Monarch Crest, an IMBA epic ride, is definitely one of the top trails in Colorado. Factor in the ratio of downhill to climbing, and it’s even sweeter. The only downside is that due to its high altitude, there is but a short window of opportunity to ride it between the leftover spring snow and new autumn snow. The good news is, that window is open…NOW!
If you haven’t ridden this amazing trail, this is the year to get off your duff and do it, and here is everything you need to know to put the trip together.
Monarch Crest features singletrack connected by some fire road sections to make a mostly downhill run from the Monarch Pass trailhead back over to Highway 285. The starting elevation is about 11,300 feet and for the first two and a half miles it climbs steadily. The initial section of fire road quickly gives way to singletrack that is level at first, but soon climbs some more to top out on the continental divide at around 12,000 feet. This is a great spot to stop for some snacks and 360° scenery.
From here the trail sidles along the Divide for a bit before heading downhill on more fire road, plenty of buff singletrack, and even a talus field. Ultimately, the classic route links portions of the Colorado Trail, Silver Creek Trail, and Rainbow Trail for about 30 miles of authentic Colorado high country riding. There are two bailout points: at Marshall Pass around 11 miles in, and also at the Rainbow trailhead around mile 20. Including Rainbow, my GPS logged 2,770 feet of climbing, and a whopping 5,580 feet of descending!
Singletracks has the difficulty listed as ‘black diamond’, but I have found the entire trail to be rideable – the really technical sections are easily walked if needed. A solid intermediate rider should be able to tackle 99% of the trail. As for physical physical exertion, you will feel the altitude. Keep a slower, but steady pace, stay hydrated and fueled, and you should be fine.
Monarch Crest is located near Salida, CO, which is a three hour drive from the Denver area. If you’re flying in from out of state, also check Colorado Springs, as some airlines have deals on flights to there, and the drive is an hour shorter.
Where to Stay
Salida has a range of lodging choices from seedy motels to the big hotel chains and even some swanky bed and breakfasts. I tend to stay at the Holiday Inn Express so I can take advantage of the free hot breakfast.
Where to Eat
There is everything from fast food to trendy microbreweries. I can personally recommend Amicas Pizza and the Salida Cafe.
Local Bike Shop
Absolute Bikes is THE bike shop for the Salida and Monarch Crest area. If you’re coming from out of town, they have a great rental fleet, and they have all your other needs covered as well with supplies, gear, last minute service and most importantly, maps and trail info.
Option #1 High Valley Shuttle Service. $20 per rider. Reservations recommended.
Option #2 If you have two vehicles, drop one at the Poncha Springs Visitor Center and drive the other, with bikes and riders, to the Monarch Pass trailhead. This approach involves driving back up to Monarch Pass to collect a vehicle after a very tiring bike ride.
Option #3 Drive to the Monarch Pass trailhead. Get on your bike. Ride the whole trail, and then sit in the parking lot at the Poncha Springs Visitor Center with a sad look on your face until someone offers you a ride back to your vehicle. A $5 bill and/or 6 pack of beer helps.
Start early (no later than 10am). Violent thunderstorms pop up most afternoons, and they develop very quickly.
Bring plenty of food, water, and sports drink. This is a long trail, with sustained technical riding at very high altitude. I bring:
A 70 oz Camelbak with water and one 24 oz. bottle with Hammer Nutrition Heed.
Hammer Gel, Clif Shot Bloks, Sport Beans and a granola bar or two. (I kind of lose my appetite for ‘real’ food when exerting at high altitude.)
Most of the trail is remote, and even utilizing a bailout point you’re in for a long walk if you have a serious mechanical. I bring:
Two tubes, two CO2 cartridges, mini pump, tire lever, multi-tool with chain breaker, SRAM power link, tire sidewall patch kit, spare derailleur hanger, zip ties, velcro strips and some gorilla tape.
The weather will start out cool, get pretty hot, and then possibly show you some rain, hail or even snow later in the afternoon. I bring:
My usual shorts and jersey, and a jacket that converts to a vest. Tights or shell pants are also a good idea if you have room to carry them.
If you see lightning or hear thunder, take the closest shelter you can find, or drop down one of the bailout roads.
If you have a GPS, consider signing up for a Singletracks Pro membership here to gain access to the downloadable maps of this and other great trails. Absolute Bikes sells an excellent printed map with turn by turn directions and photos of all the intersections. For pre-trip planning, they have also posted a great map with photos, mileage, and trail descriptions here.
Monarch Crest is truly an epic ride. It is long and difficult but also fun and beautiful. When it’s all done, you will definitely thank yourself for making the effort!