By Craig Johnson
Coloradans have been riding bicycles in the mountains since the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the mid–1970s that the modern-day sport of mountain biking was born. The cradle of the sport was Crested Butte.
In 1976, hobbyists on modified cruiser bikes called “klunkers” began racing to Aspen over the 12,705-foot Pearl Pass. Without the benefit of hand brakes, the rear brakes of these heavy steel contraptions would frequently get so hot that all of the axle grease would be seared away on the steep descent.
The “Pearl Pass Tour,” as it is now known, is the longest continuously running mountain biking event in the world, drawing a diverse international crowd of visitors seeking extreme competition.
Mountain bikes have evolved into highly specialized equipment designed to handle the rigors of extreme terrain, and the sport of mountain biking, no longer a niche activity, has spread to nearly every town within the four corners of Colorado.
Today, mountain biking is the third most popular outdoor activity in the U.S., after running and fishing. Thankfully, some things remain unchanged: Crested Butte continues to offer some of the most diverse mountain biking trails in the world, from steep technical routes that will test the nerves of the most extreme adrenaline junkies, to gentle tracks through mountain valleys of endless wildflowers. In short, there’s something for everyone.
While I am not the thrill seeker I once was (some say with age comes wisdom, but I think it has more to do with an increasing awareness of my own mortality), I still enjoy the varied terrain and unparalleled mountain vistas of Crested Butte’s trails. More often than not, my visits to the area are tied to work these days, but I find time to fit in a ride around other commitments.
One of my favorite rides on those occasions when my time is limited is the Lower Loop Trail, a scenic 8-mile “lollipop loop” — a short out-and-back ride with a loop at the end where you reverse course.
The trail begins on an improved road just outside of town at an elevation of 9,000 feet, and on a calm day you can see Gothic Mountain reflected in the waters of Peanut Lake along the way. At the fork in the road, the Loop Trail continues as a single track as you pass through open meadows and aspen groves.
What the Loop Trail lacks in technical challenge is more than made up for by the stunning mountain and meadow views. This is a popular trail for both hikers and mountain bikers, so expect company, especially on summer weekends.
The best time to ride is just after sunrise when the air is fresh and the morning dew is heavy on the ground. In addition to beating the midday sun (which can be intense in the summer at this altitude), the early morning hours are the best time to observe wildlife.
The area surrounding Crested Butte is home to bighorn sheep, mountain goats, deer, elk, moose, prairie-chickens, cranes, and occasionally bears and mountain lions. Be alert and remember to keep a safe distance if you have a chance encounter with a furry friend on your ride.
The Loop Trail features a modest elevation gain of 650 feet and can be completed in one to two hours, depending on how much time you want to spend taking photos and contemplating the amazing surroundings.
Once you finish your ride, you can find a variety of pubs and restaurants close by in downtown Crested Butte to quench your thirst — one of the more positive changes since the Pearl Pass Tours of the 1970s. It makes the perfect end to another day in Colorado’s co-op country.
Craig Johnson is CREA’s Director of Government Relations and General Counsel, and an avid fly fisherman and outdoorsman in his spare time.