Riding One of the Nation’s Best Mountain Bike Trails: Trail 401 in Crested Butte, CO

Trail 401 is one of the most renowned mountain bike trails in the nation and for good reason: it has all of the qualities that you could ever want in a classic singletrack ride:

  • Delightfully narrow singletrack
  • A long, tough climb with some serious elevation gain
  • A long, fast descent!
  • Beautiful views of the surrounding mountains
  • Remoteness
  • Tacky dirt
  • Smooth sections of trail
  • Rough, challenging sections (including rocks and roots)
  • Stream crossings
  • Serious exposure
  • Switchbacks
  • Berms
  • Camping nearby
  • A great mountain town with a mountain-bike friendly culture
  • A place to get some beers and pizza afterwards
  • The possibility of getting rained or snowed on at any time

I’ve been nervous about writing this ride report – how does one actually go about accurately describing one of the best trails in the nation in mere words? All of the standard metaphors, many of which now seem to border on the cliche, just don’t measure up to the grandeur of 401.

So instead of employing 5,000 words to describe this slender line of dirt, I’ll try to let the photographs do most of the talking.

Our Ride

We began our ride as most people do with the long climb up Gothic Road.

Rider: Andrew.

Despite the fact that we were slowly grinding up mile after mile of steep gravel roads, I was thoroughly enjoying myself because of the incredible views of the mountains all around us!

We spotted a mountain lake down below the road: it is one of the clearest blue lakes I have ever seen!

The most entertaining part of our entire climb up to the singletrack was crossing the snow. Yes, that’s right: snow. In the middle of August.

This mini-glacier lies at the very bottom of a steep-sided valley, protected from the warmth of the sun by the mountains and the elevation. I have no idea how deep that snow is, and I doubt anyone alive actually knows what the bottom of that ravine looks like.

Loving the mid-summer snow! Rider: Greg (me).

After much painful pedaling, we finally made Schofield pass!

The climbing wasn’t done, though: we still had at least a mile of ascending on the singletrack before we reached the summit of our ride. After already having climbed about 6 miles of gravel road at high elevation, the last steep push to the summit was a challenge, both mentally and physically.

After climbing a ways through the woods, the trail broke out into a high alpine meadow:

Looking back down through the meadow.

Finally, all of our hard work paid off, and we gained the high point:

Andrew and Greg at the Summit.

While all of the trails in Crested Butte are at high elevation, Trail 401 stands out as one of the highest with the summit of the route resting at about 11,400 feet above see level! For two Georgia boys, the oxygen molecules are way too few and far between up there!

The high point of the route afforded incredible views in almost every direction. We enjoyed the especially stunning view to the north, looking into the Maroon Bells Wilderness:

Everything up to this point had been the prelude to the main event, just the opening act: now it was really time to ride… it was time to descend! And descend we did: fast and furiously as we shredded the snot out of that singletrack, dropping as quickly as possible back down into the valley below.

Andrew descending Trail 401.

We were treated to incredible views all along the way. Riding through these high alpine meadows is so different from the deep forests of North Georgia… I found it hard to keep my eyes on the trail!

In the bottom of the valley you can see Gothic Road, which we rode up.

I hope all of these photos help portray how immense an experience riding Trail 401 is, because words just cannot do it justice. But still I must try…

Downhill

“So what about the downhill? What was it like, how did you enjoy it?”

Yeah, I only touched on it briefly above, but as I mentioned, it was just phenomenal! The descent featured several extended straightaways where you could just let ‘er rip, sections with swoopy turns, and even a section of fast, bermed switchbacks in the meadow. It was a glorious descent, and yet I wasn’t able to shred most of it as I would have liked to.

Negatives

In many of the reviews for Trail 401, people have mentioned the beautiful wildflowers right next to the trail that grow to head height. Sure, the flowers are pretty, but how does that affect the riding?

Personally, the wildflowers really harshed my flow. Not only was I getting whipped by the brush as I flew past, but the tall undergrowth made it absolutely impossible to see through the turns. As most of us are aware, the key to riding well is being able to look far down the trail so that you know what’s coming and can set up your line. This is especially important at high speed, which a descent like this is sure to offer. Instead of being able to truly revel in the speed of this mountain descent, I found myself either riding the brakes, or almost flying off of the many switchbacks hidden in the deep grasses. This tacky line of dirt will straight line through a meadow and then without warning feed straight into a series of switchbacks. I’m not complaining about the trail design in the least… it’s just that trail visibility in front of you is severely lacking.

On another negative note, the entire climb is on a gravel road. For many epic Rocky Mountain rides, that’s par for the course, but I can imagine how much more sublime this ride would have been if it was 100% singletrack instead of just about 60%.

Bottom Line

Small quibbles aside, this was probably my favorite ride from my recent trip to Colorado! The grandeur and remoteness of this route coupled with the excellent singletrack will make this a winner in almost anyone’s book!

Trail 401 is definitely on my “Top 10 Trails of All Time” list… though maybe not at the top of it.

Your Turn: Have you ridden Trail 401 before? What did you think?

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