The Pike National Forest covers much of the Front Range of Colorado, stretching between Colorado Springs and Denver. The forest is home to some intensely-popular mountain bike trails due to its proximity to these large population centers, but it still retains some underused gems.
The Pike is also my hometown stomping grounds. Despite living within the city limits of Colorado Springs, I’m within riding distance of open space singletrack that will take me right into this wonderful land of mixed pine and aspen forests, rolling hills, and huge mountains piercing the sky at over 14,000 feet above sea level… and of course, hundreds of miles of world class singletrack.
Due to consolidation within the United States Forest Service, the Pike National Forest is now managed jointly with the adjacent San Isabel National Forest. However, there is so much wonder in each area, they deserve to be addressed individually. The original Pike National Forest is divided into three districts: the Pikes Peak Ranger District, which covers the area closest to Colorado Springs; the South Platte Ranger District, which sits further north, closer to Denver; and the South Park Ranger District, sitting out west, deeper in the mountains.
Read on to learn about the best trails and attractions the Pike National Forest has to offer:
The Top 10 Mountain Bike Trails in the Pike National Forest
The Buffalo Creek area has long been a perennial favorite among Front Range mountain bikers. The trail system has only gotten better in recent years with the addition of new trails. The new singletrack adds to the already impressive mileage, but more importantly, to the variety and flow of the area. Anybody and everybody can find a loop to their liking among the many dozens of miles available here.
Despite the intense popularity of the area and numerous very full parking lots, the network spreads people out well and, even on the busiest of days, actual crowding on the trails is rare. If you want to pedal for miles and miles and choose your own adventure, the Buffalo Creek area is your ticket for everything from beginner-friendly singletrack to double black diamond technical features.
The Colorado Trail snakes over 400 miles from Denver to Durango, and its most popular segment sits in the Pike National Forest. The segment from Kenosha Pass to Georgia Pass is true high alpine riding with jaw-dropping scenery, providing views of treeless peaks along most of its length. It also has massive groves of aspen trees, drawing huge crowds when the leaves turn their bright gold color and catch the autumn sun, dancing in the crisp fall breezes. Once at the high point on Georgia Pass, it’s possible to continue on to Breckenridge for an awesome point-to-point shuttle, turn around for a delightful out-and-back, or take the most popular choice by looping around on the West Jefferson Trail to complete one of the original Colorado classics.
Pikes Peak inspired Katherine Lee Bates to pen the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.” It inspires me to descend over 7,600 vertical feet on a mountain bike. Thanks to the Barr National Recreation Trail, we can do just that. A very few hardy souls will pedal (well, mostly push, actually) their way to the top, but most choose to catch a ride.
Even when heading downward, most will walk the bulk of the above tree line section, which is a constant boulder field on an extreme tilt. After that, the trail makes for a rapid descent, but often punctuated by yielding to hikers.
For what may be an even more fun ride, rather than going all the way to the top, enter the Barr Trail via the Elk Park Trail. Elk Park still starts above tree line but is much more rideable. It quickly ducks into a gorgeous subalpine forest before joining the Barr Trail at its halfway point.
The southwest corner of Colorado Springs abuts the Pike National Forest at a location laced with outstanding trails. Among them, Captain Jack’s, which was listed as a favorite by none other than mountain bike pioneer Joe Breeze, is known far and wide as a classic, flowy downhill run. The Buckhorn Trail makes an excellent climb to Captain Jack’s. Higher up, Jones Park and Pipeline make for much longer downhills, and other trails like Seven Bridges and St. Mary’s Falls, and a host of more underground trails, add variety and multiple loop options.
The area has undergone some rerouting to move trails away from a creek carrying an endangered species of trout, but the overall excellence and variety remains. Some complain about the ubiquitous gravel that comprises the surface of these trails, but this surface drains exceptionally well, meaning you can ride these trails at any time, even during or right after heavy rains.
