The Gunnison National Forest is massive, covering 1.6 million acres of land and protecting some of the most choice land in the entire state. It lies in the heart of the state’s most mountainous region–climb a tall peak in the Gunnison National Forest and you’ll see mountains spread out in every direction around you. You may spot the flat Gunnison Valley, expansive and arid, but beyond it the mountains begin again.
The town of Gunnison is obviously located close to the Gunnison National Forest, and the forest completely envelopes epic mountain bike destinations like Crested Butte. Not only that, the forest runs all the way up to where the Continental Divide forms a boundary with the San Isabel National Forest to the east, meaning some of the best mountain bike trails often associated with the town of Salida are actually in the Gunnison National Forest.
In short, the Gunnison National Forest holds some of the best mountain bike trails in not just the state of Colorado, but the nation and the entire world.
10 Best Mountain Bike Trails in Gunnison National Forest
1. Monarch Crest to Agate Creek
The Monarch Crest is ranked as the third best trail in the world by Singletracks readers and is also a segment along the #1 ranked trail, the Colorado Trail. The Continental Divide Trail runs along the top of the mountains too, sharing the same strip of singletrack, making the Monarch Crest a three-way winner.
Technically, the Crest route lies right on the border of the San Isabel and Gunnison National Forests, flitting between the two as it weaves from one side of the Continental Divide to the other. So for a true Gunnison National Forest experience, descend down the west side of the divide on the Agate Creek Trail, which ends just above the town of Sargents. While this isn’t the standard descent off the Crest, it’s truly one of the best with ripping singletrack above treeline, flowy moto whoops in the middle, and plenty of rocky chunks and creek crossings down low.
Pro tip: ride this trail late in the season when the streams are at their lowest, but still expect to wade through thigh-deep water. If you choose to ride this route in early to mid-summer, expect waist-deep water.
2. Doctor Park
The highest-ranked black diamond trail in Colorado, Doctor Park is renowned as one of the rowdiest, and simply best, singletrack descents in the Crested Butte area. While you can grind up the gravel road to access the singletrack, a 2WD dirt road brings you most of the way to the top. A 4×4 vehicle would be required to shuttle the entire trail.
3. Trail 401
“The views! Oh my gosh, the views!”
You ride 401 for the views. The singletrack’s not too bad either, but the views are absolutely stunning! Trail 401 is one of the most renowned trails in the nation, and for good reason.
4. Canyon Creek
Getting to Canyon Creek isn’t convenient from anywhere. The trailhead itself is located 10 miles off of the highway from the “town” of Sargents. From there, you climb way back into the hills, with an hour (or more) hike-a-bike required for the final singletrack push to the 12,500-foot mountain summit. But once you get to the top, the subsequent 10 miles of downhill are to die for!
Perhaps it’s cheating to list all four of these trails, but this loop route is one of the most acclaimed trail combinations in the Crested Butte area. Expect to find sweet singletrack with some gravel road connections, located way out in the middle of nowhere. The only sign of civilization you’ll encounter is the occasional barbed wire fence.
Year after year Evolution Bike Park at Crested Butte Mountain Resort continues to improve, and they have some big plans in the works for the coming years. Even today, the downhill trails are an absolute blast, and even if you aren’t into DH, you can actually ride the lifts and complete what can only be described as lift-served cross country rides. How do you beat that?!
Located just behind Mount Crested Butte, Teocalli ridge offers a grunt of a climb, a rip of a descent, and incredible views of the Maroon Bells Wilderness from the top of the route.
8. Strand Hill
The network at Strand Hill offers more moderate climbs and descents, requiring less commitment than many of the rides on this list. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of the short list for advanced mountain bikers–the singletrack here is sublime, and the aspens are absolutely gorgeous in the fall!
Another ride renowned for its aspens, the Dyke Trail passes through one of the largest aspen groves in the world. While the up and down can be challenging, this ride proves to be rewarding.
