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Great Colorado mountain bike trails for newbies

Jul 01, 2023Jul 01, 2023

Mountain biking can be intimidating, especially for beginners venturing off familiar trails. Yet not every far-flung fat tire destination requires the skills to tackle rock drops, steep downhills and exposed precipices. There are several dirt destinations around Colorado where newbies can get comfortable on singletrack trails and take their nubby tire skills to the next level.

Here are a few of my favorites to check out this summer.

Thirty miles west of Vail, where the mountains transition from pine and aspen trees to sagebrush, piñons, fields of tall grass, wildflowers and high desert landscapes, sits the town of Eagle, an oasis for mountain bikers of all skill levels. One clear sign of the town’s dedication to mountain biking is its network of singletrack sidewalks.

Compared to many trails in the region, particularly those at Vail and Beaver Creek resorts, Eagle’s dirt routes are wide, smooth and don’t require lengthy climbs or descents. The area is home to a whopping 116 trails, 11 of which are true beginner-level routes. These include a series of singletrack sidewalks that parallel main roads and paved paths through the Eagle Ranch neighborhood as well as short (1-1.5 mile) and smooth singletracks near Brush Creek Road, such as Three Sisters and Extra Credit.

One of the best starting points for newbie riders is Third Gulch off Arroyo Drive in Eagle Ranch. From here, there are longer loops fusing smooth green trails, dirt roads and flowy and non-technical blue trails (there are about three dozen intermediate-level trails in Eagle). Riding different combinations of these loop trails will give you about 300 to 1,000 feet of climbing, with only a few steep or arduous stretches.

Another launch point is from the Pool and Rink parking area. It’s next to a BMX track that’s great for practicing rollers and pumptrack pedaling. Although it is rated blue, Haymaker Trail is one of the most exhilarating rides in the area, if not the entire state. The roughly 5-mile loop trail begins on flattish singletrack and climbs gradually (less than 400 feet) to a flowy, turny descent, complete with smooth banked turns, rollers and berms. There are rock bridges and a handful of built-in features alongside the main trail for those wanting to practice their technical skills.

While you’re there: Coffee, breakfast, lunch and happy hour spots are just a pedal away on Broadway and Capitol Street in Eagle.

Southwest of Colorado Springs, Cañon City is home to a bounty of uncrowded singletrack. There are a number of trails that take you to the edge of the Royal Gorge and along its rim with breathtaking views and knee-knocking exposure in places. There’s also the trail system at Oil Well Flats, which winds through the rolling, but technical and rocky terrain north of town.

For true beginners, though, there are inviting options that can be reached directly from town, along the paved Arkansas Riverwalk path. The No. 1 option is the Mutton Bustin’ Trail, a 1.5-mile singletrack that climbs to Ecology Park through piñon and desert shrubs. It can be ridden as an out-and-back route or connected to Schepp Ridge as a loop measuring about 3 miles.

For spectacular views of the Royal Gorge, take the Canyon Rim Trail off County Road 3A. The trail is just over 1.5 miles and ends at Royal Gorge Park campground, where riders can connect to several short, blue-rated trails and loops.

While you’re there: There’s a trio of brewpubs in town, refreshing end points to any ride: World’s End, Florence Brewing and Cañon City Brews and Bikes.

Granted, it’s a bit of a drive from the Front Range, but Cortez is a worthwhile weekend or vacation destination for any mountain biker, with miles of approachable singletrack.

One glorious haven with about 30 miles of smooth, rolling dirt is called Phil’s World. Located about 5 miles east of Cortez off Colorado 160, the trail system is named after the late Phil Vigil, an avid mountain biker and explorer who discovered the area’s pedaling appeal and shared it with others. Following game trails and the natural contour of the landscape, he built a trail system that has changed slightly over the years due to land rights. All trails are directional (designed to be ridden clockwise), beginning from the parking lot.

Be sure to drop the daily use fee in the kiosk before you ride. Your $5 goes toward trail maintenance and lease of the land.

While the parking lot might appear busy, particularly on weekends, you’ll soon find long stretches of solitude amid the shrubs and piñon. Most people ride the 10.5-mile loop that connects iconic trails like Lemonhead, which involves a bit of exposure as well as a couple of ledge drops and a climb to a scenic mesa, and Rib Cage, a fast, thrilling but not steep, descent.

The aptly named Trust Loop is the perfect place for newbies to get their bearings. It’s a 3.5-mile loop that weaves through sagebrush on mostly flat terrain save for one manageable climb through wide switchbacks.

While you’re there: To mix your pedaling time with some hiking, the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park is only 5.5 miles up the road. In Cortez, The Farm Bistro is top-notch for locally sourced post-adventure eats.

While this summer might be your foray into the fat tire scene, you’ve probably got avid rider friends dying to get you to Fruita. Most anyone would agree it’s one of the most scenic mountain bike destinations around the globe.

There are two main areas to ride. The first, 18 Road, is tucked into the Book Cliffs on the north side of town. Its many trails are winding and explorative, sometimes venturing steeply up giant triangular rivets that look like enormous mounds of sand.

Nearly all of the long loops in this area involve some stretch of exposure or narrow trail section along a knife edge (such as rider favorite, Zippity Do Da). A few of these trails run the risk of scaring up-and-coming riders.

Instead, beginners should check out the Vegetarian and Lower Chutes loop, which offers a taste of the spectacular scenery without the fear factor. These green trails climb and descend gently (over a mild elevation gain of about 300 vertical feet) into the lower sections of the spartan landscape.

The other area to ride is west of Fruita at the Loma exit off Interstate 70. This is home to the Kokopelli Loops, a mind-blowingly beautiful trail system that winds along the cliffs overlooking the Colorado River. This is a great place to be inspired by super-human riders maneuvering impossible-looking ledge staircases on Horsethief Bench or stepping their tires up and over massive chunks of slickrock.

Don’t get nervous, though. While your seasoned friends send it on one of these longer, more technical loops, you can get a taste of the glory as well as a heaping serving of the scenery on Rustler’s, a 4-mile loop that is delightfully set apart from the tougher stuff. It climbs for less than 300 feet and provides a bite-sized sample of the trails you’ll get to later, as your skills progress. There are sweeping views of the river (at a safe distance) from the cliffs above, rollers, smooth rocks, gentle drops, wide switchbacks and fast curves.

While you’re there: Grab a slice or a stromboli at what might be Colorado’s best pizza joint, Hot Tomato.

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