Mountain bike rides come in small, medium, and large. There are your after-work jaunts on mild, looping singletrack trails near home. Then there are the longer half-day rides you might tackle on a bluebird weekend afternoon. But the most memorable rides are usually the big ones. High mileage. Long hours. Serious challenges—both physical and mental. While you can only squeeze so many of these behemoths into a season, it’s time to build a Big Ride Bucket List if you haven’t already. Here are five to try in Colorado.
Monarch Crest, near Salida
This is a Colorado classic, and an initiation trail for any serious mountain biker in Colorado. There are many variations, but the most popular version clocks in around 35 miles. The trail begins at the top of Monarch Pass and ends just outside the town of Salida. You and your crew can either shuttle yourself with two vehicles, or hire a shuttle to take you from Salida up to the trailhead (book ahead, it’s a popular ride). There’s a charming little shop right by the trailhead that offers supplies, food, bathrooms, maps, and an impressive taxidermy exhibit! High altitude (nearly 12,000 feet at the high point) means little oxygen, but endless dramatic mountain views.
Type: One-way shuttle
Difficulty: High with rocky ascents and descents, roller coaster-style ups and downs, and steep road climbs.
Getting there from Denver: Take 285 South to 50 West (Monarch Pass).
Pro tip: While Monarch is known for its descent, the trail also includes over 2,000 feet of climbing, so don’t assume you’re in for a jolly downhill jaunt the whole way.
Hello desert! The popular loop joining Mary’s Loop, Horsethief Bench Loop, Steve’s Loop, and Wranglers Loop clocks in over 17 miles. You’ll navigate red rock steps, curve around canyon rims, and test your balance through thick desert sand. High heat and sweeping views worth dismounting for make this an all-day affair. If you’re camping, a post-ride dip in the nearby Colorado River to wipe off the sweat and red dust you’ll be caked in when you’re done is a godsend. Unlike the other trails on this list, the Kokopelli Loops aren’t in a high-altitude, alpine environment, so they’re perfect for early/late-season cycling expeditions.
Difficulty: Moderate—mostly mellow riding with some fun challenges and a few walk-the-bike (unless you’re a superwoman) sections.
Getting there: Take I-70 West all the way to Fruita, and take exit 15 for 139 North toward Loma Rangely. Turn left on 139 South/50 West and continue straight onto Kokopelli Trail road.
Pro tip: Bring a map—there are many diversions and variations and no one likes getting lost in the desert. Also be sure to bring way more water than usual, given the exposure and heat.
One of the most classic rides in Colorado, 401 boasts rolling singletrack and smooth downhill, and of course, a grueling climb. The views of the West Maroon mountains are absolutely unbeatable, and if you ride during wildflower season, you’ll feel like you’re zooming through an idyllic postcard. While the roughly 14-mile trail is doable in a few hours, the grueling double whammy of two climbs combined with the break-worthy views often turn this into a longer excursion. You can make it even longer by riding from the Town of Crested Butte rather than the Gothic trailhead, starting at Tony’s Trail in town, working your way up Upper Loop, and then taking the road up until it turns to dirt. The timeline is tight, as the trail doesn’t open until late June/early July when the snow clears and Crested Butte has been known to get its first snowfall as early as August, so plan accordingly.
Type: Loop, or lollipop if you’re riding from Crested Butte
Difficulty: Moderate—this is a beginner-friendly trail with just a few tight switchbacks and dicey sections. For a more difficult big ride near Crested Butte, test your skills on the 18-mile Reno-Flag-Bear-Deadman’s Gulch trail.
Getting there from Denver: Take Hwy 285 South to 50 West (Monarch Pass). Turn right on Main Street in Gunnison and take 135 up to Crested Butte. Turn right on Sixth Street in Crested Butte, and continue onto Gothic Road. Park at the trailhead for Judd Falls and ride from there.
Pro tip: Bring a good camera and budget extra time for snapping epic shots and yodeling in fields of green, green grass and wildflowers.
