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The rather out-of-the-way Uncompahgre National Forest has a distinctly split personality. About half of the nearly one million acres that compose the forest rest upon the Uncompahgre Plateau, a massive uplift which averages over 9,000 feet in elevation but is more rounded than the nearby Rocky Mountains. Most of the rest is comprised of the northern portion of the San Juan Mountains, one of Colorado’s more rugged and colorful ranges, separated by a basin of relative lowlands. Sitting off to the side is another small, geographically separate parcel resting between the two on their eastern sides.

Elevations run from a low (by Colorado standards) of 5,800 ft above sea level at the base of the Uncompahgre plateau, to an impressively thin-aired 14,309 ft atop the jagged summit of Uncompahgre Peak in the rugged San Juan mountains.  What this means is that visitors to the area can experience an impressive diversity of geography, terrain, and scenery.  It also means the visitor can tap into an impressive array of mountain biking opportunities, many of which are rarely used.  Here’s a quick guide to riding, and otherwise enjoying, this lesser known, but magnificent National Forest.

The Top 10 Mountain Bike Trails in the Uncompahgre National Forest

1. Wasatch Trail

(photo: alskoj)

Most veteran riders see the word “Wasatch” and assume it must be in reference to the famous epic Wasatch Crest trail running the ridge between Salt Lake City and Park City, Utah. But this Wasatch is located near the beautiful southwestern Colorado town of Telluride. At just under 16 miles, the Colorado Wasatch loop, while not necessarily longer, is bigger, meaner, and believe it or not, more scenic than its Utah namesake.

Over the length of the trail, mountain bikers will climb over 4,300 vertical feet, topping out at a truly lung-sucking 13,058 feet above sea level before encountering a narrow, steep, exposed, and often treacherous descent. Riders will need all their strength and skill to negotiate this section safely. This is true adventure riding for the expert cyclist.

Riding this trail truly had me begging for mercy. The Bear Creek Trail is fairly easy trail that reminded me of the difficulty of alot of Denver’s front range trails. However, once on the Wasatch Trail the word that kept running through my mind is “ridiculous.” I ended up walking most of the next 2 miles or so. The scenery is unbelievable with glaciers, steep huge mountains, and deep carved valleys which begs you to go on. From the intersection of the Wasatch Trail and the trail that takes you to Gold Hill the riding starts to get a little easier. Its more like the most grueling ascent in the front range for a couple of miles (except all above treeline). Then once at the top you have about 3 miles of descending with about 3,700 feet of vertical. I had to stop 7 or 8 times to let my brakes cool off. Unbelievable trail with seriously scary and challenging terrain. – tele_ski1

2. The Whole Uncalada

As the name suggests, this is a Colorado nod to Moab’s “Whole Enchilada.” Somewhat shorter at 20 miles with 3,700 feet of elevation loss, this is still a great shuttle for the downhill-oriented rider.

A gem right outside of Montrose, Colorado I never knew existed until a month or so before my 2016 Fruita Trip – just happened to see Nate Hill’s Youtube video of him riding it during the 2016 Yeti Tribe Gathering and looked like an awesome trail to hit up. …   You start at around 9700 ft and go down to about 4900 or so feet. First 5-6 miles are doubletrack and rest is singletrack. Mix of smooth and rocky technical terrain and a lot of fast steep sections.  – Lawson_Raider via Earth Rider Forums

3. Little Creek/Corral Fork

(photo: lostcause)

Are you looking for a pleasant, undiscovered gem of the highest quality? Then the Little Creek/Corral Fork loop should move to the top of your wish list. There’s 10 miles with only 900′ of elevation gain, dancing and darting through a delightful mix of meadows and mixed pine and aspen forests. This is a solitude-chasing, cross-country rider’s dream.

Doesn’t look like this world class singletrack gets ridden much. Little Creek was overgrown and difficult to follow in a few places. This was a good ride with some fine singletrack and only about 1 1/2 miles of road/atv track – lostcause

4. Galloping Goose

(photo: John Bullock)

If you’re looking to get a few big eyefulls of that killer Telluride scenery without putting yourself in mortal danger on the Wasatch Trail, head for the much milder but still stunning Galloping Goose trail. At almost 18 miles each way, most anybody can get their distance fix while enjoying some of the best scenery in the Rockies.

Great x-country trail that goes as long as you want. Several places that cross roads and intersect with other trails if you don’t intend to ride the entire length. Great views and scenery. – yetiyahoo

5. Thunder Trails

This is the one trail system sitting in the small geographically separated parcel of the Uncompahgre National Forest outside the small town of Norwood. While small, this system has a lot going for it, especially for riders looking for a fast ride with options for different distances and relatively little climbing. Each of the four stacked loops rides well in either direction and can be combined into a myriad of unique routes.

