In recent years the San Isabel National Forest has been combined with the Pike National Forest and the Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands to create the PSICC, “the most diverse forest throughout the five-state Rocky Mountain Region, covering three million acres,” according to the USFS. The combined PSICC ranks the third highest in the nation for recreation visits out of all national forests. Since the new PSICC conglomeration is so massive and expansive, in this article we’re solely going to discuss the San Isabel portion of the PSICC..
Even by itself, the San Isabel is still massive, totaling more than 1 million acres of land. It’s home to 19 of Colorado’s 53 (or 58, depending on how you count them) famed 14ers–mountains that rise to over 14,000 feet in elevation. This includes Mount Elbert, the highest peak in the state. The San Isabel encompasses a lot of wild, high elevation terrain, and along with that wild terrain comes Wilderness areas–seven official Wilderness areas, to be exact. While these Wilderness areas block off many of the most beautiful trails to mountain bike access and interrupt what could be epic, continuous rides through the San Isabel on point-to-point trails like the Colorado Trail, there’s still hundreds of miles of incredible singletrack to be enjoyed by bike.
The San Isabel encircles most of the Arkansas Valley. This vast mountain playground contains even more excellent trails than are listed here–just located at lower elevations on land managed by the BLM.
10 Best Mountain Bike Trails in the San Isabel National Forest
The Monarch Crest Trail is a marquee mountain bike ride, and it happens to be located on the Continental Divide, which forms the border of the San Isabel and Gunnison National Forests. The classic Monarch Crest route drops down the San Isabel side of the Continental Divide, running for roughly 35 miles from the top of Monarch Pass to Poncha Springs on the valley floor. Along the way, the trail traverses the top of the Divide at treeline for about 10 miles before dropping back into the trees, which is what makes this trail so unique. Most high elevation trails that are mountain-bike legal just climb straight up and come straight back down, but the Monarch Crest spends quite a bit of time hanging out at elevation.
The classic Crest route turns left off the Continental Divide Trail to descend the Silver Creek Trail, which can be looped on its own, forming a great ride in its own right. This blazing-fast 4.5-mile descent feeds into the beginning of the Rainbow Trail–commonly referred to as the Silver Creek portion of the Rainbow Trail, for obvious reasons. After roughly 12 miles of undulating singletrack–again, loopable and a great early season ride on its own–five miles of highway coasting will return the rider to Poncha Springs.
The Cottonwood Trail is one of the newest trails in the San Isabel National Forest, having been conceived and built by local advocacy group Salida Mountain Trails (SMT) within the past few years. Well, the Cottonwood Trail history is a bit more complex than that, with the OG trail being an old social trail. Portions of the original trail were rerouted by SMT, and additional singletrack was added to the route. Cottonwood is now better than it ever was!
Technically, the Cottonwood route now includes the Beasway and Rumba Ridge trail segments, and it eventually feeds into the concentrated network of trails in the Arkansas Hills Trail System on BLM land, allowing the rider to choose from multiple options for the final descent. Cottonwood can be ridden as a 22-mile loop from town, or shuttled for an 11-mile, nearly continuous 2,500-foot descent.
While portions of Cottonwood are relatively smooth and flowy, overall it’s a rough, rocky trail, with some extremely technical sections. The descent is varied, which keeps it entertaining throughout. Since its legalization, Cottonwood has become an instant classic in the Arkansas Valley.
While the Rainbow Trail runs for roughly 140 miles from where it meets Silver Creek, hugging the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and ending near the town of Westcliffe, not all portions of this trail make for good mountain biking. But one segment that’s an absolute winner is commonly referred to as “Bear Creek.” This flowy portion of bench-cut singletrack runs from Bear Creek road to fast, technical descents either near Methodist Mountain Road, or all the way over in Sand Gulch.
Once the rider has dropped about halfway down the mountain, SMT trails on BLM land like the Little Rainbow add more mileage to the ride. If looped from town, up Bear Creek and down Sand Gulch to Little Rainbow, this provides a roughly 30-35-mile pedal. Another shorter loop option utilizes the Columbine trail for a 9-mile quickie.
