We’ve switched places, me and my bike. I’m carrying it now, stepping down sandstone ledges as scrub oak smacks my face. “How’s it look over there?” I ask.
My riding buddy, Tim, is laughing. It’s a good thing. I’ve roped him into this sufferfest. “It wouldn’t be an adventure without something going wrong,” he says.
I guess you could say we’re lost. Although it seems it’s the trail that’s gotten lost. We know exactly where we are. Dropping over the mesa of University Park, we can see the Front Range sweeping across the horizon to the west. The intersection of Austin Bluffs and Union lies below us to the east. And just beyond, we can see our next destination: Palmer Park. The problem is getting there. What was marked as a trail on the digital map is more like a sketchy animal path. It’s a minor setback, but everything had been going so well.
Locals have known for decades that Colorado Springs is loaded with prime mountain biking trails. But word has been getting out beyond Southern Colorado. A few years ago, Singletracks, the leading mountain bike website, ranked Colorado Springs as one of Top 10 Mountain Bike Cities in North America. Local cycling pro veteran Alison Dunlap puts it even higher. “The Springs, for a large city, has the best mountain biking for anywhere in the country,” she says. The former world champion turned coach admits her bias, but there’s good reason she has lived here throughout her professional racing career and after. “I live downtown, and I can hit all the trails without getting in my car. We have trails that are open year-round: Palmer Park, Ute Valley. They’re not just bike path trails through a nice little park. They’re really hardcore riding along with easy stuff. The accessibility here is unprecedented.”
With so much good riding, it can be easy for time-crunched cyclists like yours truly to get stuck riding the same, closest trail network. So when it came time to write about our local trail treasures, I thought, Why not ride them all at once?
It’s not an original idea. Mountain bikers have been linking trail networks into various urban assaults for years. And it keeps getting easier to stay on singletrack or multi-use connectors as new trails continue to be developed.
So we set out to ride the Springs—as much as we could loop in a single day in and around the heart of the city. Our mission was accomplished in 56 miles, seven and half hours of riding and 10 different trail networks. Here are the highlights, so you can follow our route or go build your own.
6:30 a.m. We’re doing our biggest climbing early with one of the most classic Springs climbs and descents: up Gold Camp Road, higher up Buckhorn to 8,241 feet and a flowing zoom down Captain Jacks.
The Cañon is the gateway to quintessential west-side riding with lung-busting ascents and gravel-surfing on decomposed Pikes Peak granite. The feeling is backcountry among the dense conifer forests, and there are panoramic vistas overlooking Cheyenne Cañon and out over the city. Downhill routes like Pipeline and Jones Downhill drop in from higher elevation for those looking for technical big hits, though reroutes to protect the rare greenback cutthroat trout are underway in the Bear Creek watershed.
STRATTON OPEN SPACE
After descending back down Gold Camp Road, we drop into Stratton Open Space via the Chutes. Another legendary trail, the Chutes is a bobsled plunge down big swooping banked turns and berms, and we’re down it literally in a few short minutes—big grins on our faces.
Our route follows a northward left on Chamberlain Trail to traverse across the upper-middle section of Stratton’s 318 acres. On any other day, Stratton offers miles of challenging but doable trails that weave and loop from lower open bluffs into scrub oak thickets and upward into the pines. It’s a perfect training ground for beginners or intermediates wanting some light technical challenges from occasional root and rock fields—or interval ascents for those aiming at speed training.
Someday Chamberlain Trail may connect all the way north to Bear Creek Park and beyond (and south to Cheyenne Mountain State Park). For now, we cut through neighborhoods and into the west side of Bear Creek Park.
BEAR CREEK REGIONAL PARK
We’re climbing again, gradually along the wide Bear Creek Regional Trail. But as we near Gold Camp Road and the park’s highest reaches, we see the trail marker we’re looking for: Stephanie’s Trail, named for a cat buried near the trail construction. It veers sharply right among scrub oak, and we’re on singletrack once again.
The nearly 1 mile path twists and switchbacks through a technical rock garden in its middle, then down to a crossing of Bear Creek and Bear Creek Road. With a short, final climb, we’re at the Section 16 trailhead.
Long a popular hiking area, Section 16 became a better biking spot in 2014 with the addition of the bike-friendly alternate trail that swoops upward for a smoother climb than the hiking staircases. We top the ridge, then thread through some short but steep, rocky technical climbing before hanging a right on the Intemann Trail. It’s about 1.5 miles from the Section 16 trailhead. Another mile of riding and carrying over a notoriously technical descent and rock crossing brings us to our next section.
RED ROCK CANYON OPEN SPACE
Panoramic views open up, and from the top of Red Rock, we can look over the city and trace the rest of our route. First we snake our way downward along the Sand Canyon Trail, then zigzag back up and across the park on the serpentine Roundup. After a missed turn, we shoot straight down the hiking highway of the Red Rock Canyon Trail.