The 14-mile loop around Rampart Reservoir near the mountain town of Woodland Park has been a Colorado mountain biking favorite for as long as people have been taking their bikes into the woods. Mostly novice-friendly, but punctuated with a few tough spots, this trail’s big draw is the constant view of Pikes Peak across the water, with plenty of picnic rocks along the way for the casual rider to take a break and soak it all in.
Just north of Colorado Springs is the bedroom community of Monument, which serves as a gateway to a variety of trails. The Monument Preserve has a delightful network of beginner-friendly trails wandering through an inviting ponderosa pine forest. This network connects to trail options which head higher into the Rampart Range, which forms the north/south backbone of the first mountains to rise above the area. The aptly-named Stoopid Trail will challenge most riders, and the Limbaugh Canyon route makes an adventurous loop around the backside of the range with a true backcountry feel.
Despite being a superb piece of backcountry singletrack, the Gold Dust trail flew under the radar for decades, and it still remains an underutilized gem. Best done as a loop with a lengthy dirt road climb, the grunt up to the top seems to deter many would-be riders. Their loss, as even the dirt road climb offers constant views of glorious scenery, and the return on the singletrack is a far more glorious rip through gorgeous woods and meadows.
Indian Creek is the ultimate example of a surprisingly unknown, underutilized trail. Despite close proximity to the Denver megalopolis and having appeared in even the earliest mountain biking guidebooks for the area, few riders venture into the area. As more modern trails have taken precedence, this area has fallen by the wayside. Yet it waits to reward the intrepid mountain biker willing to endure its relative anonymity, and increasingly-dense forest and narrow singletrack, to discover its charms. Indian Creek links up with the Ringtail Trail for more mileage and more vertical. Since Ringtail runs into Roxborough Park, where bikes are banned, it can only be added as an out-and-back, which may also account for some of this wonderful trail system’s neglect.
On the west side of the Pike National Forest sits the old mining town of Fairplay, known mostly for its past, its status as a pass through for skiers heading to Breckenridge, or hunters in search of big game. But Fairplay is also a gateway to some excellent–and almost completely unknown–singletrack. The best of these routes follows Sheep Creek and Twelvemile Creek (with an optional out-and-back to Twelvemile Lake), which can be combined for an awesome–and solitary–day in the saddle. I have ridden this route a few times and have seen more elk on one ride than humans on all the rides combined. Just don’t go during deer or elk rifle season!
Another hidden gem, this trail is close to both Colorado Springs and Denver, but requires a lengthy, circuitous, and largely dirt road drive to get to. Since either endpoint is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, not many bikes make the journey. But it’s well-worth it, with a great climb at either end and plenty of bench cut and ridge top riding along its length, all with great views down to the South Platte River. The north end of the trail links to Reynolds Park, where about half the trails are open to mountain biking, so there’s the opportunity to extend mileage and vertical.
5 Best Off-the-Bike Activities in the Pike National Forest
Our #3 mountain bike ride listed above sits on our #1 overall attraction in the region. Pikes Peak has been called “America’s Mountain,” and that’s not just hyperbole. While not the highest peak in Colorado (it actually sits all the way down at #30, 323 feet lower than the state’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert), Pikes Peak is definitely the biggest, both literally and figuratively. The base elevation of the mountain is much lower than the higher peaks, so the mountain itself is far bigger than its higher-sitting cousins. It is also a recreational and tourist magnet. Whether you make it to the top by shuttle, passenger car, bike, foot, or by riding the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, ascending almost 8,000 feet in one continuous journey is a big deal, and hundreds of thousands of visitors do it every year.
While the Pike National Forest is big on mountain bike trails, it’s also big on motorized off-road use. Whether you’re two-wheeled or four, two-stroke or four, if you’ve got a throttle you want to twist, the Pike has a trail for you. The Rampart Range area alone has over 100 miles of high quality, varied, and entertaining dirt to sink all your cc-powered knobbies into.