The loop ride commonly referred to as “Alpine Tunnel” utilizes a combination of 4×4 roads, the Alpine Tunnel portion of the Continental Divide Trail, and the Tunnel Lake CDT segment to form a 19-mile high-elevation loop. Aside from the Monarch Crest Trail, no other bike-legal trail in the San Isabel National Forest spends as much time above treeline.
While the Alpine Tunnel ride is relatively non-technical, mountain biking at over 12,000 feet is always strenuous, making the narrow portions of singletrack that much more difficult. But the work is rewarded with loamy, swoopy switchbacks, and then a fast descent down a 4×4 road, ending in the picturesque ghost town of St. Elmo.
Green’s Creek can be ridden as an out-and-back early in the season, but it’s most commonly ridden as a descent off the Monarch Crest Trail. While Green’s doesn’t have any massive technical features, this trail is one of the most relentlessly-technical mountain bike trails in the San Isabel. Essentially, this trail is one massive rock and root garden (that’s wet and slippery most of the time) dropping 3,000 feet in about 7 miles, before intersecting with a 4×4 road and dropping another thousand feet to the valley floor.
The Colorado Trail runs along the western side of the Arkansas Valley for its entire length, and many sections of this trail make for excellent mountain biking. In fact, it intersects the Monarch Crest Trail and runs concurrently with it and the Continental Divide Trail for many miles. While I could build an entire top 10 list with Colorado Trail segments, one of the best is the portion that runs from the Mount Shavano trailhead to Chalk Creek. Roughly 12 miles one-way, there are numerous loop options, bikepacking routes, and other variations that can be constructed with this section of trail.
While some portions of this trail are steep and rocky, the Raspberry Gulch area offers some of the most beginner-friendly singletrack in the Arkansas Valley–a great spot to take a new rider on a short out-and-back ride.
7. Fooses Creek
Technically, Fooses Creek is a part of the Colorado Trail as well, but for day rides most people use it as a shorter descent off the Monarch Crest. Be warned: you don’t want to take this descent option if you utilized the commercial shuttles, as this trail drops you down to Highway 50 many miles above where you need to end up in Poncha Springs. Those shuttling this trail will need to coordinate their own transportation.
However, at a total ride distance of 14 miles, this quick shuttle hit works great as an after-work shuttle, or even a second shuttle run if you’re doing an ambitious two-fer on the Crest. Events like the Monarch Crest Enduro have popularized doing a double shuttle day of both Green’s Creek and Fooses Creek.
As for the singletrack itself, it begins as one of the steepest drops off the Crest through a loose scree field. Lower down the trail funnels into some wet, dark singletrack, with a few blocky rock features that provide tricky up-and-overs. It finishes with high-speed singletrack ripping, and finally, a high-speed rip down a 4×4 road.
The final Monarch Crest descent that I’ll highlight on this list, Starvation Creek used to fly under the radar, but it’s become more popular since its inclusion in the Monarch Crest Enduro. This trail is best described as old-school, narrow, steep singletrack. Lower down, the trail flattens out and undulates more on narrow bench-cut singletrack alongside a beautiful creek in a narrow valley.
The ride length of this Crest option is just slightly shorter than the Classic route, but taking the Starvation drop means that you miss the Silver Creek portion of the Rainbow Trail. This is, unless you’re a masochist and decide to pedal back up Silver Creek road from Shirley Site. That route option will net you over 40 miles of riding.
Most of the riding I’ve described in the San Isabel National Forest, with the exception of Raspberry Gulch, is quite challenging. Either the singletrack is highly technical, or the climbs are strenuous. The Twin Lakes loop is unique because it skips the challenge and elevation gain of the other routes on this list, instead offering 18 miles of mostly smooth, flat riding with beautiful views.
This mostly singletrack loop encircles the Twin Lakes that the area gets its name from, and while the rider has great views of the lakes, they can also enjoy views of massive 14,000-foot peaks that ring the narrow valley, including Mount Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado. Overall the singletrack here is very smooth and relatively flat, with one or two short sections that are not. The Colorado Trail also runs concurrently with a portion of this loop, and both of the sections of the Colorado Trail running north and south from here are worthy out-and-back rides as well.
