Wind, Rocks, and Rowdy Singletrack: Riding Southeast Wyoming, Part 1

Some of Curt Gowdy's trails are not for the faint of heart (photo: RoadWarrior)
Some of Curt Gowdy’s trails are not for the faint of heart (photo: RoadWarrior)

Between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming, there is a mountain bikers playground of land that runs between I-80 and the Happy Jack Road. Here you’ll find tremendous variety in addition to many miles of singletrack.

While Cheyenne and Laramie are the state’s largest and third largest cities respectively, their combined populations still fall short of 100,000, so overcrowding is rarely an issue.  In fact, many Colorado Front Range inhabitants make the drive north to escape the crowds inherent in their ever-growing Denver/Boulder/Ft. Collins megalopolis.

I was living in Cheyenne when I purchased my first mountain bike in 2000, so this is where I cut my knobby teeth. What makes this corridor so amazing is that it is surrounded by relentlessly-windy high prairie, but the rocks and woods contained within provide a respite from the daily 30 knot winds, and do so with amazing terrain and scenery that will make you totally forget you’re in the middle of the prairie.

Heading towards one of the Vedauwoo rock formations on the Turtle Rock Trail (photo: dauw)
Heading towards one of the Vedauwoo rock formations on the Turtle Rock Trail (photo: dauw)

While southeast Wyoming was my first mountain biking geography, the Turtle Rock Trail in the Vedauwoo area was the first legitimate singletrack I ever sunk my knobbies into; and what a great place to start!  The full loop is less than three miles and has less than 400ft of total climbing.  What it does have is beautiful singletrack, and even a little non-threatening slickrock, through pines and aspens circumventing the magnificent Turtle Rock granite formation.  There was one tricky spot that forced a dismount, but everything else was ridable for this noob, and the tricky spot was just inspiration to improve and return.

The tricky spot I had to walk on my first ride, but had to come back and conquer as my skills developed (photo: dauw)
The tricky spot I had to walk on my first ride, but had to come back and conquer as my skills developed (photo: dauw)

This area’s original human inhabitants, the Arapahoe, called it Vedauwoo (pronounced Vee-Duh-Voo), which can be translated as “Land of the Earthborn Spirits,” and it’s easy to see why they viewed it with such reverence.  It is a gorgeous oasis of earth’s landscaping in the middle of the otherwise uninteresting prairie.  The rock formations and trees also provide refuge from the relentless prairie winds.

I would later learn that the Turtle Rock Trail also connects to a massive network of other, less popular trails in an area called Devil’s Playground that fans out into the surrounding hills and prairies.  Upon future scouting expeditions, I found the rest of the network to be quite an adventure.  It was largely unmarked and it was impossible to tell at any given fork, which was the best one to ride and which one was merely a game trail or cattle trail (much grazing takes place here), or which ones would drop into low areas that retained water and became impassable swamps.  In the years since, the trails have seen some mapping, but it remains more a place of adventure than refinement.

The view from the top of the Headquarters Trail (photo: dauw)
The view from the top of the Headquarters Trail (photo: dauw)

Further west, as I-80 and Happy Jack Road begin to converge towards each other as they approach Laramie, lies the home of my second singletrack outing, and still one of the all time underrated gems of the sport.  The combined Headquarters Trail/Happy Jack network dishes out 50+ miles of excellent singletracks in easily accessible, but beautiful and remote-feeling surroundings.  There are prairie grasses on the edges, dry, exposed rocks and ridges up high, mixed pine and aspen forests, and even lush, riparian runs, all packed such that it can all be experienced in a single, two-hour ride.

Enjoying Happy Jack's aspens (photo: dauw)
Enjoying Happy Jack’s aspens (photo: dauw)

The Headquarters Trail runs from a dirt road just inside the corridor to a parking lot right at the summit of I-80 as it crosses the high point between Cheyenne and Laramie.  It’s best to start from the Happy Jack side as there’s a stiff climb of almost 500ft in the first mile which is best done at the start of the ride, allowing for a great cruising downhill finish. Once up high, continuing directly to I-80 makes for a delightful ride, but even better is to cut over to the Happy Jack area and hit the many possible loops there.  The main loops are comprised of the moderately-challenging and positively-gorgeous Aspen Trail, the somewhat easier Middle Aspen Trail, and the Pole Creek Trail, all of which run somewhat parallel and connect at their endpoints or via short, easy connector routes.   I nicknamed the Pole Creek Trail “Butterfly Alley” since every time I rode it, there seemed to be dozens of butterflies following my from one end to the other, just adding to the very special feeling this place imparts.  For those looking for a little more gnar, the aptly named, if somewhat hyperbolic “Death Crotch” will fit the bill.  The area isn’t well marked and there are dozens of intersections, so it helps to talk to the folks at the bike shops in Laramie before heading out, or simply be ready to spend a good deal of time poking around.

Starting the run down "Death Crotch" in the Happy Jack area (photo: dauw)
Starting the run down “Death Crotch” in the Happy Jack area (photo: dauw)

The third jewel in the southeastern Wyoming crown is Curt Gowdy State Park.  Upon its opening, the State of Wyoming made a clear statement that they believed in mountain biking as a use of public lands.  Trails throughout the park were designed with mountain biking in mind, and it shows.  The area opened with an impressive quality, quantity, and variety of mountain biking trails, and much has been added since.  Today, there are 42 miles of quality singletrack and multiple “play areas” that bring bikes out onto some of the more entertaining granite formations themselves.  Camping is available, and you could easily spend a weekend here without repeating yourself–unless you wanted to, which is likely since some of the trails are so good as to bear repeating.

One of countless techy bits in Curt Gowdy State Park (photo: dauw)
One of countless techy bits in Curt Gowdy State Park (photo: dauw)

Anybody passing through the area should definitely make an effort to hit at least one of these wonderful riding spots. It’s also worthy as a destination trip in and of itself.  If you’re traveling without a bike, it’s still worth the time to get off the interstate and go for a hike or do some rock scrambling. This is truly an enchanting area and it’s almost impossible not to feel a kinship with those “earthborn spirits” when visiting.

One of Curt Gowdy State Park's impressive climbs, or descents depending on which way you're going (photo: RoadWarrior)
One of Curt Gowdy State Park’s impressive climbs, or descents depending on which way you’re going (photo: RoadWarrior)

Special thanks to Singletracks users Dauw and RoadWarrior for providing all the great pics.  Most of my forays into the area were before I began documenting my rides, so these photos are very useful and do a good job portraying the feel of the area.

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