Dispatch: Off the Beaten Path in Colorado’s San Luis Valley

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A hidden mountain biking gem within spitting distance of 7 million people

Ever heard of Del Norte, Colorado? Didn’t think so. What about Salida, the Monarch Crest, Wolf Creek Ski Resort, or Great Sand Dunes National Park? Odds are good that you've heard of—or even been to—one of the aforementioned locales.

Nestled below the foothills of the San Juan mountains at the edge of the San Luis Valley, the town of Del Norte is a stone's throw from these more well-known destinations. And it's well within a day's drive of Colorado's rapidly growing Front Range metropolis.

The 8000-square-mile San Luis Valley is bound on all sides by some of Colorado's tallest and most stunning peaks. The San Juans form the valley’s western boundary while, to the east, the Sangre de Cristos blast dramatically upward to dominate the skyline. Because of their prominence, these peaks wring out the atmosphere’s moisture, leaving the valley with a classic high desert climate. And you know what high deserts are good for?

Mountain biking.

And, apparently, gator farms. But we’ll get to that later.

Some classic SLV views | Photos: Brinkley Messick

Just like in Fruita, it’s often possible to ride in Del Norte while much of the rest of the state is a sloppy mess or buried in snow. Over the past few years, local advocates have been hard at work developing bike-optimized trail systems, and if my experience during a recent visit was any indication, you'll be hearing a lot more about this no-name town in the not so distant future.

The bottom line? Del Norte is just starting to realize its potential as a legit mountain bike destination akin to the likes of Fruita, without the obligatory and harrowing traffic on the I-70 corridor.

–The Riding–

Penitente Canyon

Cruising past a cool "hole in the wall" rock feature on the Sunshine Kitty climb | Photo: Brian Smith

This trail system is definitely Del Norte’s crowned jewel. If you’re a rock climber, you may have heard of Penitente and its bullet-proof volcanic rock. The same rock that’s attracted climbers to the area for years makes for some ridiculously fun trail riding. Local builders took full advantage of Penitente’s rock when aligning these trails, so be ready for technical, slickrock-esque climbing and descending.

On top of all that, you can ride directly from your campsite. Need I say more?

Stone Quarry

Riders winding their way through Monster Slayer Trail's big boulders | Photo: Mike Pritchard

This trail system is continuing to be developed, but already features about 10 miles of purpose-built singletrack. The trails here are definitely more XC-oriented than Penitente, but they share a similar feel given the plethora of slickrock. If you're an intermediate to advanced rider, keep your eyes peeled for optional features on the sidelines to up the challenge.

Bishop Rock

While there aren’t any “trails” at Bishop Rock, there’s still tons of fun to be had. The area is designated by the local BLM office as an open “play area” for mountain bikes. You read that right—you’re free to go wherever you want and explore this zone’s amazing rock slabs. It’s like a 100-percent natural bike park, featuring a toilet bowl, tons of terrifyingly steep slab rolls, and even a chasm gap! Local riders have been pioneering lines at Bishop for years. As you roam, look for roughed-in singletrack approaches to some of the more well-ridden features.

The High Country

Ten miles south of town, Middle Frisco Trail is an accessible option if conditions allow travel at higher elevations. "It's the premier alpine experience in Del Norte," says Raleigh Burt, local shredder and manager of the local gear shop, Kristi Sports. "You ride up [gaining 2,500 feet] to the beautiful Frisco Lakes before turning around to enjoy the ripping descent on your way home." With a base elevation of 9,500 feet and a maximum of almost 12,000 feet, Burt says this ride usually isn't passable until late spring or early summer.

A short drive west of Del Norte, more high-country riding awaits. Continue on US 160 through the tiny seasonal town of South Fork to Wolf Creek Pass for a scenic ride on the Continental Divide Trail or a test of grit (read: willingness to push your bike uphill for an epic descent) on the Windy Pass/Treasure Mountain linkup.

Alternatively, a right turn off of the highway at South Fork will lead you to the tiny historic mining town of Creede. Pedal the old forest road to Bristol Head for an unforgettable view from 12,706 feet above sea level. Or, if you're up for a full-day adventure, check out the nearby Snow Mesa to Miners Creek shuttle, "A sublime ride experience starting on an alpine mesa and descending through a lush creek drainage," according to MTB Project contributor Evan Chute.

"Some incomparable views of southwest Colorado from a 12706' vantage point.” –MTBP contributor Ted Stroll

–The Town–

Del Norte certainly fits the bill of “Small Town, USA.” Main Street only stretches for about three-quarters of a mile from end-to-end, so it’d be easy to overlook if you were just passing through. Those who stop for a look around will find that this tiny town has a lot to offer.

The historic Windsor Hotel is a great lodging option for those that are less inclined to camp. The hotel, which provides fresh-baked croissants, homemade jam, and coffee each morning, also features a surprisingly upscale (yet reasonably priced) restaurant and bar. If you’re looking for a second cup of joe, or maybe a breakfast burrito, pop across the street to The Perks Coffeehouse.

A shot of the Windsor from way back in 1898 | Photo courtesy of the Windsor Hotel

Located two doors down from The Perks, Kristi Mountain Sports' newly-opened Del Norte location has a friendly and helpful staff that can fix your rig, set you up with a rental bike (they've got high-end full suspension rides and fat bikes), or point you in the right direction when it's time to ride. After a solid day on the trails, the shop's hammock-equipped patio serves as a great place to chill out and socialize with other riders.

Maybe you'd prefer to re-live the day's ride over a locally-crafted barley pop? Being that this is Colorado and all, of course the tiny town of Del Norte has its own brewery. Three Barrel Brewing Co., just a block west of the Windsor, serves up delicious beers and wood-fired pizzas, making it the perfect post-ride stop. Definitely worth the visit.

Photo courtesy of Three Barrel Brewing Co.

And, finally, it'd be a disservice not to mention a major tourist attraction in the nearby town of Mosca: The Colorado Gators and Reptile Farm. If you're visiting from the Front Range, add this gem to your homeward-bound itinerary.

Or, on second thought, don't.

I'm sure you'll find more joy (and less captive gator-induced depression) by opting instead for another stellar ride in Salida, Canon City, or Buena Vista.

Lead photo credit: Matsen75 / CC BY

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