The new trail system offers fun and challenging terrain for all abilities as it travels through the ponderosa pine forest and along the scenic Naturita Canyon. Four interconnected trail loops, each about 4-5 miles in length, provide trail users different riding or hiking options. All of the loops are open to motorcycles, mountain bikers, hikers, and horses. Camping is available in designated campsites along Thunder Road at the north end of the trail system. – USFS Announcement

6. Aspen to Buck Loop

This is a longstanding Colorado classic that still gets little use due to its remote location and lack of specific, spectacular features. The Aspen Loop itself is scarcely seven miles of easy trail, but when combined with the Buck trail adds up to over 16 miles of stellar XC riding, including lots of time in large aspen groves. It’s hard to imagine a better place for a couple hours of cruising through beautiful surroundings.

A sweet short loop to start the day after a lovely night camping. If you ride it clockwise the climbs and the descents are only average, but counter clockwise this trail sings. – mlinde

7. Paradox Trail

(photo: wetrail)

The Paradox Trail really isn’t a trail so much as it is a collection of old mining and ranching roads linked together to provide a 118-mile route through quintessential Colorado west slope geography. While consisting of gravel roads rather than singletrack, it’s still considered a major backcountry cycling route as it winds through rugged and remote backcountry. This is a premier bikepacking route.

Because of its length (110 miles) riders will encounter a variety of riding conditions. Most of the tougher sections will be found east of Buckeye Reservoir as the trail heads for the Uncompahgre Plateau. Lots of hike-a-bike sections and fun, technical rocky sections north and east of Nucla. Great views as you climb onto the Plateau. – wetrail

8. Deep Creek Trail

(photo: telluride.com)

The Deep Creek trail is a longstanding Telluride staple which can be ridden right from downtown. A complete loop requires some road and bike path riding, but the gorgeous and sometimes steep and challenging singletrack makes it all worthwhile.

There are some steep sections on either end of the trail. It is located almost entirely in aspen timber with a few scattered spruce and fir stands.The trail has panoramic views of the ski area and the San Juan Mountains. Waterfalls can be seen along the east end of the trail in the Mill Creek Basin. – USFS Telluride Trails Brochure

9. Prospect Trail

(photo: Caren Villaroman)

More of that killer Telluride scenery served by some serious cross-country riding that will let you know if you’ve acclimated to the altitude.

Awesome high alpine trail with lift access that avoids nearly 2,000 feet of vertical climbing. Great fast and flowing descents. Must ride if you’re in the area. Can be ridden on anything from hardtail to enduro bike. – GnarShredder

10. Tabeguache Trail

Like the previously mentioned Paradox trail and the more famous nearby Kokopelli trail, this is a three-digit-long monster on mostly jeep/ATV track with some singletrack thrown in. Many people are familiar with the northernmost stretch of the Tabeguache trail as it terminates at Grand Junction’s popular lunch loop system. But before that, there’s a whopping 140 miles of remote backcountry trail requiring advanced skills in self-sufficiency and outdoorsmanship. This is another premier bikepacking route.

As I ride the bus from Montrose to GJ to pick up my car, I recall that these experiences were almost exclusively Type 1 Fun, even the vicious, viscous mud. I had a great time in God’s own backcountry. Singlespeed was a winner; rigid would be even better. – aperfectweakness.com

5 best activities in the Uncompahgre

National Forest

Of course, mountain biking isn’t the only thing to do in the Uncompahgre. The array of outdoor activities is impressive, and includes some truly unique opportunities.

1. Ouray Ice Park

(photo: Ouray Ice Park

Ouray = ice climbing in the way Whistler = bike park. It is mecca. It is the holy grail. It is the #1 bucket list item in the sport. Water tumbles over cliffs and then freezes in the canyon, thus creating a massive vertical wall of solid H20. The climbing season usually ends by April, so if you’re there too late, you can still spend a relaxing day in the town of Ouray, which is one of the most beautiful mountain towns you would ever hope to see.

