The land of Mesa Verde should be your next mountain biking destination
I’m so focused on the ground – trying to maneuver my mountain bike around massive boulders and over roots that make me feel like the rear wheel is going to slide to the side and erase me – that I almost passed what got me on this trail in the first place: history.
Luckily our unofficial guide (an ATV enthusiast accountant who lives in the area) slows down to a stop, so I don’t miss the adobe-walled pueblo standing in a half-moon of carved rock at- above us. The structures were built and used by the ancestral Puebloans who lived here – what is now the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument – over 1,000 years ago. There are 6,000 ancient sites within the monument’s 176,000 acres (the highest known density of archaeological sites in the country) and many are dotted along the six-mile Sand Canyon Trail I currently ride.
In fact, stopping and starting would be more precise. As a novice mountain biker this dusty route over slippery rock (an intermediate to difficult trail, I learn later) is way beyond my comfort level so I jump and get off the bike at regular intervals. (My husband is more experienced and stays way ahead of me for most of our three-hour drive.) Luckily the desert bush, spiky cacti, red-striped sandstone pinnacles, and those still standing pueblos. do a great job of distracting me from my feelings of failure as we drive back to the parking lot just west of Cortez, a small town in southwest Colorado.
Cortez is one of the beating hearts of the land of Mesa Verde, the trio of towns that abut Mesa Verde National Park. Unlike many other national parks in the state, there is no biking, horseback riding, or fishing permitted in Mesa Verde; visitors usually come here because they want to explore the park’s famous rock dwellings and learn about the indigenous peoples and cultures of the area.
We plan to book this trip soon, but this fall weekend we’re here for the trails. And there are plenty: Mesa Verde Country encompasses over 600 kilometers of mountain biking trails. (If you’re open to fat biking, then the area is a year-round destination for two-wheeler enthusiasts.) I’ve long been intrigued by the sport due to the inherent adrenaline rush and ability that it offers to cover more ground than I can on two feet, but I had only tried one trail here and there. Committing to a seven-hour, few-day ride in the saddle was an opportunity for me to learn basic skills and whether mountain biking should be my new outdoor hobby.
Sand Canyon Trail left me unsure. We didn’t complete the entire stretch (12 mile round trip) as the top part gets quite steep and requires maneuvering up to 700 feet elevation for a half mile. Instead, we turned around near the three mile mark and I found myself getting off my bike a little less than I did on the way up. When I disassembled my bike at the trailhead I wasn’t sure I wanted to get back on the next day. I tried to put my worries and doubts behind as we walked back to Cortez, watching the setting sun paint the sky in pinks and purples and cast an ethereal glow on Sleeping Ute Mountain.
The next morning we had options. There are a few classic rides in the area, including Phil’s World – a beloved 60-mile trail system just east of town that was built by locals – and Boggy Draw Loop, a voucher for beginners, an 8.6 mile wooded route that is part of a 62 mile trail system. We opted for a bit of leaf viewing on the Aspen Loop, a 39 mile trail through the San Juan National Forest.
Our guide led us to his secret starting point (no, I won’t!) Near a postcard-worthy scattered campsite that overlooked a lake with a snow-spotted Hesperus Mountain in the background. From there we hiked the jeep route we encountered and took the trail for a nine mile hike, mostly downhill.
Most of the route was a single wide track over dirt and rocks. The difficulties of the day before turned out to be a godsend today: I felt a lot less shy and more comfortable letting my wheels roll over the rough terrain, and I even managed to let go of the brake and feel the wind was blowing in my face as I sped up through a few sections. Recent rains made it muddy – one section was impassable as our wheels got stuck in the mud so we had to walk around – but I only jumped off my bike another time, through a steep hill with lots of large loose rocks.
We quickly realized we had perfectly timed our trip – the aspens were at their peak creating golden arches on the trail. We hopped on a short spur trail to a lookout, where the valley was lit with reds, oranges, and yellows. It was a sight I probably wouldn’t have seen if I had been hiking, or would have blown right past if I was on one of the mountain bikes or ATVs that had passed us on the trail. I was sweaty and muddy and couldn’t stop smiling. Maybe, I thought, mountain biking is worth the steep learning curve. As long as I go down, that is.
If you are going to…
Kokopelli Bike & Board rents full suspension ATVs (starting at $ 70 per day), helmets, and even bike racks for your car from its Cortez and Dolores stores.
Kelly Place is a long-standing lodge and campground about 20 minutes from Cortez that was purchased by two Montana transplants in January. Allison Troxel and Cindy Leavitt are transforming the 38-acre property, which is also their home. Three casitas (one with a full kitchen) are currently available for rent (starting at $ 175 per night); however, the site will be closed from late October to February. There is no cell service here – although there is WiFi in the main building – but there are ancestral sites of Puebloan, including two kivas, which you can explore on a short walking tour. . The property also borders the Canyons des Anciens.
Need to refuel? Here are some of my favorite pit stops.
Coffee with silver beans| 410 W, main street, Cortez
Drive-in or walk-in coffee in a converted Airstream trailer with a charming patio.
Bakery & Café Absolu | 110 S Main St, Mancos
For breakfast and lunch made with Colorado ingredients (grab a loaf of homemade bread to take home).
The Farm Bistro | 34 W Main St, Cortez
A casual farm-to-table restaurant that is only open on weekdays (reserve).
Brasserie and restaurant on the main street | 21 E Main St, Cortez
You’ll find a bit of everything at this brewery, where house beers, some of which are brewed with blue corn from the Bow & Arrow brand, are plentiful (I liked the McCluney Irish Red) and the burgers are just what you need after a long day on the trail.
La Casita de Cortez | 332 E Main St, Cortez
A Mexican joint with a plentiful menu (the shrimp tacos were a favorite) and easy to drink margaritas.
EsoTerra Cider | 18390 CO-145, Dolores
For a selection of crispy and vinous ciders made from apples picked from 50 regional family orchards, as well as cheese platters, bowls and sandwiches served in the food truck on the vast patio.
WildEdge Brewing Collective | 111 N Market St, Cortez
No Colorado city is complete without a brewery, and WildEdge satisfies with a concise selection made right in the middle of the city.
Sutcliffe Vineyards | 12174 Road G, Cortez
A two-decade-old winery nestled in McElmo Canyon that offers $ 10 tastings of four wines (noon to 5 p.m., daily).