While the area between Cheyenne and Laramie is an island of terrain in the midst of an endless prairie sea, the area to the west of Laramie is home to a major mountain range, which also hosts expansive, unique, and highly-entertaining mountain biking. After familiarizing myself with all the nearby riding between two of Wyoming’s three largest cities, I began to venture further afield, and learned a lot about the spirit of adventure from the saddle of a bike.
Heading due west from Laramie on Highway 130 through the tiny town of Centennial will deliver the driver into the Medicine Bow Mountains, which extend from just south of the Colorado border up to where I-80 passes through southern Wyoming, sometimes poking above treeline, and always serving up beautiful alpine and subalpine environments. These are beautiful, dramatic, and unforgiving mountains which hold a fantastic array of recreational opportunities, including some serious mountain biking. Here are seven trails that display the array of riding the area has to offer.
I don’t often recommend doubletrack rides, but Libby Flats is a worthy exception. This is a scenery ride rather than a ride to get rad. The mostly non-technical doubletrack takes the more casual rider on a grand tour of a tremendous arrray of stunning alpine scenery, starting in the subalpine forests and emerging into high alpine tundra. Once clear of the trees, the views are constant and unbeatable, most notably dominated by the area’s high point, Medicine Bow Peak. There are multiple options for side trips on connecting doubletracks to beautiful alpine lakes. This is a place to pack a lunch and a camera, but come prepared; even on a sunny midsummer day, the high alpine air up there can be nippy, especially if it’s windy, which it usually is.
This was a ride I really didn’t care for at first, but it grew on me. There’s lots of doubletrack and the scenery didn’t compare to Libby, so what was the point? Well, there is some very good singletrack, even if I would like the proportion to be greater, but this ride has two other things going for it. First, the climb is a lung and thigh buster so it makes for great training or, if you prefer, “character building.” Second, once a couple miles from the trailhead (if you go outside of hunting season), you’ll likely have the place all to yourself, even on a perfect weather midsummer weekend. In fact, the upper reaches get so little traffic, the trail becomes very faint, even imperceptible in places. Although not as high as Libby Flats, the top is a local high spot and completely exposed, so be ready to turn around if you see weather rolling in.
Despite the name similarity, Sheep Lake, which lies well north of Highway 130, isn’t near Sheep Mountain, which sits well south. The Sheep Lake trail combines the best of the aforementioned virtues of Libby Flats and Sheep Mountain, namely fantastic scenery, pristine high alpine environment, and a total lack of other humans–and it does so all on narrow singletrack. The trail can be quite bumpy but is rarely technical. The roughly nine-mile route begins at Brooklyn Lake just north of Highway 130, runs past Sheep Lake, and terminates at Sand Lake, sharing solitude and scenery every pedal stroke along the way. The climbs are gradual and there is less than a thousand feet of total elevation change over the distance of the trail, but the occasional bumpiness and consistently high altitude can make it seem more difficult than it should be.
Corner Mountain and Little Laramie Trails
Just west of Centennial lie two popular cross country ski trail networks which double as mountain bike networks in the summer. On the south side of Highway 130 is the Corner Mountain Trails, the mellower of the two, with wide singletrack casually wandering through well-spaced trees, without any serious technical challenges or elevation gain. A stone’s throw fartgher up 130 on the north side is the slightly more extensive and much more interesting Little Laramie trails, which tend to be narrower, in tighter trees, and punctuated with a few mildly-interesting technical challenges, including a couple air opportunities. Together, they make a nice progression from upper novice to lower intermediate for the improving rider. And again, they both provide near total solitude for the summer rider.
The North Fork Trail
Just north of the upper reaches of the Little Laramie trail network is the entrance to the North Fork Trail, so called because it follows the north fork of the Little Laramie river. The trail rises about a thousand vertical feet over its roughly five mile length for an easy average grade. However, that grade is not consistent, and the trail has level spots which must be paid for in alternating steeps. Riding every pitch at this altitude does require a set of lungs, but it is so worth it for both the beautiful forest and the screamer of a return trip.
I have saved the best for last here. In this case “best” means most remote, most exposed, most dangerous, and most likely to do harm to your bike as well. The Rock Creek trail is not for the ill-prepared, unskilled, or tentative rider.
Done either as a shuttle or by starting with 16 miles of slogging up forest roads, the route begins in the heart of the mountains and descends all the way to Interstate 80 as it passes through southern Wyoming’s big empty. I actually prefer making the climb, as the grade is manageable and there’s more likely to be an elk sighting than a human encounter.
Once at the top, it’s time for 12 miles of continual downhill that will throw a bit of everything at you. The densely-wooded river valley is sometimes beautiful beyond description, but it is anything but inviting. There is huge exposure, eroded trail next to extreme sideslopes, long scree fields, usually deadfall, and jumbled, jagged boulders, all of which threaten both bike and body. This is not a flow trail, but rather a rugged, primitive trail that makes no concessions for wheeled travelers, and that’s what I love so much about it. Despite continually approaching I-80 over its length, it is exceedingly remote, there is no cell service, and little chance of rescue.
I have ridden the route three times, each on a perfect weather Saturday, and seen a grand total of one other human, that being a lone forest ranger on horseback less than a mile from the upper trailhead. Be wise, be prepared, be responsible, and be self sufficient. If something goes wrong, the local critters will have picked your bones clean long before anybody can find your carcass.
The Ultimate Point-to-Point Shuttle
The first time I offloaded my bike at the eastern North Fork trailhead, I knew I was close to the upper reaches of the Little Laramie Trails. When I ventured further out, to the south trailhead for the Sheep Lake Trail, I knew I was close to the other end of the North Fork trail. Then, when I made the dirt road climb to the top of the Rock Creek Trail, I looked at the lake sitting there and thought it looked familiar. I realized I was looking at Sand Lake from a different angle, but definitely the same lake that terminates the Sheep Lake Trail. It then struck me that these four trails could be combined, with no more than a couple football field lengths of dirt road, into a single, 99.9% singletrack, epic mountain crossing route. It would require a miserable shuttle since it’s at least a full hour either around the mountains on paved highways, or through the mountains on very low speed forest service roads, but what a ride it would be! Re-riding these four trails one last time, all as one big adventure sits high on my wish list to this day.
Once again, I must express my appreciation for all the Singletracks contributors who took time to share their photos of this wonderful bit o’ geography. Thanks to dauw, Groomster62, operafan71, ositoking, and swimswithtrout, we have good representative shots of the area.