Red Rock Canyon offers a multitude of green and blue riding to connect for choose-your-own-length adventures. Most trails are relatively smooth, but expect sand, rock and blind curves that require caution to avoid any oncoming hikers or bikers. Those seeking technical stashes can find sandstone features in the park’s upper reaches too.
GARDEN OF THE GODS
Most of the famed park is off-limits to bikes, but the east side offers a couple miles of trail loops. It’s no destination ride unless you want some short, scenic beginner riding for yourself or young riders. Following the Niobara Trail along the easternmost ridge offers some intermediate rugged path, and it’s a great connector for our purposes. The paved Foothills Trail north from Garden of the Gods leads to the Palmer Mesa Trail parallel with 30th Street.
UTE VALLEY PARK
We spend about 2 miles on 30th Street and Centennial Boulevard before accessing the 540-acre Ute Valley Park from its west side. We catch Scrub Oak Path counterclockwise around the park’s perimeter, then drop downhill into the park’s center and begin to wander in mazelike loops, loving every minute.
Ute is a local favorite for good reason. There’s wide variety of terrain for all levels of riding ability, from smooth wooded flow to hardcore technical rock drops and playgrounds.
A highlight for us is descending the new east-west connector down to Tech Center Drive. The nearly 2-mile stretch is surprisingly challenging and well constructed. The rolling twists and turns offer fun surprises, and I walk a handful of technical drops without shame. It empties us onto Rusina Road, where we roll behind the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and cross the railroad tracks (safety first!). A quick jog across Monument Creek on the Santa Fe Trail and through University Village Colorado shopping center leads to our next open space.
AUSTIN BLUFFS OPEN SPACE—PULPIT ROCK AND UNIVERSITY PARK
It’s a relatively small area with lots of open views. What could go wrong? This is where a little more reconnaissance would have helped. We seem to find some rugged, washed out social or game trails beneath Pulpit Rock before finding the Pulpit Rock Trail on the University Park side of the open space. This gives us a smooth gradual ascent up to Rockhurst Boulevard and the top of the mesa. Then it’s the bushwhacking hike-a-bike from the beginning of this story to reach Union Boulevard and follow the paved sidewalk tunnels beneath the Austin Bluffs intersection.
At this point in our journey, we’re pressed for time. So we make a quick circuit, tracing the green-rated Palmer Point Trail around the park’s north and east sides before crossing through its center for an out and back to the Grandview Overlook. Looking over the city skyline and upward toward Cheyenne Cañon, it’s hard to believe it was the same day we started there. It’s only fitting that Palmer is our penultimate bookend to this adventure.
A brainchild of Gen. William Palmer, the 737-acre park is a rugged oasis in a sea of urbanity, and it offers some of the best mountain biking in town. There’s something for everyone, though the marked green-blue-black trails skew more difficult overall. Advanced riders love the rock-strewn technical challenges, and there are enough trails to link and loop for hours. That’s a ride for another day for us. We exit on Paseo Drive and follow roadways for nearly 2 miles.
PIKES PEAK GREENWAY / LEGACY LOOP
We’re heading home now. The Rock Island Regional Trail carries us westward over wide gravel. A detour leads us around one of the final sections needed to complete the Legacy Loop, which will eventually ring downtown. We connect and cruise down the wide Pikes Peak Greenway, the city’s urban trail spine. Just south of America the Beautiful Park, our spur heads west to Bear Creek Park, and we complete our loop in the nearby neighborhoods.
Mission accomplished. It’s a satisfying journey, but also a reminder that there are plenty of biking destinations all over town worth exploring deeper all on their own. I’ll pedal back after my legs and lungs recover.
PRO TRAIL POINTERS
We asked local bike pros and trail groups for their pointers on where to ride. Try them out.
For Kids and Beginners
“I take most clients to Ute Valley Park,” says Alison Dunlap, world champion turned coach. “Ute has a nice mix, from pretty beginner up to hardcore.”
“Bear Creek Park is a phenomenal starting place,” says Daniel Byrd, executive director of Kids on Bikes. “There’s riding for absolute beginner small kids to more intermediate, meaning you’ve got some climbs, you’ve got some rocks and tree roots.”
“Red Rock Canyon is overall pretty good in terms of maps and wayfinding,” says Cory Sutela, president of Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates. “Ute Valley’s got some good beginner stuff. Palmer Park, if you’re careful, has some good beginner stuff. Red Rock has got it all.”
“The descent off Pikes Peak is the classic,” Sutela says. “Get a ride up or ride Barr Trail top to bottom. It’s pretty awesome.”
“Jones Park has always been a favorite, and we’ll see what its reroute will bring,” Dunlap says.
For more tips on improving your mountain biking, check out “Bike Better: Pro Mountain Biking Tips” by Alison Dunlap.