The southwest Colorado town of Durango is a mountain biker's playground. It's usually not a compliment to call a town dirty, but when it comes to the fat-tire crowd, the more dirt the better — and you'll find plenty of the stuff in Durango, one of Colorado's top singletrack-mountain-biking locales.
While local riders' flashy jerseys and spandex continue to stand out among the Western town's chaps and boots, this quirky but passionate posse has carved a niche that's become an important part of Durango's culture.
Dwarfed by the San Juan Mountains and curled in the arms of the Animas River, this former mining town marks a place where arid desert terrain meets lush spruce forests. In a landscape that locals call God's country, you can't go wrong — especially if you're on two wheels.
While Durango offers endless tracks of varying levels, consider these three classic rides, which combine stunning scenery and challenging, pristine singletrack.
The easiest of the three rides, Horse Gulch is accessible from downtown Durango at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Third Street. The road climbs from the southeastern corner of town and eventually tapers off with views of a rugged, juniper-forested valley to the east and a hill on the opposite side. This one- to two-hour out-and-back trail is a great warm-up if you're new to town. To extend the ride, try a well-marked branch trail like The Meadow, another beginner path running east through sagebrush and scrub oak. Off The Meadow, you can test yourself with a technical climb up Telegraph Hill.
Hint: If it's a hot day, try this exposed trail in the early morning or as an after-dinner ride.
Dry Fork Loop (Colorado Trail)
Either pedal 8.5 miles via Highway 160/Lightner Creek Road/Dry Fork Road to this trailhead or drive to this popular loop just northwest of town, which borders a state wildlife area. You can't beat the singletrack along this intermediate half-day ride (about three hours). The shady, treelined path rolls creekside during many portions, offering some steeps, but a mostly moderate ride. Watch for horse traffic on this trail, especially during fall hunting season.
Hint: Avoid Dry Fork after a serious rainstorm; the predominantly shale trail will cake your fat tires — and your body — with a sticky, annoying paste.
This bike trail is a full-day trip and does involve a shuttle, unless you opt for an out-and-back. If you don't mind shuttling, you have two options: Start from Hermosa, 10 miles north of town, or drive another 15 miles on U.S. 550 to Purgatory (formerly Durango Mountain Resort). Grab the Forest Road near the resort's entrance and head west for 7 miles over the mountain to Hermosa Park (and the trailhead).
Although the route seems like a downhill cruise starting from the resort end, that's not exactly true. You'll certainly lose more elevation than you'll gain during this 20-mile segment, but the lengthy advanced course makes for a rolling ride rather than an all-out sprint to Hermosa. Classic singletrack is present the whole ride, with a few steep sections to get your heart rate up and a few river crossings to cool you down.
Hint: Don't start this ride too late in the day, as the trail rides longer than it looks. The local search-and-rescue team bails out more riders on this trail than any other in the Durango area.
Lessons from Locals
If your bike tires are already burning for Durango, we don't blame you. But not so fast. There are a few things those who live here year-round know best:
Rule 1: Don't make notes on a napkin, says director Ed Zink, of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic and Durango guru. Buy a map. Your best bet for finding rides right from Durango is the easy-to-use Durango Area Recreation Map. For longer routes in the surrounding San Juans, try the aptly named Bicycle Route on Public Lands of Southwest Colorado or the detailed Trails Illustrated topo. Some trail maps are available online.
Rule 2: Watch the weather. Tricky weather fronts can roll in at any moment, so be prepared — especially on a route like Hermosa, where there are no outs along the way. The summer rain pattern, which starts in July and runs through August, brings afternoon thunderstorms that riders should be on the alert for.
Rule 3: Monitor your own body. New trails have a way of tempting bikers to explore farther without the right equipment. Fill your CamelBak a little fuller than you'd like; you don't want to run short on water here. And, of course, slather on the sunscreen. And when it comes to your bike, take the extra tube and a pump.
Photo: Courtesy of the Durango Area Tourism Office.