You’d think someone preparing to bikepack more than 1,000 miles along the Continental Divide would have some experience with this form of travel, but I’m a total newbie. So this weekend I decided to take a test trip to see what I’m getting myself into.
The good news is that I’m still psyched to tackle the Great Divide Mountain Biking Route, starting in about six weeks, and I’m feeling more confident now that I have at least one night under my belt. The bad news is that I’m gonna suffer this summer. There’s just no quick or easy way to bike up a steep dirt road while hauling 40+ pounds behind you. Much of my time in the saddle will be spent cranking slowly and steadily until gravity takes over and I can fly down the backside of a hill or mountain pass, only to repeat again and again.
This weekend’s trip was in a part of central Colorado that I’ve never visited: the mountains between South Park and Salida. On Saturday, I drove 2.5 hours from Denver, parked my car, and set off into the San Isabel National Forest with the goal of camping at the top of a 1,000-foot climb. I only rode about 10 miles, but it took two hours. Near the summit, at 10,000 feet elevation, the road was so steep I was barely able to turn the cranks in my lowest gear.
There was a reward at the top: a pretty campsite amid aspens and conifers that offered views of the Collegiate Peaks. At night, the Milky Way twinkled in the rarefied air and the next morning dawned without a hint of a cloud. It looked like it hadn’t rained or snowed in these parts in ages and that lack of moisture will pose one of my biggest challenges. Had I done this trip last summer, the record snowpack from the previous winter would have forced me to take detours, but this year I’ll face the opposite problem: a deep drought has dried up water sources and primed the high country for wildfires that could also force me off the route.
Mountain biking with a trailer can be grueling, but there’s a major benefit to the punishment: after reaching your destination, you can unhitch your possessions, hop back on your bike, and feel like you’re Lance Armstrong. On Sunday morning, I did just that and explored a network of dirt roads around my campsite before heading down the hill (the descent took me only 20 minutes).
All in all, a successful maiden voyage that allowed me to test out a bunch of new gear and better envision myself on the route. The parched vegetation, shriveled creeks, and smoke rising from nearby wildfires offered sobering reminders of the drought’s impact and how my journey this summer will encapsulate the fundamental dilemma of the American West: how to find enough water to survive.