“UnVailing” the Aspens in Colorado’s High Country, Part 1: Vail Mountain and its Extensions

Rediscovering Gold in my Homeland I spent almost the entirety of my adult life moving from place to place across our great nation, and in each new location, I would find things at which to marvel.  When I would share my pleasure in these revelations with my new neighbors, they would cock their heads and …

A Vail Haiku: Bright shimmering gold I am infinitely blessed by the autumn leaves
A Vail Haiku:
Bright shimmering gold
I am infinitely blessed
by the autumn leaves

Rediscovering Gold in my Homeland

I spent almost the entirety of my adult life moving from place to place across our great nation, and in each new location, I would find things at which to marvel.  When I would share my pleasure in these revelations with my new neighbors, they would cock their heads and look at me strangely, like Nipper, the RCA Victor Dog, and say “Really?”, as though I was some sort of simple-minded dolt, being easily-amused by something so mundane. Without exception, this happened everywhere I went. I was a bit baffled by this until I realized I had done the same thing where I grew up. People would travel to my backyard just to see the Aspen trees. They would take time off work, pay for gas, lodging, and often even tour guides and jeep rides, just to look at a bunch of yellow leaves. This seemed odd to me, but then again, it’s all a matter of taking what we’ve always had for granted.

Lounging my way to the top in one of Vail’s comfy gondolas (photo: Lisa Fisch)

So I’ve finally really put down roots, having settled for good, now living in Colorado less than an hour from what I generally call my home town. As a returning expatriate, I was able to see the area with somewhat less jaded or entitled eyes and truly begin to understand the wonder of this place.  So in 2016, almost 30 years after my departure and roughly five years after my return, I decided it was time to head for the hills and check out Populus Tremuloides, more commonly known as the Quaking Aspen, or simply the Aspen tree.

A switchback in the aspens on the Radio Flyer trail

Colorado (and Utah, as well as parts of other Rocky Mountain states) is flush with aspens, so where specifically to go?  Well, it had to be a place with abundant singletrack, so that left out my home town, which has little if any.  It had to be a place easily reached for a weekend, so that eliminated far-flung locations like Telluride, Durango, and Crested Butte.  And while I was taking the bike, I would also be taking my wife, so it had to be somewhat civilized. In the end, we settled on Vail; easily accessible from I-70, drenched in aspens, covered with singletrack, and very civilized.

The view from just below the Eagle's Nest area where the gondola tops out at 10,350 ft.
The view from just below the Eagle’s Nest area where the gondola tops out at 10,350 ft.

Why would I pay Vail prices when the area’s greatest attraction, downhill skiing, wasn’t yet on the menu?  That’s the real glory of this plan: I didn’t have to pay Vail prices!  Unlike northern New England, where fall color season is the high season and you can expect to pay a premium for a room, in Colorado, the large ski resorts have massive bed bases built for the height of ski season.  Fall color season, even on weekends, brings just a fraction of what the area can support, so beds in luxury accommodations go for a fraction of their usual asking price. A cushy bed in the middle of the village within easy walking distance of restaurants, and access to a hot tub, would come in handy between multiple days of endless, high-altitude singletrack.

A beautiful aspen meadow in the midst of Hank’s Hideaway

For day one, I focused on Vail Mountain itself, and off-mountain trails which could be accessed from the mountain summit.  Vail runs their gondolas throughout the summer and on weekends after Labor Day through color season, weather permitting. That last part, weather permitting, was a bit scary. As we drove over mountain passes on our way to the resort, it was obvious the high country had been hit by significant snowfall. If the trails are wet, Vail will not open the gondolas for bike haul.  hey make the decision each morning, and we couldn’t get advance notice before leaving the house. Upon arriving in Vail, finding parking, and beginning our day with a stroll through the farmer’s market, I saw a couple mountain bikes with telltale splatter under the downtubes, so it was looking good. After scoring some big, juicy Palisade Peaches (grown on Colorado’s nearby Western Slope and superior to anything coming out of Georgia), it was off to the ticket office where they were indeed happy to take my voucher for a half-price gondola ticket, giving me unlimited rides for $20.

Riders approach a service road crossing on Big Mamba

The Trails of Vail Mountain

Vail has an impressive quantity and mileage of lift-served trails, all covering a good deal of vertical. However, Vail is not known as a downhiller’s mountain. Reviews of Vail Mountain as a lift served destination are very mixed, with many calling the place an utter waste of time. Based on this, I really chose Vail for the backcountry riding and only considered riding the gondola for some easy vertical. But as long as I was there, I decided to make a few laps on the mountain, and was pleasantly surprised.

I could see the reason for the very consistent “meh” reactions to Vail Mountain for mountain biking; the trails aren’t rad enough for the armor-clad crowd, nor does it provide a true epic experience for the hard core hammerhead. Nevertheless, upon setting aside any expectations, I was able to thoroughly enjoy a handful of laps, connecting a myriad of trails down the mountain. If you can wrap your head around the concept of “downhill cross country,” then you start to get the idea.