The Pike National Forest is full of rocks–big ones! Climbable ones that draw avid climbers from far and wide. Those who love to put chalk on their hands and grippy shoes on their feet will find plenty to love in the Pike. Chief among the climbing meccas is Eleven Mile Canyon, a gorgeous river-cut canyon framed by towering granite walls with climbs of varying length and technical difficulty.
For those ready to set aside cranks for sturdy footwear, and really looking to get away from it all without having to cross the globe, the near-to-Denver but seldom-visited Lost Creek Wilderness provides the perfect getaway. Since the Lost Creek doesn’t have any of Colorado’s 14ers (peaks above 14,000 feet) or postcard-perfect alpine lakes, it gets little press and even less traffic. That means there’s plenty of accessible solitude for those who yearn for it. The trails, the backpacking, and yes, even the scenery, are all excellent.
Although it stands very much alone, Pikes Peak isn’t the only 14er in the Pike National Forest, and summiting these lofty peaks is a major pursuit in these parts. A number of 14ers lie further north in the Pike, but for those into peak bagging, it’s hard to top the opportunity to bag four in a single outing. Mt. Lincoln, Mt. Cameron, Mt. Bross, and Mt. Democrat are all in close enough proximity that a hardy, fit individual with an early start can reach the apex of all four in a single, oxygen-deprived outing.
5 Best Campgrounds in the Pike National Forest
The Buffalo Campground is perfectly situated for accessing some of the best loops in the Buffalo Creek area. If you don’t want an organized campground, the Buffalo Creek area allows dispersed camping, so many people just find a flat spot next to one of the access roads where they can pull off. Just be sure to bring water.
Want to beat the crowds on one of Colorado’s most popular trails? Arrive the day before and stay at the Kenosha Pass campground, where you will wake up right at the starting line.
Another great Buffalo Creek-area campground, this one sits in close proximity to the most excellent newest addition: the Little Scraggy trail.
This is a beautiful campground at the head of the Indian Creek trail system. It is close to Denver but has a remote feel.
Sitting southwest of Fairplay, the Weston Pass Campground is one of the more remote campgrounds in the Pike. It provides easy access to a number of high quality backcountry trails like Sheep Creek/Twelvemile and Salt Creek/McQuaid.
3 Most Notable Events in the Pike National Forest
Once a sleepy little mountain town, Bailey has become something of a bedroom community for Denver commuters. But it still sits in the mountains, and now hosts one of Colorado’s premier long distance mountain bike races, with 50- and 100-mile options. Win or lose, you can feel good, since Hundo profits go to mountain biking non-profits. The race takes place almost entirely within the Buffalo Creek trail system–the #1 trail on our list above.
This isn’t actually a mountain bike event, but it’s just too big to leave out. At a peak altitude of 14,130ft, Mt. Evans is yet another one of the Pike’s famed 14ers. This one, however, has a paved road to the top, which serves as the route for a bicycle hill climb ascending a lung-busting 6,630 feet.
It’s one thing to climb, or even descend, mammoth Pikes Peak on a bike. It’s something else to circumnavigate it. The mountain has a huge base, and the full circumference is listed as “100(ish)K.” Given the altitude and the amount of climbing along the way, that’s a huge undertaking. If you want to test yourself in what remains a non-sponsored, community-organized event–whether to try to post the best time, or just to see if you can even complete such a task–this is a great way to go.
The Top 3 Bike Shops Near the Pike National Forest
Sitting on the western edge of Colorado Springs, and close to the last bit of city before entering the forest, Pro Cycling is a large, modern, well-stocked shop and a good last stop before venturing out into the Pike’s great trails.
Officially “The Bike Repair Shop LLC,” this is a smaller shop with limited stock, but friendly, helpful service. Bonus: it’s right on the way to Buffalo Creek.
The small mountain town of Woodland Park is host to a nicely-appointed local bike shop. In addition to full-service sales, Team Telecycle also offers quality rentals in case you’re looking to ride but couldn’t bring your own rig with you.
Your Turn: Have any Pike National Forest tips that we didn’t mention? Share them in the comments below!