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Ride ‘Em Cowboy

Wyoming’s Curt Gowdy State Park is becoming the region’s coolest mountain biking hot spot.

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The trail was uncharacteristically smooth, a thin dirt ribbon that gave my lungs and legs a welcome respite after the granite gauntlet I’d just run. But the next challenge lay ahead. Poking up through the ponderosas was a stone labyrinth that promised to bite at my wheels and test my grit.

The assurance of technical mountain biking is precisely what drew me to Wyoming’s Curt Gowdy State Park. Here, between Laramie and Cheyenne, the mountains and plains collide in a scenic mash-up of stone formations and rolling grassland, like a vast sculpture garden showcasing compositions of artfully chiseled granite. Some were tall towers of stacked boulders; others featured massive slabs that shot straight out of the earth.

One such rocky incline confronted me around the next corner, soaring skyward for an intimidating distance before narrowing into a twisty turnstile of stone. But my legs got me to the top, my tire rubber squeaked through the narrows, and I emerged onto the plains beneath a Wyoming sky so huge it seemed like I could ride forever.

Fat tires are a relatively new addition to Curt Gowdy’s recreational scene, which has primarily attracted boaters and anglers to its three reservoirs (the park’s namesake was a Cheyenne-raised sportscaster and avid fly fisherman). But in 2006, the Wyoming Division of State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails initiated a $600,000 trail project designed to lure mountain bikers and broaden the park’s user base. After input from the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) and 7,000 hours of volunteer labor, 35 miles of singletrack and several terrain parks were completed in 2010.

Eager to check out the playground, I cruised into Curt Gowdy over Memorial Day weekend. Only 35 of the park’s 145 campsites are reservable—some of the most attractive lakeside spots are first come, first served—but because holiday crowds seemed more than likely and I was traveling with a sizable posse, I booked two sites in Camp Russell that overlooked Granite Springs Reservoir.

Reservability turned out to be these sites’ sole attribute. Treeless, rock-studded grasslands make up much of the park (including Camp Russell), and although the terrain is alluring to look at, it offers little shelter from the Wyoming winds that scour these high plains, which average 7,000 to 8,000 feet in elevation. Twenty-mile-per-hour gusts are common, but that night brought 60-mile-per-hour blasts that made us wish we’d nabbed one of the more tucked-away Aspen Grove or Causeway tent sites and left us rubbing sleepless eyes come sun up.

The thought of a morning ride was enough to jolt us awake. There are two major trail networks at Curt Gowdy: the Mountain section and the Reservoir zone to the south. After coasting a few hundred yards from camp to the Mountain’s Aspen Grove trailhead, we entered a small skills park with bermed turns, a few dirt gap jumps, even a wooden wall round—all built on a forgiving scale for newbie free-riders. Then we followed Stone Temple, a 3.75-mile intermediate loop (the trails follow skiing’s green, blue, and black designations). The smooth path climbed gradually through shady pockets amongst the pines and aspens, and provided a pleasant warm-up for the play park located a mile and a half in.

A sign posted along the trail pointed us off the main route and into a terrain park consisting of funky granite lumps and shelves. Tree roots, rock outcroppings, and dirt gullies all became bike routes that were fun not because they were fast—the trail’s technical features kept us creeping along—but because of the balance and skill required to keep pedaling. One ledgy climb ended in a rock wall that forced a 90-degree turn through a tight corridor of ponderosas and boulders. But no serious climbs tested our lungs and legs; instead, the relatively flat terrain let us focus on the challenging surfaces beneath our tires.

Flush from our technical victories and curious to sample a black-blazed expert trail, we veered off Stone Temple and onto El Alto. I’m a strong rider—I usually have no problem clearing rocky stretches or downed trees—but my skill set clearly falls shy of Curt Gowdy’s “expert” classification since I ended up shouldering my bicycle up El Alto’s 50-foot stretches of hip-high ledges. Just one of these gnarly features would prompt most riders off their bikes, but one of my compatriots cleaned most of the trail, popping wheelies onto rocky shelves and balancing across skinny tongues of stone—until a misstep shaved the skin off his forearm.

The blown-open view from the top of the climb soothed our bruised egos—and bodies. Standing on a rocky pulpit, we overlooked hills and gullies, while below us a deep canyon cut into the plains. Thirty minutes later, we found ourselves inside that very same chasm, having followed the tree-shaded Crow Creek Trail to Hidden Falls, the state park’s most popular hiking destination. (Although hikers and horses also roam these trails, mountain bikers are the majority.) Here, rock walls shaded a waterfall-fed pool that looked like an idyllic swimming hole on a toasty summer afternoon.

But with the Wyoming wind cooling us, we skipped a dip and pedaled back to our campsite, where the gusts eased just long enough for us to enjoy some burgers and beers by the fire. Camp Russell was surprisingly silent—most of our neighbors had holed up in their RVs—so we savored a sense of solitude as dusk lent its lingering glow.

By rolling at a brisk pace, we’d covered most of the Mountain trails on day one of our adventure, so the next morning we decided to see what the Reservoir network had to offer. Fewer trees shade these trails, which are more gravelly than the Mountain zone and cut across rolling prairie. They also link some pretty serious skill parks. Following the blue-designated Mahogany Trail, we came to the entrance of “End ’O Line,” a play park that doesn’t appear on the map.

We were intrigued until we saw that a skull and crossbones decorated the trail marker. A passing rider told us why: This free-ride route follows a supersteep ridge with no bailout options. We continued on, and ventured instead into Middle Kingdom’s more moderate play zone of downhill-style gap jumps and berms.

Most trails and junctions at Curt Gowdy are well signed, so we never lost our bearings in the maze—which, we decided, was worthy of a repeat visit. Two days let us cover most of Curt Gowdy’s trails, making the park the perfect size for a weekend getaway. And the two-hour drive from Denver makes it easy to come back again and again. Plus, technical singletrack only gets better (read: way more fun) with familiarity. We would definitely be returning for a rematch with El Alto. Next time, we’ll wear elbow pads.

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