Emerging from an aspen grove into a high alpine meadow (photo: Mantas Tamasauskis)

On the map, Big Mamba looks like a great, flowy blue square ripper, but in reality, the flow was more disruptive than consistent. A subsequent trip down the newer, similar-looking Radio Flyer was much more satisfying, as though the resort had learned a thing or two about trail design by the time they cut it.

Right off the bat, there was a nice little rock drop with an optional ridearound, followed by a very Fruita/Kessel Run back and forth, and then some serious yankin’ and bankin’ in… the Aspens!  We had fortunately arrived right at peak colors overall, and the mountain was showing her glory. As I reached the midpoint on Radio Flyer, I knew I had made a good choice of destination.  At the bottom of Radio Flyer, I opted for the option of taking Hank’s Hideaway the rest of the way to the base, which may have been a mistake.  Hank’s is fast–real fast–but the typical Vail rider is… not.  It was obvious many had engaged in panic braking at just about every point along the trail, making it horribly stutter-bumped.  Even on an enduro bike, the trail threatened to rattle a few fillings right out of my teeth.

As a longtime Colorado skier, I’m familiar with all of Colorado’s resorts and have noted “grade inflation” at Vail in rating their trails. Some black diamonds at Vail are no more difficult than blue squares at places like Arapahoe Basin or Winter Park, and Vail’s double blacks might barely rate a single diamond at Aspen or Crested Butte.  So it is with their bike trails. The Double Diamond PMT trail was hardly death-defying.  In fact, the greatest difficulty on Vail’s diamond and double diamond trails came from erosion and washouts on what appeared to be unsustainable lines. Nevertheless, there were euphoric moments to be had among the ruts.

Time to leave the patrolled confines of Vail Mountain and head into the backcountry on the Game Creek Trail

Leaving the Mountain: Game Creek and Matterhorn Trails

After getting a feel for the mountain, it was time to head out of bounds, but not without a little help from that wonderful gondola.  It’s certainly possible to make the climb to the gondola summit at 10,350ft, but that’s going to take a lot of leg, and time, meaning fewer laps are possible.  So once again I cheated my way up the mountain. But this time, rather than taking an official Vail Mountain trail, I veered out the west end of the resort into the White River National Forest and caught the Game Creek Trail, which would plummet to the town of Minturn, fully 2,500 vertical feet below, yet scarcely four miles of trail required to get there.

Flying over the rocks on the Game Creek trail

The Game Creek Trail turned out to be a genuine highlight of my trip and alone worth the price of admission. From high alpine meadows with million-mile views, into dense aspen groves almost blinding in their intensity as they reflected the afternoon sun; from perfectly buffed singletrack to tight switchbacks and rock gardens, the Game Creek trail delivered anything a singletrack purist and outdoor lover could hope for. Were it possible, I could lap Game Creek over and over, all day long. The problem is, upon arriving in Minturn, it’s a little over a mile along US Highway 24 (via parallel road and bike path) to I-70, and then another 4.5 miles of bike path right next to I-70 all uphill (albeit a gentle grade) back into the Village and the gondola.  All doable, but a little time (and leg) consuming.

More colors near the bottom of the Game Creek trail

With time for one more lap before the gondola closed for the day, I took one final ride up and headed back toward Game Creek. However, rather than drop Game Creek all the way back into Minturn, I departed Game Creek about a mile in on a little-known singletrack called the Matterhorn Trail.  Dropping almost due North, straight onto a street in residential West Vail, Matterhorn is short but packs a punch. It is wild, untamed, unofficial… and unmaintained.

The woods on the north-facing, moisture-hoarding side of the mountain, were very dense and dark. I felt as though I should be looking over my shoulder for Orcs as I blazed down the very narrow, sketchy singletrack. Running wide, 780mm handlebars proved to be a bit of a disadvantage in such cramped quarters. To make things even more interesting, the trail was littered with man-made features, also unmaintained and often quite sketchy looking. At one point the trail turned out onto a south-facing, sun-drenched slope which was horrendously dry and loose, filled with loose babyheads and smaller rocks sitting on bottomless, soft, powdery dirt. Again, an unsustainable pitch in serious need of rerouting.  Overall though, it was a hoot of a ride. It ultimately dumped out in a cul-de-sac with three new luxury homes under construction. One wonders if, between sustainability issues and urban encroachment, this trail is long for this world. Given its potential, it will hopefully be adopted and preserved.

Tight aspens on the Matterhorn trail
Tight aspens on the Matterhorn trail

Day one of the Vail weekend scored in both the singletrack and aspen departments.  For day two, I would leave town and the mountain altogether and try some more far-flung and rarely[ridden singletrack, along with a couple local favorites. Stay tuned for a grand adventure loop in day two!

Brilliant aspens as the Matterhorn trail nears West Vail
Brilliant aspens as the Matterhorn trail nears West Vail

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