For years we've schemed of mountain biking in the USA. We knew it would be a mind-blowing good time. The tough question was "where do we go?" - the place is so huge and the possibilities for biking so enormous. We decided to concentrate on the places we'd heard the most about: South West Colorado; and Moab, Utah. We wanted to minimise long hauls in the car, and managed to link up the quintessential mountain bike destinations in a tight loop: Durango; Telluride; Crested Butte; and Moab - scoring a couple of weeks in each spot.
Home of John Tomac, Juliana Furtado, Ned Overend and countless other stars. This place must be good. And it is, with countless miles of single track within close proximity to the town. It's also a good place to acclimatise, being a little lower than the other areas on our itinerary at a mere 7000'. It was cool mixing with the celebrities. During one adventure on the Colorado Trail, Juli Furtado caught us up (surprise, surprise). We chatted for a while but she was having difficulty staying in touch (not) and eventually announced "the pace is a bit much for me today" and turned back.
Beware of The Iron Horse Inn. It has the biggest sign at the airport and is the biggest rip off. If you need a hotel try Hampton Court (nice indoor pool). Expect to pay US$50 - 60 for a double room. Motel-wise there are hundreds and it's an intriguing study in American marketing. One, which looked as though it had not had a dollar spent on it in 25 years, proclaiming on a large neon sign: "John Wayne stayed here and liked it". However, camping is generally the go throughout both Colorado and Utah. Forest Service camp grounds are basic but cheap (around US$4 per vehicle). Facilities are mainly restricted to running water and long drops. Most have streams for washing and swimming in, plus fireplaces for cooking (you can even buy wood at most supermarkets). Laundrettes in town generally have showers as well, as do a number of the bike shops - especially in Moab.
The terrain is steep and extreme. The only way is up (baby) and the altitude is a shock here if you arrive directly from sea level. Apart from a few doddles around town, the rides are big and generally have "no turning back" points. The rewards are incredible views, and a sense of achievement at having conquered altitude exhaustion on some of the passes. Be cautioned: the place is ex-hippie-ville turned Hollywood ski haven. Accommodation is expensive and there aren't many options at peak time. The camp ground in the centre of town is superb (if you can get in) with flush toilets and hot showers. Luxury.
Heaven on a mountain bike. Long, gentle, open climbs followed by fast single track descents. Fantastic views of the main divide, wild flowers in the spring and aspen colours in the fall. We could rave on for hours - but instead suggest you check out a few back issues of "Bike" magazine to feel the buzz of Crested Butte.
Camping is tricky. All the camping spots are miles out of town on difficult roads. Save your accommodation money for here and enjoy staying in town. Check out the "Claim Jumper" (US$70 per nite for a double). A truly great B&B with a breakfast that will keep you going all day and a jacuzzi for post-ride relaxation. Jerry, the owner, is a delightful eccentric who collects everything and hasn't thrown anything out for 25 years. The place is a shrine to Americana - every room has a different theme. The "Sports Fanatic" has green carpet with putting holes and mini grandstands complete with spectators; and the entrance to the "Log Cabin" is secreted amongst the book shelves.
The best time to be in Colorado is either spring or autumn. Mid summer (June and July) is crazy with Tim "Tool Time" Taylor and family in their "RV" invading every nook and cranny. Spring (May) is wildflower time, pretty but muddy and a late snowfall could disrupt riding. Also the bears are a bit grumpy and hungry after the winter's big snooze. We were there late summer/autumn (mid August through September) and enjoyed soothing fall colours, drier conditions and less overcrowding. During the hot weather, watch out for huge thunderstorms which regularly strike in the early afternoon. It's best to get a wriggle on early in the day and be off the tops by 1pm. Early snow can be a problem but we took that as a sign to head for Moab. Hunters invade the forests in the first weekend of October and that spells the end of the mountain bike season in Colorado. Early snow can be a problem but we took that as a sign to head west and seek the warmth of the Moab's deserts.
The most reviewed, praised and anointed mountain biking destination this side of Mt Vic. One has to approach Moab with a degree of reverence appropriate to the mana of this place. Like anything, once great expectations have been raised, they can be hard to meet. Parts of Moab have suffered from the huge influx of bikers keen to ride the slickrock and they are only now putting measures in place to preserve mountain biking as a long term industry here. These things aside, it's only 4 hours drive from Crested Butte, so is a "must do".
