Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bike Camping

All summer I have been hearing the siren song of the open road urging me to get back out there and ride to places I've never been. While I have not had the time to take another long tour this year, there are ways of squeezing adventure into tight schedules.

A colleague and friend of mine, who left Colorado to live in London, was in town this week. He invited my coworker Jim and me to go out for some mountain biking on Monday. So we met up that morning at Betasso Preserve and rode the trails for a while. It was my third time mountain-biking, and it was a blast.
Riding with friends at Betasso
Afterward we had an excellent lunch in Boulder at Leaf vegetarian restaurant and a beer at Mountain Sun before heading back to the office for a very productive afternoon.

As fun as that was, it was merely a warm-up for what was to come later in the week. For months now, Jim and I have been talking about doing some bike camping in the mountains west of Nederland. Indeed, that was the entire reason for buying a mountain bike. After a drawn out series of negotiations with our work and family schedules, we decided to make it happen last Wednesday and Thursday, August 17th and 18th.

My daughter told me that I was going for a hike-and-bike. I told her that we weren't planning to do any hiking, but as shall be seen, she has once again proven herself the wiser.

The goal was to ride from Nederland to Winter Park, camp overnight, and return the next day. But that itinerary wasn't set in stone, and we went out with the understanding that we'd be winging it to some extent. What we actually did looked something like this:

View Bike Camping, August 2011 in a larger map

After parking at the West Magnolia trail head, we consulted our map and chose to take Forest Service Road 355, which becomes 105 and 503, to Tolland Road. We got our bikes and gear ready, and headed out.
At the West Magnolia trail head
That forest road barely earned the right to share the same title as its civilized counterparts. It's like calling a yard with a few chainsaw sculptures a museum. But while it was more of a semi-navigable trail than a road, it served us reasonably well. And when we made it out to Tolland Road, we were rewarded with a view of the lovely valley that stretches west from Rollinsville.
Looking toward Rollinsville
Although it is dirt and a long, gradual climb, Tolland Road was pleasant. Once we got to County Road 117 (marked Rollins Pass Road on the map), we were ready to stop for lunch.

The road up toward the pass is rocky and bumpy, but not at all inappropriate for mountain bikes. As it climbs up the side of the mountain, sweeping vistas of the valley below are sometimes revealed.
View of the valley from CR117
Since we were out there in the middle of the week, only the occasional 4-wheeler or pickup disturbed the meditative focus which accompanies all long climbs.
Yankee Doodle Lake
In time, we came to Yankee Doodle Lake, above which the road terminates just before the Needle Eye Tunnel. We stopped to rest at the road closure where a nonplussed marmot chattered at us in the most threatening little bark it could muster.

Needle Eye Tunnel
The Needle Eye Tunnel is blocked off, but there is a foot path that goes over and around it. This was the first time the weight of my bike and gear became a serious problem. I pulled the panniers off and we brought them over separately.

Beyond the tunnel, the road is quite bad. While it may have been rideable by the less-encumbered, we found ourselves walking our bikes most of the way. It was approaching 4:30, and we began to question our ability to get over Rollins Pass and down to treeline before dark. So we decided to turn back.

Rather than lugging our bikes back over the tunnel trail, we decided to take a path that cut down and connected to the Jenny Creek trail near Yankee Doodle Lake. It probably did save us some time, but it was more of the same harsh terrain that had been plaguing our progress on top of the mountain.

Home for the night
Near the junction with Jenny Creek, we decided to start looking for a place to camp. Immediately Jim said, "Hey, look! There's a place." And sure enough, there was a clearing just off of the trail with a nice fire circle and a big log to sit on. We set about getting our sleeping quarters arranged, and then built a fire to chase away the numerous mosquitoes. Supper tasted great after a day of tough riding.

If I lacked certainty before, the next day convinced me that the trails through this area were actually built by clearing some of the forest floor to connect the scree slopes, glacial deposits, and creek beds that were there already. It felt like we spent at least half of our time walking the bikes. There were several times that streams and creeks crossed or overflowed onto the trail, sometimes requiring a portage around the water. In time, we made our way back onto CR117.

Muddy Me
When we got to a point where we could see the valley below, Jim pointed out that there were trucks spraying Tolland Road with water. This turned out to be an entertaining turn of events. By the time we got to Rollinsville, we were covered in mud, and the brakes and deraileurs on our bikes were beginning to act up.

We opted to take Highway 119 back to the trail head rather than scramble up the forest roads again. Before returning to the car, we stopped by the Kelly-Dahl campground to wash off a little bit. Trying to avoid getting the car seat too filthy, I made the trip back to Jim's place in nothing but my bike shorts. Back at the house, we cleaned up and hosed down the bikes while drinking one of the best beers I've had in a while.

We learned a lot on this trip and have been discussing what went right and what we will do differently next time. Jim took more of a bike-packing approach to his gear, while my own was more like road touring. While I don't like riding with a lot of weight on my back, I think Jim had it right.

What appears to be ideal, packing-wise, is to put clothes and camping gear in two waterproof compression sacks, lashing one below the saddle and the other on the handle bars. Food can go into a medium-sized hydration pack.

Jim also opted to forego hot food and just brought pre-prepared fare. Tofu scramble for supper and oatmeal and hot tea for breakfast were nice, but I think I can do without such luxuries for two days. I had some "Nature's Burger" mix, available in bulk from Sunflower Farmer's Market, for lunch the first day. I'll be packing that again. It tastes pretty good uncooked, especially with a little nutritional yeast and cayenne pepper powder.

We had a SteriPen with us for treating stream water. Since we haven't gotten sick, I'll assume that it worked as advertised. It was definitely faster and easier to use than a filter pump, and those don't kill microbes. So that's a piece of gear that I'll consider essential on any future trips.

I took this trip as an opportunity to try camping in a hammock instead of a tent. I never sleep very well on the first night of camping, so it's hard to say whether my sleeplessness was due to the hammock or not. But I think I would have been more comfortable in a tent.

We'll see how things go next time. For now, I'm enjoying the joys of riding unladen on carbon fiber and smooth pavement. It's good to be home.


  1. On a night where I'm feeling ohsosorryformyfirstworldproblems, this entry was such a breath of fresh air.

    If I haven't told you lately? You are totally awesome. I'm so glad we've found each other out again. Thanks.

  2. Yay! Thanks, Jane. I <3 you too.