Ride Report: Buffalo Creek, Blackjack Trail, Colorado: Fat Bike Style

For those of you who have ever ridden it, heard about it, or even watched videos of it hoping to try it out someday, you know that the Blackjack Trail is one of the premier trails in Colorado. Interestingly, it gets very little exposure. It never makes a “list” because honestly, it is so remote …

For those of you who have ever ridden it, heard about it, or even watched videos of it hoping to try it out someday, you know that the Blackjack Trail is one of the premier trails in Colorado. Interestingly, it gets very little exposure. It never makes a “list” because honestly, it is so remote and so hard that few people get to try it out. Locals probably prefer that. Those of us who live close enough to ride it are truly in awe at the planning that went into building this trail in an area of such immense scale, constructing a double-black-diamond trail using only natural features worthy of pro-level riding. COMBA did an excellent job making this trail, and promoting it with this video.

In case you haven’t heard of it, the Blackjack Trail is nestled near the middle of the Buffalo Creek Trail System, a buff network of trails that has been ranked on Singletracks as the #1 trail in the world… more than once. It is a convoluted network of smooth singletrack made of decomposed granite that is rideable year round. There are 50-60 miles of trail, depending on how you ride it, as it sits adjacent to, and incorporates part of, the picturesque Colorado Trail. You could easily do 4000+ feet of climbing in a day ride if you had the lungs and legs for it.

Or, if you wanted to, you could start at the beginning of the Colorado Trail near Denver, ride to Buffalo Creek, ride around Buffalo Creek, continue on the Colorado Trail to Salida and connect to the Continental Divide Trail, and then ride to Canada or Mexico. Really, the world is your oyster!

Map of Buffalo Creek Trail system. Photo courtesy of Front Range Mountain Bike Patrol

I have ridden Buffalo Creek several times, but I’ll be honest: I have only ridden Blackjack 3-4 times, for the same reasons a lot of people ride it less. First, it takes at least an hour (or two) just to get to the trailhead. By that time you might be wiped out and you still may have more riding to do. Plus, you have to scale Raspberry Ridge to get to the start of Blackjack–a tough climb up technical slickrock granite.

And, once you start Blackjack, the stakes are high (get it?) because there is a high cost of failure on almost every feature, and you are in the middle of nowhere if something goes wrong. There’s no cell phone reception. No bail out road. Nada. COMBA actually joked that they considered designing a helipad area close to the trail for med-evacs, but fortunately, so far no one has needed one… that I know of.

Enter the Fat Bike

Most people ride Blackjack with the longest-travel bike in their quiver, and rightly so. But I thought it would be fun to ride a fat bike on Blackjack to see how it would do. Riding a fatty on such a rocky trail with no suspension, voluminous tires, and a cross country-oriented geometry is a little nuts, I’ll admit. But I wanted to prove to myself that what I believe about fat bikes is true: that fatties can do almost anything and ride almost anywhere… and still be a blast to ride.

At that time, in the early winter of 2013, I had recently purchased the new Salsa Beargrease XX1 from my LBS, the Golden Bike Shop. My friend “Boe,” who works at the shop, agreed to accompany me and was stoked on the idea of riding fat bikes on this formidable double-diamond trail. He showed up with a Surly Krampus 29+, and we hit the trail.

The long haul up Strawberry Jack was as majestic as it always is, looking out over the National Forest burned by the Hi Meadows Fire in 2000 as you climb, climb, climb. Once at the top, we chose to take another awesome bit of singletrack, Charlie’s Cutoff, over to the Homestead trail so that we could start the ascent up Raspberry Ridge. The fat bikes were every bit as awesome as we expected: they gripped the coarse granite slabs like glue and seemed to have an infinite amount of traction while climbing to the top. The XX1 tranny with a 28T in the front was perfect. It was the most fun I have ever had climbing up this short, little lung-buster.

Boe slicing through one of the fast transition sections between technical rock features on the Blackjack Trail. The wide tires handle beautifully here in the decomposing granite singletrack.

We reached Blackjack and took the obligatory photo at the sign marking the entrance. Because the trail uses natural features, signs are placed in key locations, in addition to rock cairns, to mark the trail. Nevertheless, the actual trail can still be very difficult to ferret out unless you know where you are going. Signs and colors also delineate easier (green) routes, as opposed to the more insane (black) lines, though in my opinion the big Green dot is a big Green lie. There is nothing easy out here… at all.

Signs denote the route on Blackjack...this photo illustrates one of the last features that overlooks one of the many burn areas.

At this point, I should probably make a confession. After riding Blackjack four times, including this fatbike adventure, I still haven’t ridden every feature. The first time I went I rode about half of the lines on an XC bike, and each time I go I’ve tried to hit a few more lines and work up my confidence. This trail is a 100% gut-check, and it separates the (old fat) men from the boys. It is also what I like to call a W.I.P. (Work In Progress)… because unless you are fearless, talented, and a little lucky, it takes you a while (i.e. months) to warm up to some of the features COMBA crafted out here. In fact, I may never do some of them, because I am a middle aged asthmatic from Florida who likes to make excuses. Anyway, I admit this to you, the reader, because I am proud to say that I hit more lines on my Beargrease than with my trail bike. So there. Sweet karate monkey.

On this short 2-3 mile trail, lines are named after gambling references because of the (ahem) high stakes. For those of you who know it, the first feature is a very steep roller aptly named “Over/Under,” which the Beargrease handled beautifully. This little lobber, however, is only a prequel before the rider is forced to negotiate the true “filter feature,” aka the Slot Machine. I elected to skip this one because of the lack of suspension, but I think a better rider could nail it on a fatbike.

After the Slot Machine, there are a ton of features connected by trail-building genius: more steep rollers, tight squeezes, sloping drops littered with off-camber rocks, a massive jump, and some punchy climbs. Many of these are separated by fun sections of beautiful fast, flowy singletrack with incredible views. Boe rocked the Krampus over almost everything, and needless to say we had a blast, stopping several times to compare notes. We both agreed that these bikes could definitely handle the terrain, which encouraged us to push a little harder.

Although most fat bikes are completely rigid with steeper geometries, having the advantage of such wide knobbies helps control the bike on rock and dirt in ways that are completely different than all-mountain/trail rigs. Riding a fat bike is like being 8 years old on a bike again; it’s pretty surreal when you can translate that feeling when riding a really technical series of rocky singletrack.

Boe drops the Surly Krampus off of the "Snail Rock" feature. Notice the compression of the front tire.

I was having so much fun that I honestly forgot to stop and take many photos. I did keep the GoPro rolling, which will give you and idea of what it’s like to roll a fat bike through Blackjack:

(Watch the video here.)

Boe and I were sad to finish Blackjack, as always, but we also realized we were running out of light. We fought the low winter sun back to the truck, but lost, having to ride most of Buck Gulch in complete darkness, laughing out loud while plowing into ditches and running off the trail.

It was a great experience, and I cannot wait to take the Beargrease to places like Moab and Grand Junction and see what it can do.

Near the end of Blackjack Trail, enjoying the last rays of a generous Colorado winter sun.

Your Turn: Are there any places you’ve seen or taken a fat bike where it really seemed out of its element?


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