A backpacking trip in the mountains had been on my bucket list for several years. So, when I was asked if I wanted to join a group of women from St. Louis for a five-day excursion in southwestern Colorado, I was eager to hear more.
The trip would start in the former mining town of Telluride and traverse 147 miles through the San Juan Mountains to the small unincorporated community of Gateway. We would climb from 8,700 feet up to 10,980 feet, then descend to 4,560 feet. And there would be a twist: we would be bike packing, not backpacking.
All women on a multi-day mountain biking adventure in the Colorado backcountry? Count me in!
Those who know me know that I’m passionate about mountain biking, and I’ve done a lot of mountain bike riding and racing, as well as adventure racing, over the years. But this was a unique and exciting opportunity.
Our group would consist of seven other women I knew pretty well who shared a similar love for mountain biking and wanted to try something new: Laura Scherff, Lindsay Durst, Kerri Mileski, Mary Piper, Annie Schwartz, Christine Sai-Halasz, and Maria Esswein.
After committing to the trip, which was scheduled for July 2018, we had a couple of group meetings to review the route, transportation logistics, equipment, and gear needed. We planned to use the San Juan Huts system for our overnights. Each wooden hut would sleep eight people, with padded bunks, sleeping bags, stove, utensils, food, beer, and drinking water supplied.
We would still need to carry our clothing, personal items, lunch, nutrition, navigation and bike tools, and riding gear with us each day. We decided to disperse the weight of the equipment evenly among the group and shared our new or borrowed bike packing bags. There were multiple different sizes and types. I went with the waterproof Revelate Designs system for my feed bags, front roll, and rear seat bag.
It took time to figure how to pack the gear to allow access to the necessary items and to disperse the weight to avoid the bags rubbing tires. I did a lot of solo training on single track and roads with all the gear I anticipated bringing, and we arranged several practice rides as a group. One practice ride was a 50-mile round trip from Chesterfield Valley to Klondike Park in St. Charles County, where we stayed overnight in a rented cabin.
This “shakedown trip” was great fun and allowed for practical training with our bikes, bags, and gear. We had our maps plotted, bags packed, and gear dialed in. We were ready to conquer the bike packing adventure.
Arrival and Recon
Our San Juan Huts route was point-to-point, so we left our cars in Gateway and used Western Slopes Rides shuttle service to get us to Telluride for the start of our adventure. This prototypical mountain town is surrounded by towering evergreen-covered peaks and known for its great skiing, cultural events, and historic homes and buildings, many of which are now boutiques, art galleries, and gourmet restaurants. As we made the first turn into downtown, a bear lumbered across the street as if to welcome us.
We spent the next two days exploring Telluride and riding some of the single track in the area. Taking the 13-minute gondola to the top of the mountain and riding our bikes back down was a thrill. We opted to live out of our bike bags, which we would be doing over the next five days anyway. What was another 48 hours?
Afternoon rain showers were forecasted for most of our trip, so we planned to start early each morning and hopefully avoid getting wet. San Juan Huts supplied us with maps and route descriptions; each day presented the “standard route” using logging, mining, and ranching roads, as well as interconnecting “single track alternates” for more technically motivated riders.
Prior to the trip, Christine and I had highlighted the routes we wanted to take on the maps and then laminated them. I also listed the roads on which to turn, including mileage between them, on index cards, which I also laminated. I planned to put these on my handlebar using a clamp and gear ties. (I still carried a compass and did use it once.)
Day 1 – Telluride to Dollar Hut
Day one was only around 20 miles, but it was the hardest day due to the big elevation gain to almost 11,000 feet with fully loaded bikes. The rugged landscape and never-ending stacked mountain peaks were amazing. We elected to take the Galloping Goose Trail (single track) for about 9 miles, winding through green meadows, crossing creeks, and passing aspen trees until we eventually merged back onto the “standard” course.
We didn’t run into many people on our trip, but there was a solo male rider who caught up with us this day. He was out for a training ride as we were ascending and asked if we were on a hut-to-hut trip. One of the girls responded that we were. He wanted to know if our group consisted of all women and if San Juan Huts allowed female-only groups. Initially, we were offended he didn’t think an all-women’s group could do the trip. Once we arrived at our hut, however, I looked around at the gorgeous scenery and realized eight women had just pedaled — and sometimes had to push — our bikes almost 3,000 feet up into the mountains. We all were no longer offended by the guy’s question and, in fact, laughed at it.
