Zen On Dirt

San Juan Bikepacking

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After Scott and I finished the CDT nearly two years ago, I had zero tolerance for hike-a-bike. Which made riding in Tucson that winter pretty interesting because there are very few rides that you can go on that don’t involve getting off your bike at some point in time to hike up or down a rocky slope. That’s when I took up trail running. It’s like hike-a-bike, except without the burden of the bike!

But I really expected the tolerance for taking my bike for a walk to return, maybe even better than before. Sort of like a muscle, exercise it and it’ll come back stronger. Except that I might have had put my hike-a-bike tolerance into a state of chronic fatigue that it may never recover from.

When Cat invited me down to Durango to go bikepacking for her birthday, I knew there was going to be hike-a-bike involved. It’s the San Juan Mountains. This is Cat, she’s the queen of hike-a-bike.

But, I hadn’t been adventuring with Cat in a long time. The chance to spend three days out in the Wilds with her was going to be worth any amount of hike-a-bike involved.

We did minimal route research, instead, pointing to some squiggly lines on a map that neither of us had been to, and saying we’d figure it out as we went. As far as we were concerned, as long as we got to be outside riding our bikes in good company, all was good.

We started with the long grind up La Plata Canyon to join up with the Colorado Trail at Taylor Lake.


Cat blends in perfectly with the green grass. 

Two bikepackers going northbound on the CT were up there getting ready to set up camp for the night. I was a little bit jealous, but we pushed on, leaving the CT to go towards Grindstone, or Sharkstooth, or whatever the other trail up there is called.


The flowers were spectacular, and the San Juans are some of the most impressive mountains in the state. They intimidate the hell out of me.


We went up and over a giant pile of rock to get into the Bear Creek drainage, which was adorned with waterfalls, fields of flowers, and unicorns.


And based on the amount of use the trail seemed to have, no other humans had been back there in at least 10 years. A giant valley in the San Juans, all to ourselves. We descended a bit before making camp, careful to stay above the dew line of the creek. I’m starting to learn: Creekside campsites are romantic, but they’re frigging cold. And wet.


I had it in my head that the descent down Bear Creek the next morning would proceed in a timely and efficient manner. It didn’t. That trail is rocky, techy, and there’s a good bit of of uphill involved too.


It was well after noon by the time we popped out on the highway. We found a little store at an RV campground that had sodie pops, so we sat in the shade and pondered options. Rico was 10 miles of pavement up the canyon. The dirt version of getting there climbed 4,000 feet on Priest Gulch, a moto trail, and then descended on trail and dirt road. Well, I pondered, I think Cat was pretty convinced that up and over was the correct option for getting there. When it’s a gal’s birthday ride, I don’t argue.


I just try to push my bike fast enough so that the flies don’t eat me alive.


To be fair, once we got to the ridge, many hours later, it was spectacular. And there were actually moments of riding bikes.


And the views. Day-um. Those San Juans.


We made quick work of the descent, but not quick enough to make the store in Rico. I missed having an actual dinner by 15 minutes, instead feasting on Fritos with salami and cheese, which isn’t really  a half bad alternative. Luckily, stores, cafes, and coffee carts opened up early the next morning, and after three cups of coffee and 2.5 breakfasts, I was ready to go.

We were both pretty worked over from the previous days pushing. It was the hardest single-day I’d had in a while and my feet hurt, my hands hurt, and I was pooped. I guess it’s only fitting – the two of us pushed each other to the limit when we raced against each other on the Colorado Trail half a decade ago, why would we do it any differently now?

Given our overall level of fatigue, we chose a faster way home. Up Scotch Creek, a little bit of CT, then down Corral Creek to Hermosa Creek and back to Durango. When we got onto the CT around noon, I had visions of a late lunch in Durango.


But this is the San Juans that we’re talking about. Nothing is ever as easy as it looks on the map. I fell apart coming down Corral Creek. Cat fell apart on the five mile pavement pedal into down. We limped into Zia Burritos, exhausted. This bikepacking business is hard!

Cat and I swore that the next time we went out, we’d do something easy. Or at least easier.


Baby hummingbirds. We accidentally sat down for lunch right next to them. Momma came back to feed them as soon as we moved out of the way. 

Real food tasted delicious. A soft bed felt divine (I’m really not into my new sleeping pad…I may have to find a new one). The chance to catch up with some Durango friends the next morning capped off the trip before I had to point the van back towards Scott and the Scamp. I would have stayed longer, but in grabbing all of his stuff from the van, Scott had left his wallet (I threatened to use his credit card for a hotel room in Telluride if we made it there. He told me to make sure that we got room service).  I was pretty sure that he wasn’t starving yet, but it would probably be a good idea to get home eventually.

After a two year hiatus from Durango, it was good to go back. It may have to happen again later this summer.


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