Last week, I wrote about biking around a major resort in the middle of the Colorado Rockies, Breckenridge. This week, we go down the road a ways to the town of Fairplay on the edge of the broad, flat valley known as South Park.
While only 20 miles from Breckenridge, Fairplay is worlds away stylistically. There is no major resort development or glitz–you’re not going to see the rich and famous in Fairplay. You won’t find the wide array of dining options, and what nightlife you find will be decidedly more… rustic. It’s as if 11,542ft Hoosier Pass, which separates the two towns, throws up an impenetrable cultural barrier; North Face, Bogner, and Rossignol on one side, Wrangler, Carhartts, and Winchester on the other. The one thing they share, however, is proximity to great trails. Yet again, unlike Breck where many great routes can be had right from town, the rides around Fairplay usually require a little effort to get to–effort that is usually rewarded by genuinely remote singletrack through pristine wildlands, and nobody else to share it with. Here’s a quartet of Fairplay’s fairest rides.
There’s one word for this ride: Gorgeous! It may not have the million-mile views of the Monarch Crest or the uniqueness of the Slickrock Trail, but this one is consistently pleasing to the eye throughout the route. In fact, there are a number of ways you can do this trail: ride it as an out-and-back on all singletrack, or employ any of a number of roads to create some nice loops.
The ride starts in the tiny hamlet of Como, about 9 miles north of Fairplay towards Denver on Highway 285. While an all-singletrack out-and-back can be had, this is one of those rare occasions where I actually recommend taking the roads on the uphill leg to make a loop. Interestingly, like the Baker Tank Loop described in the Breckenridge article, you also begin this route by climbing the Boreas Pass Road, only this time from the opposite side of the pass and leading back towards Breckenridge. While you’ll spend about close to half the loop on dirt roads, don’t despair: the climb is gradual, and the wide road allows you to fully absorb all the scenery as well as the myriad wildflowers lining the road.
Before you know it, you’ll be at the top and ready to venture into some remote, pristine singletrack. The combination of cross country trail and fast descending that will take you back to Como includes narrow singletrack (some of it buff and some of it rocky), woods so dense they block out the sun, and meadows that spread wide, offering unobstructed views of the surrounding peaks… and just a whole lot of fun! Were it not just down the road from the famed Kenosha Pass rides, this one would be a world-famous classic in its own right. Route finding can be a bit challenging for those unfamiliar with the area, but the entire route is very cleanly depicted on Trails Illustrated Map #109, “Breckenridge/Tennessee Pass.”
This ride takes the solitude you experience in the Gold Dust ride to another level. If you ride this as a lollipop loop starting at the terminus of County Road 455, you’ll get 17 miles, almost all singletrack, and your chances of seeing another human being are next to nil. There are no major technical challenges along the way, but the trail is far from buff. The climbs are relatively easy by central Colorado standards, but again, the raw trail surface means you will be working for your miles, especially since the entire route lies above 10,000 feet.
My preferred route is to do the loop portion clockwise, veering off Sheep Creek at the intersection with Twelvemile Creek, and picking up the remainder of Sheep Creek on the return leg. There’s an additional one-mile out-and-back to Twelvemile Lake that is well worth the extra time and effort. The trail adds a little more challenge, and the destination is truly beautiful. This is another trail with some route finding challenges, but again, it is all cleanly depicted on a Trails Illustrated map, this one being #110, “Leadville/Fairplay.”
Another lollipop loop, this time starting from the Buffalo Pass Trailhead southwest of Fairplay on Buffalo Peaks Road, this ride will require good route finding skills and both the Trails Illustrated #100 map and the Trails Illustrated #129, “Buena Vista/Collegiate Peaks,” map. Very similar in layout as a lollipop with a somewhat longer stretch of road at the far side of the loop required to complete it, this trail is nevertheless still well-worth riding for its solitude and many options to extend the ride with additional dirt roads and singletrack into very remote, rugged locales. Unfortunately, each of those additional out-and-back opportunities requires you to turn around at the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness boundary.
On my first ride on this route, I had two exceptional wildlife encounters. First, while riding through a dense forest, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a flock of about 20 wild turkeys. They weren’t at all spooked, and simply cocked their heads at me in that turkey way and watched me pass through. A couple miles later, I emerged into a high meadow overlooking the South Park Valley, but didn’t bother to check out the scenery, as I had just approached a bachelor herd (all males) of rocky mountain elk. They were a little less tolerant than the turkeys, and I didn’t get to scope them out for long before they thundered off into the wood. Nonetheless, it was a special moment, and made an already excellent ride nothing less than outstanding.
Of the four rides in this article, this is the only one that is most easily ridden from town. Ironically, it is also the one that will give you the most remote feeling of all, for a couple of reasons. First, parts of this trail are in such dense, dark woods, that you could be right next to downtown Denver and not know it. Second, the route is more than a little confusing. The entire area and most of the specific route are depicted on the Trails Illustrated #109 map, but there have been numerous reroutes, new trails cut, and there are a few ATV tracks and old logging or mining roads that don’t appear on the map. USGS quads are even more out of date. If you undertake this route, know how to read your map well and pinpoint your location; either that, or take a GPS… and hope it works in those deep, dark valleys!
While Fairplay doesn’t have the quantity, or for the most part, the quality of lodging and dining as nearby Breckenridge, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend time there. While the lodging may not have the amenities you’ll find in Breck, it is much less expensive, and if you’re okay with a slightly more rustic experience, you’ll do alright. The area around Fairplay also has more camping options, some of them adjacent to the trails mentioned in this article.
As for food, if you’re not adventurous, Fairplay does have a Subway (who doesn’t?) and a Pizza Hut. My recommendation for loading up before a ride, or filling the hole after, is the Brown Burro Café, which makes an excellent breakfast burrito as well as reasonably-priced, hearty lunches and dinners. Dorothy’s Homemade Tamales also makes some of the best tamales (pork, beef, chicken, or vegetarian) this side of the Rio Grande.
The next time you’re cruising through the South Park valley at 70 miles per hour on your way to somewhere else, consider stopping in Fairplay for a couple of days to check out these excellent, under-rated trails!