I’d rented a SPOT personal beacon to send messages, have SOS capability if needed, and to allow those at home to follow us on our route through the tracking capability. I sent generic texts each day — “We made it to the hut” — to the phone numbers I’d pre-programmed into the device. I used an Anker battery charger for my watch, bike computer, and phone during the trip.
We spent all afternoon until sunset sitting on tree stumps and the hut’s cozy chairs, relaxing on top of our mountain and gazing at the panorama. You could see for miles from our cabin. We made chicken curry with vegetables (two or three of us took turns cooking each night) and, because it was Christine’s birthday, we concocted a tortilla cake with Nutella and M&Ms. It was actually quite tasty!
Day 2 – Dollar Hut to Spring Creek Hut
We were starting at almost 11,000 feet and would be entering a high lightning exposure area for a long portion of our 27-mile ride on day two. There was also the prediction of afternoon storms. So, we opted for just hot coffee and a cold breakfast to get a 6:00 a.m. start and beat the storms on our way to Spring Creek Hut. We encountered some steep, rocky descents and then dropped into a succession of meadows with log cabins and wooden fences — listed by our trip organizers as a setting for the movie “True Grit.”
Upon arrival at our hut, a few of the girls decided to explore the additional single track nearby, while others of us went on a hike. We washed some of our clothes using Ziploc bags and snacked on deviled eggs, cheese, and crackers.
I took a little time to review the maps, routes, and weather. My biggest fear was to lead us down a wrong road or trail in the unfamiliar mountains. We made it a point each evening to discuss the route plan for the next day, so we could anticipate food and water needs and plan accordingly.
Before we headed off to bed, we cooked up a delicious vegetable rotini for dinner.
Day 3 – Spring Creek Hut to Columbine Hut
The 32-mile ride on day three hung around an elevation of 9,200 feet on mostly gravel roads, with fantastic views of the surrounding crags, canyons, and peaks.
It was suggested to replenish our water at a spring that was approximately 1 mile before our arrival at Columbine Hut. This hut had more limited access for restocking and therefore less water availability.
Each hut had a free-standing outhouse that was accessed by climbing up a set of steps. Inside was a pail with sawdust; throw in a scoop after a few visits. We were all looking forward to tomorrow’s hut, which was the only one where we would have access to a shower for the week.
Day 4 – Columbine Hut to Graham Ranch Hut
Day four was a total of 36 miles with a gentle descent to 8,300 feet. We chose to take some of the flowy single track through the aspens and pastures blanketed with tall wildflowers, running into mule deer and a coyote along the way. We beat most of the rain with an early start but did have to break out the rain gear for the last 3 miles.
Graham Ranch Hut, nestled in a meadow at 8,300 feet, would be our last overnight stop for the trip. The promised shower was housed in a small separate building — and it felt great!
We cooked up a festive Mexican meal consisting of oversized stuffed burritos, chips, and salsa for our final night. I’ll never forget the eight of us sitting on the porch amid the meadow and mountains. We shared laughs and memories about the past four days, which already seemed so lasting and empowering.
Day 5 – Graham Ranch Hut to Gateway
On the last 32 miles of our trip, we descended back down to 4,560 feet. We came out of the cool green mountain range and into the hot red desert over approximately four hours, pulling over at several lookouts where we could see the San Juans stretch far away to the southwest toward New Mexico. We spotted another bear on this day and quickly closed together while it sat there, watching us ride by.
Upon arriving in the town of Gateway, our final destination, we rode straight to a resort and local restaurant for a celebratory lunch — capped off with a glass of champagne to toast our successful trip.
Now, almost a year later, I still reminisce about the awesome and wild scenery I was able to share with my friends, and I feel a sense of pride when I tell people how we eight women trained, organized gear and tools, navigated with maps, fixed bikes when they broke, and powered ourselves through remote mountains in a far-off state. Self-reliance never felt so fun and rewarding!
Author: Karen Casey Holtmann