10. Trail 403
403 offers the rowdy singletrack descent that you’ll find yourself wishing 401 would provide. Combine 403 with 401 for a ride of epic proportions with all of the goods!
5 Best Off-the-Bike Activities in Gunnison National Forest
Crested Butte is known as the wildflower capital of Colorado, with the town holding a wildflower festival every July. While you can enjoy the wildflowers from the back of a mountain bike, getting your Instagram on with some wildflower photography is a great way to unwind and rest the legs.
2. Hike Mount Crested Butte
While there is no end of trails to be enjoyed on foot, with many located in Wilderness areas that are off limits to bikes, hiking to the top of Mount Crested Butte provides otherworldly views for relatively minimal effort. If you pay for a chairlift ride most of the way up the mountain, this could qualify as a recovery day for a hardy mountain biker.
Stand up paddleboarding is on the rise in the Gunnison National Forest, with popular spots including the slow-moving Slate River, many of the alpine lakes surrounding Crested Butte, and the Blue Mesa Reservoir. Which leads me to…
4. Beach Activities at Blue Mesa
There are few places in Colorado where you can enjoy a true beach experience–complete with swimming, sun bathing, fishing, building sand castles, SUPping, you name it–and Blue Mesa Reservoir, located just down the road from Gunnison, is one of the premiere spots. Bonus: if you visit in the winter and fancy some ice fishing, Blue Mesa has you covered as well.
5. Tourist Activities in Downtown Crested Butte
Downtown Crested Butte is home to a bevy of cool shops, delicious restaurants, and all sorts of entertainment for folks who enjoy playing tourist. In addition to the Wildflower Festival and various mountain bike events, Crested Butte plays host to numerous festivals throughout the year. If you’re only interested in bikes, one of the best shops in the region is also located in downtown CB.
3 Best Campgrounds in Gunnison National Forest
The Gunnison National Forest offers plenty of camping options–both in campgrounds and dispersed–but here are three of the best, all of which provide easy access to excellent mountain bike trails.
Another image from our mini-vacation atop Kebler Pass near Crested Butte, Colorado a few weeks ago. This was Lake Irwin at dawn. Woke up early, got out of the tent wearing everything I had as it was quite cold. This image is a five image pano shot with a Hasselblad H5D 50c, which is a 50 MP camera. The full pano is a 150 MP image. Pretty crazy the image quality we have available these days. #lakeirwin #crestedbutte #colorado #hasselblad @hasselblad_official #keblerpass
Having stayed in the Lake Irwin campground myself, I’ve enjoyed the epic views of the mountains and easy access to the lake. As an added bonus you can ride the Dyke Trail, mentioned on the list above, directly from this campground.
Cement Creek offers easy access to the Reno > Flag > Bear > Deadman’s loop, with a multitude of other riding options available right from camp.
While the Canyon Creek trail isn’t near much of anything, it starts and ends right at the Snowblind Campground, making this an excellent place to set up basecamp.
3 Best Mountain Bike Events in Gunnison National Forest
Renowned as the world’s oldest mountain bike festival, Crested Butte Bike Week includes a wide range of events, such as the Chainless World Championships, Fat Tire 40, and more.
2017 was the first year that Outerbike’s summer event was held in Crested Butte, and based on my first-hand experience I can tell you it went off superbly! Attendance was much higher than forecasted for a first-year event, and the organizers think that 2018 will only be better.
The self-proclaimed Fat Bike World Championships are a riotously fun time, filled with racing, riding, and plenty of partying.
The Top Two Bike Shops near the Gunnison National Forest
With sales, service, and rentals, all located on Crested Butte’s popular Elk Ave, Big Al’s Bicycle Heaven has everything you need to prepare for a ride into the backcountry.
Combine a top-notch coffee shop with a top-notch bike shop and you get Double Shot Cyclery. Oh, and there’s beer. What’s not to love?! Located in downtown Gunnison, Double Shot will take care of all your bike shop needs at the other end of the valley from Big Al’s.