There is something magical about seeing the dry, rocky desert come to life with vibrant green grass and a kaleidoscope of wildflowers. The contrast between the rocks, often a deep red in color, and the fluorescent fauna make for a marvelous display.
Plus, spring is the PEAK time to get lost in the desert (metaphorically of course) and to partake in some of the best adventures it has to offer. For us, that meant mountain biking.
Here is a quick rundown of what we got up to on our escapade into the high country of Colorado's remote northwest:
\\ DAY 1
We got a midday start, us in our beloved 1995 Dodge Van and Holli, Luke’s sister, in her more modern Chevy Van. Both of us were prepared for the next couple of days of driving: road trip snacks (Wheat Thins, sweet potato tortilla chips, and baby carrots), plenty of downloaded podcasts, and brand-new walkie-talkies.
The trip started in Estes Park, CO then headed down the canyon to Fort Collins, where we grabbed a couple of last minute supplies, then up the Poudre Canyon, a beautiful drive along the river and through granite canyons, until we reached the town of Walden. Now Walden is not much of a town - it has a couple of gas stations and supposedly an okay pizza joint. Walden is really just the terminus of the Poudre Canyon (which actually kind of lives farther up on Cameron Pass, but whatever) and the start of a high plains landscape that is dotted more with cows and oil derricks than trees.
During the winter this area gets cooooooold, but during the spring it comes alive with orange and yellow bushes along the streams and lots of calves running around in the fields.
Once through the rather empty plains you reach Rabbit Ears Pass, a great spot for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and hiking. Even in May it was still covered in at least two feet of snow (so no trail running for us I guess).
Then a nice long descent down the west side before shooting into the beautiful town of Steamboat Springs.
But… we didn’t go all the way into Steamboat. We instead headed south on a dirt road that eventually took us through a couple of cute towns before turning onto another dirt road that winded its way back, deep into some aspen groves and up onto a bluff overlooking snow-covered peaks and still frozen lakes.
This was Flat Tops Wilderness, one of the oldest designated areas in the country. As the story goes, Arthur Carhart, a Forest Service landscape architect, realized in 1919 the uniqueness of the location when he stood on the shoreline of Trappers Lake. what Carhart saw and experienced at there compelled him to strongly recommend to his supervisors that the area remain undeveloped.
Flat Tops, also known as the “Cradle of Wilderness,” is where the idea of wilderness was first applied to public land.
We spent one night there, hunkered down in a grove of aspens that still had not gotten their summer leaves, staring out on the namesake Flat Top Mountain in the distance.
\\ DAY 2
The next morning we had planned on running the Devil’s Causeway Trail, a 10-mile loop that crosses the famous and slightly nerve-wracking Devil’s Causeway - a narrow strip of land notorious for causing sheer terror, or awe and thrill, for those who dare to cross it. This "land bridge" is roughly 50 feet in length, and narrows to as little as 3 feet in width. On both sides of the rough and rugged trail are 60-80 foot cliffs, with steep talus slopes dropping another 600-800 feet into the drainages far below.
But because it is still winter at that high of altitude (~10,000) we were blocked by deep, icy snow. Not exactly what you want to be walking on as you cross a 50-foot land bridge with sheer drops on either side. So we turned back, helped a couple of guys who had gotten their car stuck in a patch of snow and then headed more west - towards warmer weather and drier terrain.
Eventually we made it to the booming town of Craig (which is a funny sentence for anyone who has ever for one reason or another, ventured into that neck of the woods). Craig is a coalmining town, with a sparse downtown, a grocery store, and an emphasis on four-wheeling excursions.
We only stopped because there was “supposedly” some good mountain biking nearby. Turns out it was absolutely awful: a climb up a dirt road littered with rocks the size of softballs that got so steep that you felt you would fall off your bike backward or slide down if you stopped pedaling for even a second. And if the climb didn’t deter you, then the singletrack trail waiting for you at the top definitely would.
Steep. Rocky. Awful.
One loop and we were done. Banged up, tired, and slightly disillusioned with mountain biking, we decided to keep driving up towards Dinosaur National Monument and camp there for the night.
Two hours later we were cruising on a backcountry road, always the best way to see the area, when we spotted some wild horses (yes they do exist, something new to me as well). A whole herd standing in the field of sagebrush, just chilling. Not a care in the world.
By the time we pulled up to our camp spot for the night the sun was starting to set over the high red cliffs to the west and lighting up the sagebrush and wildflowers in the fields surrounding the two vans.
\\ DAY 3
The morning dawned bright and warm - a nice change from the previous morning in Flat Tops Wilderness, where our toes and fingers got numb the moment we left the warmth of the blankets.
We ate a quick breakfast of granola and fruit, made some black tea, then grabbed our mountain bikes and headed out for a nice morning ride in the glowing desert sun for some close-up views of the Gates of Lodore - the spot where the Green River, after winding across the broad valley known as Browns Park, turns south and makes a direct path into the mountains in front of it, creating a deep red canyon that blocks out the sun.
An hour later and we were packed up and headed out of Dinosaur National Monument. Our next destination: the stunning Flaming Gorge.
\\ The Top 4 Sites to Explore in Northern Colorado
1 | STATE FOREST STATE PARK
With 71,000 acres of forest, jagged peaks, alpine lakes, wildlife, and miles of trails, this park stretches along the west side of the Medicine Bow Mountains and into the north end of the Never Summer Range. Moose is State Forest State Parks claim to fame, for North Park is considered the moose viewing capital of Colorado, with over 600 moose to be observed year-round.
2 | STRAWBERRY PARK NATURAL HOT SPRINGS
Nestled alongside Hot Springs Creek lies one of the most spectacular mineral springs in the world. With multiple pools, varying from very hot to positively icy, this is the perfect place to relax after a long day on the trails or slopes. If you are looking to spend multiple days at the springs - and exploring the nearby trails - we highly suggest looking into staying at one of their cabins.
3 | THE SAND WASH BASIN HERD MANAGEMENT AREA
One of the few places to see wild horses in Colorado, this area is right on the road between Craig and Dinosaur National Monument. If you are lucky you might also spot deer, prairie dogs, bald and golden eagles, and mountain lions.
4 | DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT
While the Gates of Lodore are on the opposite side of many of the Monument’s more touristy features, it is definitely worth taking the time to venture to both areas. On the western side there are nature walks that let you feel like a real paleontologist, the recently updated Quarry Exhibit Hall (absolutely amazing) and lots of trails (they also allow, and even encourage, you to go off-trail to do your own discovering).