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Escape Breck: Monarch Crest Trail

If you aren’t quite ready for the September chill, cloudy days and the onset of Autumn in Breckenridge, there’s an escape just a short road trip south … a little lower, a little warmer and some super fun trails.  Escape Breck: Monarch Crest Trail.

“Ignorance is bliss,” I said to myself as the Absolute Bikes Shuttle Van chugged up Monarch Pass.  “I got this, just go slow when it gets technical.”  We are about to tackle a mammoth ride that I have, really, only read about. The Monarch Crest Trail – IMBA Epic Ride . It’s known as one of “Colorado’s top 5 epic rides – classic high-altitude riding in the Rockies.”  In all my naivety, I am picturing some short grunty climbs, fun descents, and some big views. I mean, It’s mostly downhill, right?

Monarch Pass 11,312 feet (3.45 km). Monarch Pass is located on the Continental Divide at the southern end of the Sawatch Mountain Range. The Monarch Crest Trail runs along the border between Gunnison and Chaffee counties, approximately 25 miles (40 km) west of the town of Salida.  From Monarch Pass, you climb to the Continental Divide Trail and to Marshal Pass with some good climbing and then a wicked decent to the Rainbow Trail which spits you out on Hwy 285 back to Poncha Springs.

“How about we ride the Monarch Crest Trail this weekend?” I had suggested on Thursday morning.  I should have been suspicious when, without hesitation and within minutes, my boyfriend had a shuttle booked and a YetiBeti SB5c rented for me. Whoaa! 

That morning we poked our heads out of the tent to find a thick cloud cover and cool temps.  The forecast looked promising so we weren’t too worried, but we were sure to bring extra clothing, snacks and a few bits and pieces of a first aid kit … just in case.

Be sure to have a map and consider printing out the mtbproject.com description if you aren’t familiar with the trail.  It was super helpful during the ride. 

Monarch Crest Trailhead

It was a Saturday in August and the parking lot at the top of Monarch Pass was packed with riders. “oh, with this many riders it can’t be that bad” I thought to myself. 

Feeling confident, we started to climb. My heart was pumping and my legs were screaming, but I am getting warming up so I ignore both.  Not a lot of oxygen up there at nearly 12,000 ft. So it’s expected.  The trail is soft and smooth, fun and easy. I like this.  We keep climbing and then the amazing views of the San Luis Valley unfold in front of us.  Gorgeous.

The trail weaves and winds through the high alpine landscape. I am already impressed at the rocks I am rolling over with ease, go YetiBeti!  We come to a “T” and go right into a dense forest of sorts.  It’s a little more rooty and rocky on a narrow single track.  I feel a descent coming on and just when I feel like we are alone, a big group comes up behind me.  Surprisingly, I know a few of them from Breckenridge! Awesome!   There are a few quick “Hellos” as I let them pass.   I am feeling speed-challenged at the moment, but keep my chin up because I am having fun and that is all that counts!

The descent to Marshall Pass is fun and heart-pounding fast, but watch out for wildlife.  A deer came with feet of a high-speed collision with my boyfriend. That would have been a mess.  The top of Marshall pass was a flurry of activity when we arrived.  Mountain Bikers, Horseback Riders, Hikers and Dirt-bikers all enjoying the space in harmony.  Perfect.

I was ordered to “eat” even though I was not feeling hungry. I was already amped from the experience and the amazing machine I was riding.   As we refueled, we noticed a few familiar faces riding our direction. More Breckenridge friends!   Always super-psyched to chat about the ride and catch up.  We decided to head out together for the 2nd leg of the Monarch Crest Trail (MCT). 

As you know, this was my virgin ride and it had been almost two decades since my boyfriend had ventured on to the MCT, but a few of our friends informed us that they ride this trail regularly.  I was excited to have experienced riders in the group but imagine the performance anxiety I was feeling. Oh boy.