Slickrock Trail is a fun 3 hours of riding. Make it as technically challenging as you want and there are plenty of chances to be a hero. The traction is awesome because the tires stick to the rock. The same can be said for your skin should you come off .
The best parts of Moab though are far from the slickrock. The outer reaches and into the Canyonlands National Park (similar to the Grand Canyon) are where the magic is found. It's not single track or big climbs, but mind blowing deep canyons, incredible sunsets, wind sculptured rocks and stunted vegetation.
There is a certain challenge in embarking on a such a water-consuming activity in a desert and this is what usually limits travel distances and ambitions on any given day. We allowed ourselves a budget blow-out and did a 4 day organised tour with Rim Tours - which for logistical reasons is the only practical option for a decent trip into this country. It cost US$450 each and included everything except the booze. We latched onto a group doing a Big Chill type reunion and had a hilarious time. You'll need to book - being part of a National Park, rides are restricted in numbers.
Avoid Moab in the summer - killer temperatures make any sort of exercise unthinkable. Spring and autumn are high season - teeming with mountain bikers and German tourists. Temperatures in May and September are more tolerable (although you still want to avoid riding during the middle of the day) and are outside the congestion of high season.
A word on motoring. Renting with Hertz or Avis is much cheaper if you arrange it here first. You can do the cut price rental thing once you arrive - it's a bit cheaper but additional hassle. Whichever option, plan on returning it to the same place you pick it up - otherwise you're up for a walloping relocation charge. Also clarify insurance, tax and other additional charges when you're comparing rates - they can total about another 50% on top of the base price.
So... book a flight to Denver (normally about NZ$2500 return, but mega cheap fares were recently on offer from United - $1500 ex Auckland!), rent an obscenely big car, score some guidebooks and cruise from single track heaven to slickrock Mecca. It's a piece of jam and you won't be disappointed - this is one experience that's not overrated.
Six of us did a similar trip to Helen and Jonny from mid August to mid September. We skipped Durango but spent 5 days at Salida (about 4 hours drive south from Denver) and arguably had the best riding there of the entire trip. Tracks like the Rainbow Trail and the Crest Trail from Monarch Pass are awesome. There's a great camp ground (cheap with showers) the way out of town on Highway 50.
If we had our time all over again I think we'd all choose to spend 5-6 days in each of the following locations: Salida, Crested Butte, Durango and Moab (in that order to minimise drive time.
All the interesting parts of Colorado are at high altitude. It will hurt and will take you a minimum of 1 week to get comfortable with the thin air. The best plan is to be as fit and as strong as possible before starting your trip.
Learn about ticks. They hang out in long grass and latch onto your body - dealing untold grief if not discovered early. They burrow under your skin and can cause nasty diseases. They are minute - the size of a pin head so are difficult to spot. So wisdom dictates allocating time for "comprehensive" personal grooming every few days. That said - in 4 weeks none of our crew of 6 discovered any.
More on rental cars. We hired a Dodge Caravan from Avis which can swallow 4 people, bikes and luggage - although you do have to convince the hire company to remove and store the back seat for you (no easy task as it's against the rules). Smaller cars obviously cost less but beware - tow bars and hatch backs are rare beasts in the USA making bike storage a slight challenge. Travel insurance to cover your bike is tricky to secure. We did a number with NZI. You can specify your bike up to the value of $4000. Note you need a letter from them clarifying that if you are camping next to your car and the bikes are locked in it, then the vehicle is "attended" and you are covered for any loss. (otherwise that situation is excluded in the standard policy). Premium is approximately $200 - 250.
Café culture hasn't hit America yet and their restaurant food is shit - you'll quickly tire of the choice of either sandwiches (aka burgers) and fries or pseudo Mexican dishes. But amongst all the processed crap crowding the shelves, supermarkets have all the necessary ingredients to create the requisite cyclist's feast.
Obviously there's heaps of mountain bike hardware to blow your hard earned shekels on. Be selective though - with the exception of Supergo (in Santa Monica, LA - about 1 hour from the airport), we found that only a few items were any cheaper than back here in NZ. Airlines hate bicycles. The standard fee on United ex US is US$60 and despite our best attempts remained non-negotiable. The best deal is disguise.