Searle Pass, Copper Mountain Resort
Topping out at over 12,000 feet with a whopping 3,000+ feet of climbing, Searle Pass takes you on a tour of a portion of the Colorado Trail. This stellar 19-mile ride wends its way from Copper Mountain Resort up to the gigantic vistas at Searle Pass, overlooking the Leadville area. One of the great things about this ride is it’s almost all uphill on the way to the top, which means you get to enjoy an all-out downhill fest on the way back. The trail features mostly moderate riding, but starts getting increasingly technical a couple miles shy of the summit. Even the best bikers will likely walk some of these sections, especially at a cool 12,000 feet. Your reward? Stunning, 360-degree views and that wicked descent—plus the beers you hopefully remembered to pack for your post-ride tailgating celebration at the bottom.
Difficulty: High with loads of climbing and super technical sections toward the top.
Getting there from Denver: Drive west on I-70 and take exit 195 for Copper Mountain. Turn left at Copper Road and find the parking lot with access to a rec path that leads to the trailhead on the left.
Pro tip: It can be a bit tricky finding the trailhead from the lot, and there are two different possible start points. If you park in the lot off Copper Road, find the rec path just beyond the lot and take it to cross back over the road to the trailhead. You can also cut out about three miles of riding roundtrip if you park at Copper Mountain Resort and start from the base area.
Kenosha Pass, off 285
More Colorado trail! This section makes for a great day trip from Denver, and offers a big challenge with tight switchbacks, rocky sections, and high-altitude pedaling. After a short climb at the beginning—which is popular with hikers, so go slow and be kind—this 22-mile trail turns into a super fun descent and then flattens out before turning into a technical climb up tight switchbacks. It will take everything you’ve got to power through some of the techy sections of steep, jagged rock and narrow trail through tight trees. Finally, the climb turns from switchbacks into straight singletrack as you huff and puff up to the summit of Georgia Pass before turning back around for the thrilling ride down.
Difficulty: High with numerous technical sections.
Getting there from Denver: Drive south on Hwy 285 for about 50 miles from Denver and park in the dirt lot on the left across. The campground and trailhead will be across the highway.
Pro tip: For those who hate climbs at the end of the ride (and isn’t that most of us?), beware. The fun descent toward the beginning means you’ll have to climb back up at the end when your energy is zapped and thunderstorms loom. Start early and reserve some stores of motivation for the second climb.
Big Ride Wisdom
Big rides are exhilarating, but they also require a tall order of motivation, energy, and optimism. There’s nothing worse than finding yourself 10 or more miles from the trailhead and bonking. And we’ve all had that “oh my god I can’t pedal anymore” moment, or that sensation of just wanting to throw your bike off a bridge after you botch a technical challenge for the umpteenth time. Here are a few tips to prepare for a long day on the saddle.
- Start early. Many of these rides may take longer than you think depending on how technical they are, how well you’re riding on that given day, and mechanical challenges. Start as early as possible to avoid Colorado’s infamous thunderstorms. And bring a raincoat!
- Dress in layers. Most of these rides (except for the Kokopelli loops) start or end at very high altitudes, where weather is unpredictable and temperatures are always colder. You may not be chilly when you start, but after a cold front moves in, those fierce winds might feel pretty frigid when you’re riding back down.
- Pack like you’re heading into the Apocalypse. Bring way more food and water than you could ever possibly need. On big rides, your body smokes calories and you don’t want to take the risk of running out of supplies.
- Eat and drink preventatively. It’s easy to get in a sort of meditative state and not feel hunger or thirst when you’re riding. And then the next thing you know, you’re hangry as can be. Whether or not you feel you need to, refuel often.
- Know before you go. com is a fantastic resource to check out a map, trail conditions, ride description, and more before you hit the trails—the site even has a handy app you can download on your phone and access without WiFi or service.
Maya Silver is a writer and outdoor maven. She’s written for NPR, Earth Island Journal, Civil Eats, CureToday.com, and more.