hopefully you did this in the dark as well…

Let’s hope the FS fixes the Hancock Road in time for the Vapor Trail Race…

sshepAugust 12th, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Nice setup and a fun trip. I rode a Sette Razzo to the finish in the TDR. Great frame for the money.

slowerthensnotAugust 28th, 2010 at 10:22 pm

great route! thanks for sharing!

JasonaAugust 30th, 2010 at 7:06 am

Would love to get a copy of your GPS file if you don’t mind sharing…..

wildersfamSeptember 8th, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Happy to send you the GPS file…just not sure how or where to…

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