Crushed by Crosier: Searching for Singletrack in Estes Park, Colorado

One of the first things my family did when we moved to Loveland, Colorado in 2000 was take a trip to Estes Park, the small mountain town that sits on the northeast side of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). My mom excitedly pointed out that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, based on the Stephen King novel, was filmed at the Stanley Hotel. That fell on deaf ears though. Most of it was not filmed there, the maze was never actually there, and I was more interested in watching the X-Games than Jack Nicholson movies. Had I known that Dumb and Dumber was filmed at the Stanley, I might have been more intrigued.

We spent many days and evenings up in Estes since it was a short drive from our home in Northern Colorado. We’d drive up with a cup of hot cocoa in our gloved hands while the Christmas parade went by, or watch the elk herds graze through town on a weekend getaway as countless other tourists do. As the town is nestled next to RMNP, it serves as a basecamp for families heading into the park.

When I got out of the military years later, went back to Colorado, and started mountain biking, towns like Winter Park, Steamboat Springs, and Fruita came to mind many times over before Estes Park did. I recently visited the town for the first time in a long time, and I wondered why. Estes Park is one of the most well-known mountain towns in Colorado, but its association with adventure has always been a little blurry.

Candy shops greatly outnumber bike and gear shops. There aren’t any MTB trails in RMNP, which is usually the case with National Parks, and the few trail “systems” around the town are limited in connectivity, meaning that they would have to be ridden as an out-and-back, or looped with a long road ride. Such was my dilemma, trying to find a worthy ride in town before spending a day with the Ampt Biking group. Aside from a pretty rad bike skills park with a pump track and talk about great mountain biking on the town’s Visit Estes Park tourism website, the riding seemed pretty limited. The local tourism agency recently used notable adventure athletes to promote recreation opportunities in the town, trying to give it some credence.

Someone wrote about Pole Hill on Singletracks, but I didn’t feel like riding a 4×4 trail. Hermit Park sounded like a great option, especially with recent work from the trail community, but in order to fully loop the ride you’d have to use US-36, a busy road that connects Estes Park to Lyons and Boulder. I felt like riding something more technical that day, so Crosier Mountain sounded like the best bet, even though it would still put me riding road for several miles. It was worth a try though, I thought.

Everything feels bigger when you’re a kid, so when I was expecting to be at a higher altitude, and the temperature still hadn’t dropped from the upper 80s on the morning of my drive up to Crosier, I was a little disappointed. Both of the trailheads for Crosier are limited in means, and calling the parking dugout on CR43 a trailhead is a stretch. There is room for a handful of vehicles, and as a mountain biker seeking to ride all of Crosier Mountain from Glen Haven to Garden Gate it is unfortunately the best option.

The road to Glen Haven.

After I ruffled through my bag realizing that I had left my chamois at home, I grumbled to myself as I began the six-mile road climb to Glen Haven on the windy canyon road. After about an hour, I made it to Glen Haven and took a break for cherry cobbler at the General Store. I spooned up the bready sweetness and watched residents sell hand carved wooden figurines along the road. Colorado’s more unknown mountain towns aren’t without charm.

By this point, I had knocked out six-miles and 1,000 feet of climbing on the road. The beginning of the the Crosier Mountain trail from Glen Haven would add on another 1,600 feet until the summit. Crossing through a short stretch of residential road, the trail starts heading up immediately over tall water bars and mounds of rock, covered in loose, broken down granite.

“Good luck with that mountain bike,” said a hiker to me as we passed each other. “Uh, thanks,” I replied, thinking why would she say that? I would never say, “good luck with those feet,” to someone. She wasn’t wrong though, and as I kept ascending, mounting and dismounting, and trying to ride, but dismounting again, I realized that there are trails that are much better by foot.

The trail is badly washed out and eroded in a lot of areas, making it unrideable in several sections. Like a lot of trails and spaces in Colorado, Crosier was hit bad by the floods in 2014, as someone also noted on Singletracks earlier this year in their review of Crosier.

“For wimpy bikers this will mean extensive hike-a-biking down eroded sections and rock stairs (not the fun kind), and an up-hill road ride back to the car. This trail received a LOT of damage from the floods and used to be 100% downhill ridable by the badass, now even the bad ass are walking a fair amount of the downhill.”

I moseyed on though, because the views off the trail, like windows to Longs Peak and beautiful open meadows, are plentiful, even if fun trail riding is not. On the tail end of the ascent to the summit there is a stretch of thick wooded forest and I crouched down to have a moment with a curious chipmunk. Finally, I pointed my bike downhill and enjoyed a moment of relief interrupted by the ping-ponging of being ricocheted around by massive pine cones and debris on the trail. At the time there were countless shrubs stretching into the trail that lashed my arms. It had been a little while since Crosier had seen some love, I assumed.

There are a few sections of the trail that I enjoyed opening up on and maneuvering around the tight jank, but many pinch points between boulders that will force most riders to dismount. On some steep, rocky pitches, I imagined a catch berm down at the bottom to help maintain speed, safety, and continuity. Even on the final stretch of downhill, it’s hard to get in a groove. There are not very many ridable lines heading down toward the Garden Gate side and the switchbacks are too triangular and off-camber to negotiate smooth turns.

Finally, the trail opens up briefly before the parking lot, and I threw my bike on the back of my truck in a hurry and went back down CR43 to find a spot to wash my frustration and sweat off in the Big Thompson River.

Later that night, I met for a beer with Matthew Beall, who started Ampt and is also a board member of the Estes Park Cycling Coalition. I dug into a burrito as I interviewed him, apologizing for stuffing my face in front of him, but that I was ravenous. “Oh, I know how Crosier Mountain goes,” he said.

Beall explained that the trail is a favorite for the high school mountain bike team and tech-hungry locals, but that it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. I told him that I assumed it had been a while since it’s seen some maintenance. They were planning to start some renovation projects on the trail this summer, but – Covid.

Beall says that when work can resume, they’ll start with low hanging fruit, like trimming back trees and shrubs and clearing the trail. They want to pump some life back into Crosier, but some of that will ultimately take rerouting sections of trail. Like most cycling advocacy organizations, EPCC is volunteer-run and the board members advocate on top of their full-time jobs and funding is limited. (Hint-hint, chip in with donations and sweat equity to your local org whenever possible for exactly these reasons).

The next day, with the Ampt group, we rode some of the trails on the YMCA of the Rockies property which were much more ridable and enjoyable than Crosier. Estes Park is far from being dubbed a mountain bike destination by any stretch, but there are a few options if you’re heading up there and need to take a bike. Gravel riding might be an even better bet since there are plenty of old forest roads around those mountains. The town surely has enough dollars from other tourists who are visiting, but with such a great location close to more mountain bikers in Loveland and Fort Collins, I can’t help but wonder what kind of boon it would be if there were more trails.

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