2. Wilderness Areas

Precipice Vista – mountain photography by Aaron Spong -taken Oct 2, 2017 The unique pointed shape of Precipice Peak with dancing clouds and fall colors in the Uncompahgre Wilderness area of the San Juan Mountains, Colorado. Sometimes a cloudy forecast produces great light when the sun actually breaks through! For prints, visit: www.aaronspong.com #sanjuans #sanjuanmountains #precipicepeak #uncompahgre #uncompahgrewilderness #coloradomountains #coloradofall #coloradobeauty #coloradosunrise #coloradoart #mountainhomedecor #mountainphotography #sanjuanscolorado #montroseco #montrosecolorado #gunnisoncolorado #visitgunnison #travelcolorado #visitcolorado #hikingcolorado #coloradohikes #coloradocamping #coloradocolors #coloradofall #coloradofallcolors #fallinthemountains #aspensinthefall #autumnaspens #aaronspongfineart

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If you’re willing to leave your bike behind to head into the most remote areas the Uncompahgre has to offer, there are three federally-designated Wilderness areas at your disposal, the Uncompahgre, Mt. Sneffels, and Lizard Head. All are positively stunning.

3. Motorized off-roading

(photo: visitmontrose.com)

The Uncompahgre is laced with outstanding and little-used motorcycle, ATV, and jeep routes ranging from novice to expert in skill and equipment requirements. Whether you’re cruising the plateau or climbing high mountain passes, be sure to be self sufficient.

4. Telluride Film Festival

(photo: Colorado.com)

America’s premier film festival actually takes place in the small and isolated, but beautiful and popular town of Telluride.  There’s no better stop for fans of both scenery and cinematic arts.

5. Telluride Bluegrass Festival

(photo: wikipedia)

While the film festival may be Telluride’s most famous event, the annual Bluegrass Festival is probably it’s most fun. This is “pickin’ and a grinnin'” at its finest and represents the high water mark of a uniquely American art form.

5 best campgrounds in the Uncompahgre National Forest

1. Iron Springs Campground

(photo: ColoradoWestOutdoors.com)

With just eight sites, Iron Springs is a small campground, but also has a vault toilet on site. Iron Springs provides ready access to mountain biking, as well as off-road vehicle riding and big game hunting (in season).

2. Silesca Cabin

(photo: US Forest Service)

Want an outdoor experience without roughing it too much? Check out this old ranger station turned camping hut. Make reservations early and be prepared to pay $120/night.

3. Alta Lakes Campground

(photo: Telluride.com)

Make your way to Alta Lakes if you’re looking to really get away from it all. Even the approach requires a high clearance vehicle, and it’s still a hike in, so bring your lightweight gear. But the lakes and surrounding scenery are well worth it.

4. Sunshine Campground

Not a bad view from the campsite #sunshinecampground

A post shared by Matt Paavola (@mattpaav) on

If a classic Colorado setting is your goal, you can’t beat the Sunshine campground, with views of Sunshine Mountain and Mount Wilson, two of Colorado’s picturesque 14ers (mountains exceeding 14,000 ft in elevation).

5. Columbine Campground

Columbine is another small campground, with just six sites, but offers both vault restrooms and metal fire rings.

Notable mountain bike events in the Uncompahgre National Forest

1. Telluride 100

Telluride ???? was epic! Started with my creeper van dying 3 feet out of campsite at 5am followed by me waking up the teenagers I was sharing the site with & asking them for a jump. That didn't work so I gave them all my cash & asked them to pay for the site for another day. No time to eat breakfast & barely time for a ???? – but I raced ???????? just one real stupid wrong turn, & my chain dropped once outside the big ???? ring – if I hadn't let up on the watts derailleur was heading for my spokes! Only real bummer was only seeing 1 other racer (passed him up Last Dollar barely said hello!) for the entire last 40 miles! But I got the Sawpit to Last Dollar Pass QOM & was still 10 minutes faster than last year despite not having anyone to push the pace with – so lonely! Last year I got to ride with some awesome dudes! Wish I coulda pedaled for at least a bit with the ?? @larissaconnors but I'll take a 2nd place podium to her 5 minute lead! I ?? this race! It's the perfect distance with the perfect amount of climbing (100 miles and 14,500 feet of climbing). Thanks @dialedinfitting for the photo! Thanks @behlintj for putting on such a great race! . . . @flagbikerev @paragonathletics @maxxistires @honeystinger #mtblife #mtbgirl #telluride #telluride100 #vanlife #bikelife #cantstopwontstop @ultramtb

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Only for the fittest and heartiest of riders, this 100 miles of rugged terrain with over 14,000 vertical feet of climbing at high altitude makes for a wicked race.

2. RAT Race

The town of Ridgway rests between the two major areas of the Uncompahgre National Forest. While in the middle of the whole area, the adjacent Ridgway Area Trails (RAT) technically aren’t on forest land, but they make a great stop for riders in the area. For those inclined to competition, the RAT Race is a great venue on a fun trail system.

