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I’m so focused on the ground—trying to maneuver my mountain bike around massive rocks and over roots that make me feel like the back wheel is going to slide sideways and wipe me out—that I nearly pedal past what brought me to this trail in the first place: history.
Thankfully, our unofficial guide (a mountain biking-loving accountant who lives in the area) slows to a stop, so I don’t miss the adobe-walled pueblo standing in a carved-out half-moon of rock above us. The structures were built and used by the Ancestral Puebloans who lived here—what’s now Canyons of the Ancients National Monument—more than 1,000 years ago. There are 6,000 ancient venues located within the monument’s 176,000 acres (the highest known density of archaeological sites in the country) and many are peppered along the six-mile Sand Canyon Trail that I’m currently rolling along.
Actually, stopping and starting would be more accurate. As a beginner mountain biker, this dusty route over slick rock (an intermediate-to-difficult path, I later learn) is well beyond my comfort level, so I’m hopping on and off the bike at regular intervals. (My husband has more experience and stays well ahead of me for most of our three-hour ride.) Thankfully, the desert brush, spiky cacti, red-striped sandstone pinnacles, and those still-standing pueblos do a great job of distracting me from my feelings of failure as we make our way back to the parking lot just west of Cortez, a small town in southwest Colorado.
Cortez is one of the beating hearts of Mesa Verde Country—the trio of towns that abut Mesa Verde National Park. Unlike many of the state’s other national parks, there is no biking, horseback riding, or fishing allowed in Mesa Verde; visitors typically come here because they want to explore the park’s famous cliff dwellings and learn about the area’s indigenous peoples and cultures.
We plan to book that trip soon, but this fall weekend, we’re here for the trails. And there are plenty of them: Mesa Verde Country encompasses some 600-plus miles of mountain biking routes. (If you’re open to fat biking, then the area is a year-round destination for two-wheel enthusiasts.) I’ve long been intrigued by the sport due to the inherent adrenaline rush and the ability it affords to cover more ground than I can on two feet, but I’d only dabbled on a trail here and there. Committing to a seven-hour drive and a couple of days in the saddle was my opportunity to build up some basic skills, and get a feel for whether mountain biking should be my new outdoor hobby.
Sand Canyon Trail left me uncertain. We didn’t finish the entire stretch (12 miles roundtrip) as the top portion gets pretty steep and requires one to maneuver up 700 feet of elevation over a half-mile. Instead, we turned around near the three-mile mark, and I found myself hopping off my bike a little less than I had on the way up. When I dismounted my bike at the trailhead, I wasn’t sure I wanted to mount up again the next day. I tried to leave my worries and doubts behind as we drove back toward Cortez, watching the setting sun paint the sky in pinks and purples, and cast an ethereal glow over Sleeping Ute Mountain.
The next morning, we had options. There are some classic rides in the area, including Phil’s World—a beloved, 60-mile trail system just east of town that was built by locals—and Boggy Draw Loop, a good-for-beginners, 8.6-mile forested route that’s part of a 62-mile trail network. We opted for some leaf-peeping on the Aspen Loop, a 39-mile trail through the San Juan National Forest.
Our guide drove us to his secret starting spot (no, I’m not giving it away!) near a postcard-worthy dispersed campsite that overlooked a lake with a snow-speckled Hesperus Mountain rising in the background. From there, we cycled down the Jeep road we’d bumped up and caught the trail for a nine-mile ride mostly downhill.
Most of the route was wide singletrack over dirt and rocks. The struggles from the prior day turned out to be a boon today: I felt much less timid and more comfortable letting my wheels ride right over the rough terrain, and even managed to let go of the brake and feel the wind blow past my face as I sped through a few sections. Recent rains made it muddy going—one section was impassable as our wheels got stuck in the sludge, so we had to walk around—but I only jumped off my bike one other time, through a steep hill with a lot of big, loose rocks.
We quickly realized we’d timed our trip perfectly: The aspens were at their peak, creating golden arches over the trail. We hopped on a short spur trail to an overlook, where the valley was alight in reds, oranges, and yellows. It was a view I likely wouldn’t have seen if I were hiking, or would have blown right past if I were on one of the dirt bikes or ATVs that had passed us on the trail. I was sweaty and muddy—and I couldn’t stop smiling. Perhaps, I thought, mountain biking is worth the steep learning curve. So long as I’m going downhill, that is.
If You Go…
Kokopelli Bike & Board rents full-suspension mountain bikes (starting at $70 per day), helmets, and even bike racks for your car from its Cortez and Dolores shops.
Kelly Place is a longstanding lodge and campsite about 20 minutes outside of Cortez that was bought by two Montana transplants in January. Allison Troxel and Cindy Leavitt are in the process of transforming the 38-acre property, which is also their home. Three casitas (one with a full kitchen) are currently available for rent (starting at $175 per night); however, the venue will be closed from late October through February. There’s no cell service out here—though there is WiFi in the main building—but there are Ancestral Puebloan sites, including two kivas, that you can explore on a short walking tour. The property also borders Canyons of the Ancients.
Eat & Drink
Need to fuel up? Here are some of my favorite pit stops.
Silver Bean Coffee| 410 W Main St, Cortez
A drive-thru, or walk-up, coffeeshop in a converted Airstream trailer with a charming patio.
Absolute Bakery & Cafe | 110 S Main St, Mancos
For breakfast and lunch made from scratch using Colorado ingredients (grab a loaf of homemade bread to take home).
The Farm Bistro | 34 W Main St, Cortez
A laid-back farm-to-table eatery that’s only open on weekdays (make reservations).
Main Street Brewery & Restaurant | 21 E Main St, Cortez
You’ll find a little bit of everything at this brewpub, where the house beers, some of which are brewed with blue corn sourced from Bow & Arrow Brand, are plentiful (I liked the McCluney Irish Red) and the burgers are just what you need after a long day on the trail.
La Casita de Cortez | 332 E Main St, Cortez
A Mexican joint with an abundant menu (the shrimp tacos were a fave) and easy-drinking margaritas.
EsoTerra Cider | 18390 CO-145, Dolores
For a selection of crisp, wine-like ciders made from apples picked from 50 regional, family orchards, plus cheese plates, bowls, and sandwiches served out of the food truck on the expansive patio.
WildEdge Brewing Collective | 111 N Market St, Cortez
No Colorado town is complete without a brewery, and WildEdge satisfies with a concise selection made right downtown.
Sutcliffe Vineyards | 12174 Road G, Cortez
A two-decade-old winery tucked into McElmo Canyon that offers $10 tastings of four wines (noon to 5 p.m., daily).