All for naught, they were all super cool and helpful. As we started the initial climb I lost sight of them, but they were waiting at the top. Pressure free!  That climb was long and ongoing .. we just kept climbing.  We hit a dirt road and found two boys on horseback leading a group of 12 on horseback. They looked like miniature cowboys on extra large horses.  Graciously, they let us go first, but it was a struggle for me to stay ahead of them.  The road was wide and rocky which would seem do-able, but the pitch was challenging me. I couldn’t get enough speed.

Sucking-wind and pushing my bike (I probably shouldn’t admit that), I finally reached the top of the climb.  The crew showed no signs of judgment, acknowledge that the climb “sucked” and then we moved on. (awesome)  Silver Creek – The BIG descent I had been hearing about all day was just ahead of us and I was feeling nervous. Make Note: There is a beautiful wide open area with views in all directions at the intersection of The Silver Creek Trail and the Monarch Crest Trail.  A great place to catch your breath and take in the view.

The Monarch Crest Trail is not just ANY trail.  It’s an epic ride that has notoriety, at least in Colorado.  I imagine this ride has sealed the deal on a few marriages and broken some up.  Some may ride this trail only once in their entire life, while others may ride it once a year with a big group of friends for special events.

With epic rides, there are always great memories and stories.  Here is a story I heard.  The White Linen Party:
Once a year a large group of women riders, all different abilities, would meet to ride the MCT.  That particular year, it was a White Linen Party theme.  Each woman had to bring one item to contribute.  They plan to meet at the Silver Creek Trail intersection.   The ladies showed up and brought out bottles of wine, wine glasses, an assortment of fine cheeses, crackers, and fruit, but what brought it all together was a white linen table cloth.  Can you imagine? For me, it conjures up quite a vision in my mind.  A bunch of riders in helmets or with rad helmet-hair, bikes everywhere sitting around a log draped in lovely white linen.  Laughing and talking.  Keep in mind, this is a rather remote location.  The looks, stares, and comments must have made the little party even more entertaining.

The BIG descent was amazing.  The trail surface varied quite drastically from scree to smooth to roots and rocky. There were some super narrow single track, ledges, rocks and technical sections as you get closer to Silver Creek.   There were few a “F-bombs” muttered, some “Oh Sh*ts” and a couple, very loud “I love this bike!”  I could not believe what the YetiBeti could roll over.  She was such a spectacularly different experience than my old Santa Cruz Blur.  I felt out of control only a couple of times, but recovered rather nicely.  Incredible confidence builder.

After the BIG decent and Silver Creek crossing the trail is slightly more technical and zigzags between aspens, rocks, and roots.  It spits you out at the beginning of the Rainbow Trail.

For me, the name “Rainbow Trail” ushers in mindful pictures of pretty wild flowers, smooth rolling trails and cute little munchkins dressed in green hiding behind trees.  (Ha!)

Well, kick that vision right out the window because in reality the Rainbow Trail should be called Gut-puncher Trail or Steep-drop Trail, but something other than Rainbow Trail. 

The crew I was with very accurately described the characteristics and challenges of the Rainbow Trail.   Single track with some good downhills that drop into a creek with a steep short uphill that mellows out and contours along the ridge.  I was warned there are probably 4 or 5 of the drops and then super short steeps and you can walk up the steeps if you need to.  That description was exactly correct. 

What was not mentioned was how exposed the trail was to a steep drop off and how that alone would rock my confidence.  Everyone else in our crew had NO problem with the trail exposure.  They likely didn’t notice it and if you aren’t sensitive to trail exposure then likely you would have loved the drops and short steeps.  So don’t take my word for it.  Ride it.   When we completed that 6.5 miles.  I felt accomplished and thrilled that we could ride down the dirt road to Hwy 285 and skip the last section of the Rainbow Trail.

That evening it felt good to celebrate the ride.  The challenges, accomplishments and the fact we had no flats or injuries … a very good day!  I did sleep well that night.

Overall, I would highly recommend taking the day and riding the Monarch Crest Trail.  With the information you have now, you can make your own decision about riding the Rainbow Trail.   I would like to do it again next year and this time, I will know what to expect.

Enjoy the Climb.