10. Davis Meadows
Davis Meadows is a sleeper hit that’s way off the beaten track–so far off, in fact, that it’s unlikely anyone reading this list will make the effort to ride this obscure but beautiful singletrack. The trail itself makes up about half of the 9-mile route required to loop it, but it’s also conceivable as an out-and-back. This trail is relatively smooth, but like many old-school trails in the area, it switches from mellow to rowdy in a heartbeat, and then back again. In the middle of the singletrack portion, the rider will pedal through an old ghost town with ancient cabin walls still standing.
In part, I include this trail on this list to show that even if you’ve hit the marquee trails in the San Isabel National Forest, there’s always more to be discovered. A portion of the San Isabel runs all the way up to Leadville, with some sections of the Colorado Trail up there worth investigating as well (although Wilderness areas wreak havoc with through-ride options). When you also consider the incredible trails that local trail clubs have built on BLM, county, and city land in the lower elevations, the Arkansas Valley could very well rank with the best mountain bike destinations anywhere.
5 Best Off-the-Bike Activities in the San Isabel National Forest
1. Whitewater Raft Brown’s Canyon
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“Our family and I just had an amazing day rafting Browns Canyon. Our guide Mike was top notch with lots of experience giving us peace of mind through a big rapid…. I would not choose any other company and would recommend Mike…” -Jennifer Stewart Crosby. Did you know that aside from being so great on the river, Mike’s photography is out of this world! Next time, be sure to ask him about it! #river #whitewaterrafting #arkansasriver #brownscanyon #talents #creatememories
Brown’s Canyon offers some of the most renowned whitewater rafting in the state, and for good reason. The canyon provides massive rapids and gorgeous views–views so beautiful that it was recently designated a National Monument. Any number of commercial outfitters in Nathrop and Buena Vista can provide an afternoon of fun on the water.
2. Climb a 14er
With all of these 14ers around, why not join the masses of peak baggers and hike up one? Granted, if you’re looking for a rest day, this isn’t a great idea, as your 14er climb could easily become the most strenuous day of your trip. Still, there’s nothing like looking down on the world from the summit of a mountain.
3. See the Ghost Town of St. Elmo
Mountain bikers can easily tack this visit on to an Alpine Tunnel ride, as that route begins and ends in the town of St. Elmo. This historic ghost town is well-worth a walk through to investigate the well-kept buildings from a silver rush in the late 1800s.
4. Soak at Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort
While there are many hot springs to choose from in the area, the Mount Princeton Hot Springs are the best-developed. Head to Cottonwood for a more natural experience.
The Mount Princeton Hot Springs are located below the town of St. Elmo and along the Colorado Trail, right at the end of the Shavano to Chalk Creek section mentioned above. In fact, when the water is low in the fall and winter, the weary rider can enjoy hot spring pools in Chalk Creek here at Princeton.
Bonus: Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort is a true “resort,” making it a great spot to score posh lodging that leaves the hustle and bustle of town behind.
5. Visit Downtown Salida
At some point during your trip you’ll find yourself in downtown Salida, so slow down from your shredding to take it in. On the National Register of Historic Places, downtown Salida is the largest historic district in the State of Colorado. Enjoy the shops, art galleries, and restaurants, by making an afternoon of it!
5 Best Campgrounds in the San Isabel National Forest
1. O’Haver Lake
Located just below Mount Ouray, the O’Haver Lake campground is within riding distance of the Monarch Crest and Starvation Creek. The views are gorgeous, but if you want to end your shuttle ride at your campsite a stiff climb is required. Avoid this with a quick car shuttle.
Located just down valley from the town of St. Elmo, riders can easily pedal the Alpine Tunnel loop from camp, returning to a secluded site set high in the Rocky Mountains.
While no bike-legal trails are easily accessible from the Cottonwood Lake area, this valley, campground, and the nearby lake are simply drop-dead gorgeous.
The Colorado Trail runs right past Lakeview Campground, providing easy access to both the Twin Lakes Loop mentioned above, and an out-and-back on the Colorado Trail. Don’t forget the actual “lake view” — it’s stunning!
5. Monarch Park
Monarch Park is located just below the top of Monarch Pass, providing easy access to the Monarch Crest trail. While it’s not really possible to pedal to the Crest without getting on the highway, even a pedal up the pavement isn’t bad from here.
