Some new to Colorado and the Front Range may not realize what our wonderful warm spells - otherwise known as Indian Summers - actually mean to our trails and our ability to enjoy them responsibly. When the sun is out in February and temperatures are pushing 50 to 60 degrees after a big snowstorm, it’s very tempting to ride. Often, the snow melts within a day or two, so Green Mountain, North Table Mountain, The Hogback and the various parks that flank and ascend the foothills proper might be calling out to riders.
What you will often find, however, is that the sunny, seductive siren’s call is a lure into a trap - a corridor of gooey, peanut butter that will clog your derailleurs, choke your chain and even stop your wheels. Just 10 feet up a trail like this can make your 20-pound carbon bike weigh 50 pounds, and it’s going to be a chore getting it cleaned up again. Worse still is the damage that it does to the trail. Ruts are ugly. They dry and make for wheel catchers that slow you up and slap you down. Water loves ruts, though, and when it rains, it runs down that trench, cutting it deeper and washing the trail surface down the hill.
Furthermore, it’s human nature to avoid mud and go around it, which only serves to widen the trail, destroying vegetation that has a hard enough time holding on in our arid climate. All of this necessitates volunteers and staff devoting hours (and funding money) to restoration work where it might otherwise be used to further new trail development.
So, the best thing you can do is to network with your friends and other trail users to find out trail conditions and ride elsewhere as needed.
Plan an Alt-ride! There are lots of routes and options to enjoy limited portions of our parks. Here are a few basic Jeffco-centric ideas:
1) Hit that bike path! The C-470 path is long and you can avoid cars on it. You can link it to other paths, hit up a brewery along the way, find some crushed gravel paths and generally explore the west metro area and beyond, largely without traffic to negotiate. Go south to Chatfield and then up the South Platte to Strontia Springs Dam. You’ll probably see Bighorn Sheep in the canyon, and it’s one beautiful, car-free canyon any time of the year.
2) Ride the Morrison/Genesee backroads. A short four-mile ride up Bear Creek to Idledale leads to a nice steep dirt road called South Grapevine Road. You can grind up this guilt free in the mud and get yourself to Genesee where you can either explore the neighborhood roads, turn it around and bomb down the dirt and canyon pavement, or take the I-70 frontage road for a ripping descent to Highway 93. From there, a right turn south takes you to the entrance to Red Rocks, which is a delight to ride through on any bike. Next thing you know you are back in Morrison where a nice smothered burrito awaits at the infamous Morrison Inn.
3) Ride the tops! Did you know that there are upper parking lots for Mt. Falcon, Apex and White Ranch? While this is no guarantee that you will find good winter trail conditions through an extended stretch of Indian Summer like we’ve had, often the top of the parks have acceptable conditions of hard-packed snow and/or wet, but firm soils. The clay soils found on the lower portions of our foothills often change to a mix of decomposed granite and loam (think pine needles and dirt), which does fairly well when wet. Generally, you can ride a loop on the top of the park and skip the descent to the lower trails and leave with both a clean conscience and a clean bike. Be prepared to turn around if you are encountering poor conditions and beware of ice that forms in the shady north-side trails that stays for months.
4) Bang out laps on Dakota. Dakota Ridge, perhaps Jeffco’s most technical riding trail, is also well anointed with sunshine and rock and is typically one of the first trails to dry. There will likely be ice and some mud in the middle saddle between the two knolls that define the route - and the Zorro connector is often not viable due to mud as water seeps down the slopes of the ridge, keeping the trail wet, but much of this challenging route sheds its moisture in the heat of the glaring winter sun. (So too, avoid Mathew Winters without good information. It is slow to dry) At just a couple miles long, Dakota can go quick if you are a banger, but it’s a short ride up 93 to get back on the trail for another go. This will hone those skills for Fruita and Moab like nothing else on the Front Range. It’s not for beginners.
5) Get a Fat Bike! It’s a growing and vital winter option that should be considered. Above 8,000’ along the Front Range, the trails tend to stay snow covered (this year being an exception near Evergreen and Conifer which have seen inconsistent snow fall and much melting) or even frozen through the winter. Learn the game though, before you show up and hit the headwall of deep, untracked powder, or you butcher somebody’s hard trail packing work by flailing along. You can’t ride everything just because you have that 5” tire bike with a pie plate for a rear gear, and you will know that soon enough. Howeve, when things are dialed in and conditions are right, the experience is sublime!
That said, networking with your friends and others - being willing and able to share the status of a trail whether good or bad - is one of the best things you can do to help keep our trails the beautiful corridors of joy that they are. See you on the trails - or off, as conditions require!
James Herklotz is the founder of the local Facebook Group 303 Trail Monitor, with a membership after only two years of more than 6,000 mountain bikers, runners and hikers. It’s a friendly way to learn more about what is happening with the trails throughout the state (303 representing the original area code for the state of Colorado) and even a little beyond. Feel free to join!