Mountain Bike Destination: Salida, Colorado

When we announced the results of our algorithmic ranking of the best mountain bike destinations, there was an understandable amount of head shaking. How, for example, could Salida, CO rank higher than places like Moab and Whistler? Well, a big reason is that Salida has more singletrack trails within 25 miles of town than either …

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When we announced the results of our algorithmic ranking of the best mountain bike destinations, there was an understandable amount of head shaking. How, for example, could Salida, CO rank higher than places like Moab and Whistler? Well, a big reason is that Salida has more singletrack trails within 25 miles of town than either of those places–and far fewer riders sharing the trails. If you aren’t familiar with Salida (currently the #5 MTB destination on our list), read on to find out what you’re missing.

Salida is located about 2 hours southwest of Colorado Springs and is roughly the same distance southeast of Crested Butte. Surrounded by mountains in every direction, Salida is a mountain town without a resort feel, an authentic outpost in a sea of cookie-cutter tourist destinations. Many mountain bikers may know Salida as the jumping-off point for the Monarch Crest trail, arguably the most popular shuttle route in the state–but few take the time to explore all the area has to offer.

The Trails

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If you just want a list of the most popular trails in Salida, check this out. But rather than regurgitating that trail list, I thought I’d share my itinerary from a trip last summer which should illustrate the diverse and accessible riding in the area.

Mountain biking in Salida begins–but certainly doesn’t end–with the Monarch Crest trail. In three visits to town, I’ve ridden the Monarch Crest trail every single time, and always as a shuttle. The classic 35-mile route takes riders on the Monarch Crest trail to Silver Creek, then down the Rainbow trail to Highway 285 and back to town. And while this is a shuttle route, riders will still end up climbing several thousand feet, so it’s not for the faint of heart.

Rider: Michael Paul. Note: this was near the bottom where the Green's Creek trail mellowed considerably.
Rider: Michael Paul. Note: this was near the bottom where the Green’s Creek trail mellowed considerably.

For a slightly shorter (16 miles)–and gnarlier–descent, riders can take the Green’s Creek trail instead of Silver Creek. I rode this with a group last summer that included Greg and Michael Paul, and it was excellent! Before we started the descent, a pair of moto riders buzzed up the trail, which had me a little worried we’d be sharing the trail with throttle junkies around every turn. But it turned out we had the trail to ourselves, which was good–I don’t like strangers to see me when I cry. 🙂 This trail is rocky, steep, and the perfect proving ground for that Trail or AM bike.

Green’s Creek can easily be ridden in half a day, which leaves plenty of time for another ride. After our ride last summer, we opted for another shuttle ride, this time from the top of the Arkansas Hills Trail system. The best part about this trail system is that it’s right in town and it stays dry pretty much year-round, so locals never have to stop shredding.

Photo: Greg Heil
Photo: Greg Heil

The top of the trail system has a real backcountry feel with scrub trees and hidden canyons peppering the landscape. Conditions ranged from sandy to pea gravel to hardpack to rocks–pretty much any Colorado conditions you can imagine, you’ll find in the Arkansas Hills Trail System. I honestly lost track of all the trails we pieced together but a lot of our descent involved swooping in and out of the narrow Cottonwood wash until we finally popped out on a trail overlooking town. After descending a few switchbacks we were back and ready for refreshments!

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Hike-a-bike up to the ridge.

Day two: Time for a true backcountry, alpine ride NOT involving a shuttle (no offense Greg). For this ride we chose Alpine Tunnel, mostly based on the excellent photos posted to Singletracks by Scott Anderson, and further solidified by the recommendation of Shawn from Absolute Bikes. You can read Greg’s trip report from the ride but suffice it to say, this was a beautiful ride along a seldom traveled ribbon of singletrack high above treeline.

After hitting Alpine Tunnel, we stopped for lunch at a food truck in Buena Vista (about 30 minutes from Salida) before hitting another shuttle ride with Greg’s friend Tom. I can’t say a lot about this ride other than it was a real technical challenge. Rock features seemed to be strung along every few hundred yards and each one demanded intense concentration–or in my case for many of the features, walking the bike. Still, this was a trail I could see myself riding again and again until I could clean every single rock. If you enjoy the Blackjack trail at Buffalo Creek, you’ll definitely enjoy this one, too.

Photo: Greg Heil
Photo: Greg Heil

For day three I was hoping to take it easy but our 12-15 mile ride quickly turned into 24 miles–which I imagine happens a lot in Salida. For this ride we descended part of the Rainbow Trail into the Methodist Mountain trail system. At the top of the ride, the Rainbow Trail snakes through a dense, dry forest punctuated with short, steep pitches, tricky roots, and pools of pea gravel. Basically this section was the opposite of the flowy goodness we’d eventually reach in the Methodist Mountain trail system. The Methodist Mountain trails are machine-cut, mostly beginner-friendly, and easily-accessible from town.

Deets on eats

Salida boasts a good selection of down-home restaurants, all as delicious as they are unpretentious. The Firefly Restaurant is a family-run affair that serves excellent buffalo chicken and asian steak hoagies out of what appears to be a converted gas station.

The Full Moon pizza.

Moonlight Pizza is a great dinner spot with outdoor dining and an impressive beer menu. The pizzas come loaded with fresh toppings and they even brew their own craft beer in-house.

If it’s steak you crave after a long day in the saddle, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better value than Quincy’s Tavern. Sunday through Thursday you’ll get a 6oz. bacon-wrapped filet mignon for $9.95 plus baked potato, salad, and dinner roll, with prices increasing a bit with larger steak sizes. On Fridays and Saturdays it’s either an $8.95 sirloin or $11.95 prime rib, and again you can upsize the steak for a couple bucks more. And that’s pretty much it–aside from choosing your steak size there are no choices, no substitutions. This place has a real old-school steakhouse vibe to it and the comfy, padded chairs and booths offer a welcome respite following a big ride.

Where to stay

Unlike a Colorado resort town, Salida doesn’t have towers of empty ski-in, ski-out rooms available for rent in the summer, so you’ll need to get creative when booking accommodations. There are a few chain hotels located out on the main drag, US Highway 50, though sadly these places aren’t quite within walking distance of the river and downtown area.

Photo: Greg Heil
Photo: Greg Heil

Closer to downtown you’ll find a few small B&Bs and the odd Air BnB rental, but perhaps your best bet if you want to walk to the river and to the downtown restaurants to eat is the Simple Lodge & Hostel, located in the heart of downtown. Camping is a decent option, with a campground located right on the river about two miles south of downtown. There are also a plethora of alpine camping options high up in the national forests, but you’ll need to drive at least 20-40 minutes to reach places like O’haver Lake. Oh, and did I mention that Greg lives in Salida? Maybe he’ll let you stay with him. 🙂

While Salida may not offer everything that a well-known mountain bike destination like Moab or Whistler can offer, it’s hard to argue with 500+ miles of trails within 25 miles of town. With everything from accessible, family-friendly trails to epic alpine and shuttle rides, there’s something for everyone to enjoy!


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