Riding into the backcountry on pedal power
Outdoor enthusiasts looking for a new and exciting way to indulge their passion should consider bikepacking; a relatively new sport that combines backpacking with a bicycle. Experiencing the outdoors on your own steam, carrying the essentials for extending your journey for as many days as you want, and living a minimalist lifestyle spawns a sense of freedom and accomplishment. You are close to nature in a primal and basic way. Plus, trading hiking boots for wheels means you can travel much farther in a day, so the sky’s the limit as to how far, and where, you can go. It’s like having a tiny camper on two wheels that can take you on a weekend camping trip - or an adventure of a lifetime.
Montrose is a great place for bikepacking. We have virtually endless public lands on all four sides: Grand Mesa to the north, the Gunnison River country and the Cimarrons to the east, the San Juans to the south, and the Uncompahgre Plateau to the west. These public lands have roads and trails that extend into adjacent forests and states, so the options for exploring are virtually infinite.
Beginners to the sport can try a one or two night trip of 20 to 30 miles each day and stick to gravel or 4WD roads without technical terrain or narrow singletrack trails to complicate the trip. A bike with clothing, food and camping gear may weigh 20 to 30 pounds more than an unloaded bike, so the bike will handle differently and be harder to climb hills. Steep or technical climbs might require getting off and pushing the bike, so it’s best to start out with more gentle terrain such as unpaved rural roads.
A friend of mine and bikepacking addict, Dana VanVoorhees, says that the most important thing to keep in mind is that “less is more.” Carry only what you absolutely need and as lightweight as possible. Cost is inversely proportional to weight, so the lighter the tent, the more it costs. A tent, bivy, or tarp should be at or less than a pound and the sleeping bag should be about a pound. She suggests that most of the weight should be mounted to the bike, not on your back. This means that all your food, clothing, tools, shelter, sleeping bag, personal items and cooking equipment need to be carried on the bike. The only thing on your back should be a hydration pack, which is like a day pack with a bladder and hose for convenient water delivery.
The accompanying photograph of Dana’s bike shows the clever ways to carry your essentials. Note that this is a “hardtail” bike with no rear suspension. This keeps the bike as light as possible and allows for the central frame pack that holds most of the heavy items you’ll need. Basically, there is only room for essentials, no luxuries. The luxury is that you get to do the ride! There are many bag styles and manufacturers. Expect that outfitting your bike with the three to five basic bags may cost on the order of $250-$500. There are excellent bikepacking websites and blogs for researching how other people do this sport.
Dana emphasizes that water is a key component of a successful outing. Wherever you go, each day of your route must include a water source. Invest in a good filter, carry bacteria killing tablets, and research good water sources before your trip.
The Uncompahgre Plateau in Our Backyard
The Uncompahgre Plateau, which has hundreds of logging roads, trails, gravel, dirt, and 4WD roads is a great bikepacking playground near Montrose that offers a variety of terrain. It is a long, narrow range that is oriented northwest-southeast and extends from I-70 northwest of Grand Junction southeast to Log Hill (and Horsefly Peak) near Ridgway. The Divide Road, is a seasonal dirt/gravel one and is the “backbone” road that roughly follows the drainage divide of the Plateau (hence the road name) from Dave Wood Road northwest to Highway 141 in Unaweep Canyon. The east side of Divide Road contains countless named and unnamed streams that flow to the northeast into the Uncompahgre and Gunnison Rivers. Most notably, these are Spring Creek, Dry Creek, Roubideaux Creek, Escalante Creek, Dominguez, and East Creek. Parallel to many of these drainages are trails and roads that climb up to Divide Road such as Dave Wood, Highway 90, Transfer, Delta-Nucla (25 Mesa) and Escalante Canyon Roads. This network of roads allows for many options for loop rides and the potential for finding water.
In addition to roads, there are three famous mountain bike trail systems that form a rough triangle of trails on the Uncompahgre Plateau: the 141 mile Tabeguache Trail that roughly parallels Divide Road from Shavano Valley near Montrose to Grand Junction, the Kokopelli Trail (139 miles) from Loma to Moab, and the Paradox Trail (119 miles) from Divide Road and Houser Road near Iron Springs Campground to the Kokopelli Trail on the north side of the La Sal mountains. Portions of the Tabeguache and the Paradox Trails serve as excellent bikepacking routes, especially if existing roads or other trails are used to supplement the more technical singletrack sections. A good example is the Parallel Trail, an ATV track that follows Divide Road from a point near the Hwy 90/Divide Road intersection northwest
to Monitor Mesa Road near Columbine Pass. It avoids the very difficult 21 mile long Roubideaux section of the Tabeguache
Trail. Continuing on the Delta-Nucla Road to Cottonwood Road provides a nice route (roughly 20 miles) to Divide Road (which is part of the Tabeguache Trail) or to other roads on Sawmill Mesa or Love Mesa. Roads can also be connected to drop down to Escalante Forks in Escalante Canyon for a point to point ride or you can return on Divide Road or the Parallel Trail back to Highway 90.
Another friend and fellow cyclist, Bill Harris, who wrote the book “Bicycling the Uncompahgre Plateau,” suggests that the middle to northern portion of the Plateau from Iron Springs north to Divide Forks Campground has many possible bikepacking routes. In addition to the Parallel Trail/ Cottonwood Road area, he suggests Escalante Canyon as a starting point and traveling up Palmer Gulch Road to Brushy Basin Road which can ultimately connect with Divide Road. Some streams in this area are perennial and would be very important for replenishing water supplies.
So do some research on possible routes (including the condition and distances of roads and trails), the availability of water, and the bags and gear that would be best for your needs, and start planning a bikepacking weekend on the Plateau. I’m already planning my first trip because there’s so much to explore on the Uncompahgre Plateau in our back yard. I can think of no better way to do it than on a bicycle.
Winter Option: Bikeboards
Bikepacking, and mountain biking in general, takes on a whole new set of challenges when the snow starts to fall. But not to worry; thanks to Bikeboards, a company started by a local entrepreneur and biking enthusiast, two-wheeled adventures can extend into the winter and with an exciting twist.
Stepping out of the modus operandi of the biking world, BikeBoards takes winter biking on a whole new path by making
Colorado’s snow-entrenched terrains more accessible than ever. This Montrose, Colorado company has developed a ski kit that attaches to the front wheel of a bike, which compresses the snow for better traction on the rear wheel and a smooth ride. Add another ski kit to the rear wheel and your ride converts to a ski bike for the full downhill effect. The skis attach without having to remove the wheels or rebuild components. Simply adjust the kit to fit your tire and you’re off. When you are ready to hit the pavement again, the kit is removed with ease.
Bikeboards founder David Bach is an avid mountain biker and skier who developed the product to solve a problem he encountered while endurance training for a cross-country biking event. While tackling Colorado’s notoriously unpredictable weather from elevations of 5,000 to 14,000 feet he struggled with excessive physical depletion from pushing his bike through heavy snow. Mile after mile of stepping off your bike and pushing through the snow is a sufferfest and, in some parts of the Colorado backcountry, it can be downright dangerous. For David, combining skiing with biking was a natural resolution.
After creating the first generation of bike/ski innovations, the BikeBoards concept was expanded to all kinds of winter biking fun, from cross-country endurance to downhill ski biking with any bike.
The passion that Bach has for his innovation is matched by his enthusiasm for the place where it was developed. He relates, “Montrose is an ideal place to launch these winter adventures. We are dreaming up new adventures all the time because we are so close to our pick of places to have fun. The opportunities to enjoy the sport of winter biking with your own bike, any bike, are endless.”