5 great bike shops near the Uncompahgre National Forest

Just because this is a remote corner of a mostly lightly populated state doesn’t mean there aren’t enough shops to support the riding scene. Here are five stops to keep riders shredding.

1. Bicycle Outfitters

(photo: Bicycle Outfitters)

Montrose is the largest city in proximity to the Uncompahgre National Forest, with multiple quality bike shops catering to both locals and visitors. Bicycle Outfitters is a full-service shop that also has a sister shop in Grand Junction if you’re also making a Fruita stop on your Uncompahgre trip.

2. Box Canyon Bicycles

(photo: Box Canyon Bicycles)

While small and remote, Telluride can support your mountain bike adventure with a stop at Box Canyon Bicycles. In addition to stocking parts and accessories, Box Canyon maintains a strong rental fleet should you find yourself in Telluride without a bike of your own.

3. Papa Wheelies

(photo: Papa Wheelies)

Papa Wheelies is another full-service shop in Montrose offering rentals as well as sales and service.  According to customers, Papa Wheelies excels in friendliness and customer service.

4. Cascade Bicycles

(photo: Cascade Bicycles)

There must be happy juice in the Montrose water, because Cascade also earns rave reviews for friendly service along with stocking whatever you might have forgotten when you loaded up for your trip to the Uncompahgre. Cascade also has a small shop in the nearby town of Ridgway.

5. Ridgway Wrench

(photo: Ridgway Wrench)

If you need some work done while you’re between Montrose and Telluride, Ridgway wrench can help. And if you’re looking to test a rad ride, Ridgway has demos from Evil.

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# Comments

  • mongwolf

    Great write up John. The entire SW region of CO is the best of the best imo. I’ve spent some time in there, but not enough, that’s for sure. I’m not sure you could ever spend enough time in the region. My middle son and his bride did an extended backcountry rock climbing and 14er hiking trip in the Weminuche Wilderness Area. WOW !!!!! Did they have a trip of a lifetime. Some awesome climbs and couple of brutal multi-pitch routes and some fantastic adventure hiking, requiring ropes and climbing gear. One hike they got hammered by a storm high up on a knife’s edge and couldn’t see a thing for a couple of hours. The San Juans and SW CO region are not to be underestimated, but nor are they to be missed. +1 on Ridgeway Wrench. I’ve had some good experiences there. I’ve also enjoyed the fly fishing shop in Ridgeway. Can’t remember its name at the moment.

    • John Fisch

      Thanks for all the additional stoke there, Wolf! Indeed, the San Juans are stunning, rugged, dramatic, gorgeous, challenging… all that and then some. I remember falling in love with the San Juans as a young teen, long before I ever even thought about taking up mountain biking.

      To answer your question about the distinction between the San Juans and the Rockies, it really depends on what one means when referring to the Rockies. Based on your comment, I realize the article would have been better served if I has specified the San Juans being different from the central Rockies rather than the Rockies in general as “Rocky Mountains” is generally used to refer to the entire collection of individual ranges starting in Canada and extending into Mexico, of which the San Juans are but one of many such individual ranges.

      Over the years, I have come to think of the San Juans as distinct, primarily based on their unique geology. While the main bulk of the Rockies in Colorado is a the result of a complex combination of volcanic activity and folding/faulting occurring in the Cenozoic period, the San Juans are almost exclusively the result of massive volcanic activity occurring in the Precambrian period. Also, the massive eruptions of that period in what is now SW Colorado generated unfathomable amounts of ash which ultimately settled and compressed into what is now the native rock that makes up the San Juans, as opposed to the granite that composes most of the central Rockies. The difference in the foundational rock making up the San Juans vs the central Rockies is what gives the mountains in the two areas such different shapes, as they erode differently. Also, the richness of minerals present in the ash of the San Juans is what gives them their more colorful appearance.

      So in short, the San Juans are Rockies, just as you have always understood, but they’re a rather distinct range in their own right. I appreciate you’re catching the lack of specificity in my writing.

    • mongwolf

      I’m not sure the article would have been better served in any way, and I appreciate the extensive explanation and differentiation. Yes the San Juans are quite distinct in their own right geologically and in my heart too. I too will never forget when I “discovered” the SJ for the first time. And they still have not lost their magnificence on me.

  • mongwolf

    Hey John, I’ve never differentiated the San Juan region and the mountains of SW CO from the Rockies as you did in the first paragraph. I thought the region was part of the Rocky Mountain range. Please enlighten me a little.

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