Loose in the La Platas

Three Rides in One of Colorado's Most Dramatic Ranges
Gorp.com

Bicycling in Durango first became popular back in 1894, and a bicycle track (six laps per mile) was constructed as part of a parks development program. Cyclists were a bit too enthusiastic, however, and ordinances were written to calm things down; a cyclist—or at least a man on a bike—was arrested for riding down Main Street without a headlamp. Cycling back then was quite different than it is today, and not only because titanium alloys were not available. Women were not encouraged to ride because it might expose too much skin during that very conservative Victorian era; when riding with a man, the woman was to stay to the rear. What would they say if they could see Julie Furtado riding across town? The biking legacy of Durango continues—it is the home of some of the best cyclists in the world, and it's one of the best places to train as well.

For travelers to the La Plata Mountains, lodging is available in Mancos, Cortez, Durango, Dolores, or the Echo Basin Ranch east of Mancos. Camping areas are plentiful in the San Juan National Forest, though campgrounds are few in number, with local campgrounds limited to Transfer, Kroeger, and Joe Moore Reservoir. Mesa Verde National Park also offers lodging and camping.

The rides described here range in the technical ability and time required, from relatively easy tours to difficult and grueling full-day affairs. Many of the rides involve a good deal of elevation gain, and all are above 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) in elevation at some point. Distances and elevations are approximate and err on the conservative side, and times are estimated for a cyclist who is not in a hurry. Don't be surprised if you can finish the ride below the minimum of the range provided.

Acclimatization
All trails in the mountains begin at better than 7,000 feet (2,133 meters); if you are not acclimated to the elevation, take it easy on your first few rides or plan for a little extra time and water. The rides chosen are for the most part restricted to closed or open four-wheel-drive roads because there are so many of them, and many of the hiking trails in the area are not always well enough maintained for bike travel. Because of the elevation gain, trails in La Plata Canyon and the upper reaches of the West Mancos River are grueling and only recommended for experienced cyclists in very good shape who are acclimated to the elevation and are ready for a serious workout. Reaching the tops of one of these rides promises a view of expanses that include lands in northern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona, and southeast Utah, not to mention the San Juan Mountains to the north and northeast.

Geography
The western La Plata Mountains and foothills offer some of the best year-round off-road cycling anywhere. The foothills are gently sloping beds of Dakota Sandstone that support broad mesa-like areas that range from 7,000 to 9,500 feet (2,130 to 2,895 meters) elevation. The different branches and tributaries of the Mancos and Dolores Rivers dissect the Dakota Sandstone, creating mesa topography with steep-walled valleys and canyons.

Mountain biking in the La Plata Mountains is similar to cycling in many other mountainous regions, though the opportunities are extraordinary here because of the many roads that were cut through the forest during the mining and logging days. Timber harvests are declining, but aspens are still taken for use in the Mancos excelsior plant, so watch for logging trucks on back roads. Many of these roads are closed to motorized vehicles due to landslides and runoff erosion, but mountain bikes can still easily negotiate many of them.

Most of the trails in this book can be ridden on an entry-level mountain bike, though climbing is easier on a lighter and lower-geared, more expensive bike. High-quality shifters and other components also make a difference, but, of course, are expensive. The most important thing is to ride a reliable bike. A very cheap bike, such as those found in Wal-Mart, may well break down on you in the wrong place, while a solid, middle-of-the-line bike will normally complete the trip. The best deals for the noncompetitive cyclist in 1995 are bikes with components such as Shimano LX or STX. The type of frame you choose is up to you, and for recreational use usually affects the ride and handling more than does the frame weight or strength. The biggest concern with any quality bike is, of course, you, the motor.

The main trail concerns that should be taken into account when riding the La Platas are related to the Mancos Shale and the Morrison Formation. These two geologic units are composed predominantly of silt and clay, which, when it becomes wet, is one of the worst things your mountain bike can encounter. The Mancos Shale is left as a thin residual deposit on top of mesas supported by Dakota Sandstone and dominates the area between the Middle and West Mancos Rivers and Bear Creek.

Problems associated with engineering highways on the Mancos Shale can be seen in the road leading up the side of Mesa Verde, where the slope is continually slumping, closing the road practically as an annual event. Many of the roads and trails in the western La Platas are on the shale and can be difficult riding when an afternoon thunderstorm dumps on them. This should not discourage biking in this area, however, because mud can be avoided and there are many trails and roads on a rocky or gravel base that provide ample traction in wet or dry conditions.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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