5 Best Mountain Bike Events in the San Isabel National Forest
While some debate whether or not the Leadville 100 is a true mountain bike race, for all intents and purposes it is the best-known mountain bike race in… well, the world. With the majority of the course located in the San Isabel National Forest, the race actually takes place almost entirely on 4×4 roads. Lack of singletrack aside, the Leadville 100 is a race that many mountain bikers need to check off their bucket list.
Think the Leadville 100 is the most difficult endurance race on this list? Think again. The Vapor Trail 125 tacks on an extra 25 miles of riding and over 5,000 more feet of elevation gain, for a total of 17,163 feet. Not only that, the race begins at 10pm, meaning that racers must tackle the long climb from downtown Salida to the top of the Continental Divide in the middle of the night!
Despite the brutality, the Vapor Trail covers many of the best trails on this list, including: the Colorado Trail near Shavano, part of Alpine Tunnel, Canyon Creek (located in Gunnison National Forest), the Monarch Crest, Starvation Creek, and the Silver Creek descent off the Crest.
Is enduro racing more your speed? The Monarch Crest Enduro is a 3-day, enduro-format race that covers (you guessed it) most of the best descents off the Monarch Crest. While the route appears to be changing for 2018, in past years the race has used Starvation Creek, Silver Creek, Green’s Creek, Fooses Creek, and Canyon Creek on the other side of the divide. And of course, racers will get to enjoy the Monarch Crest itself during numerous transfer stages.
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Rules for a solid Friday afternoon: 1. Wear a chicken suit 2. Put on an aero helmet bawk-wards 3. Find @mountain_curls dressed in a cheerleading outfit 4. Ride your bike downhill with no chain on it 5. Put chain back on 6. Ride to brewery. 7. Done. #soulcraftbrewing #salida #salidabikefest
Held in September every year, the Salida Bike Fest offers plenty of bike-related festivities, including the Banana Belt Classic–one of the longest-running races in Salida. The Banana Belt does a version of the Bear Creek loop described above–a great way to sample some of the best trails in the area.
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63 riders set out July 23 from Durango along the Colorado Trail on a fully self supported mountain biking race. 18 riders made it all 540 miles (and 70,000+ feet of climbing) to the finish in Denver. Out of the 18 finishers I came in 17th place. Also, I broke my collarbone 35miles from the end and hobbled the last stretch in some discomfort but still managed to finish. #coloradotrailrace
The Colorado Trail Race is a self-supported bikepacking race on the Colorado Trail, alternating directions between the two endpoints of Denver and Durango each year. Since the Colorado Trail runs lengthwise through the entirety of the San Isabel National Forest, this is a significant segment of the race.
Oh, and one other big-name bikepacking race that passes through the San Isabel? The Tour Divide.
5 Best Bike Shops near the San Isabel National Forest
The largest bike shop in Salida, Absolute Bikes is your one-stop shop for anything and everything bike-related. From sales to repairs to rentals, and even shuttles, guiding, and skills clinics–Absolute Bikes does it all. Winning national awards for their business practices, Absolute is still 100% locally owned and run.
The most centrally-located full-service bike shop in the San Isabel National Forest, Boneshaker Cycles in downtown Buena Vista can take care of most every need, from bike and accessory sales to maintenance, and even rentals. Due to their location in BV, Boneshaker is a common pit stop for Colorado Trail racers.
In Leadville, Cycles of Life is the place to go. The shop can get riders set up for everything needed for fat biking, since Leadville has the best fat biking in the San Isabel–and possibly in the state. While you’re visiting Cycles of Life, be sure to check out the Colorado Mountain College trails. While not located on national forest land, they’re still well-worth riding.
While enjoying downtown Salida, swing into Salida Bike Company. While they don’t offer many models for sale in their small showroom, Salida Bike Company offers great service and maintenance, with a knack for bringing old clunkers back to life.
Also located in Salida, Subculture Cyclery has a penchant for bikepacking, gravel riding, and the endurance subculture of the mountain biking world. Despite a relatively small shop they sell a dizzying array of brands, keep plenty of parts in stock, and have a healthy rental fleet to boot. Looks can be deceiving.