Tin Cup Pass

The collegiate peaks blanketed in early snow.
The collegiate peaks blanketed in early snow.

Editorial Note: This story is way out of place chronologically, but I thought it might make a nice spring preview given the recent weather here in Boulder, CO. I was also telling Pete about this trip on the drive back from the Lake City Ice Festival last weekend and realized I still had this unfinished post.

A couple of weeks ago we headed back towards Salida with our friends Andy and Gretchen. Andy and Gretchen had just gotten married, so I guess it counts as a bit of a honeymoon for them, but for us it was just another chance to get some mountain biking in before the leaves turn. Of course, being in the mountain when the aspens are all turning a beautiful shade of yellow (occasionally red) isn’t bad either.

Our initial plan was to do some riding around Winter Park, but a terrible weather forecast sent us towards the Arkansas River valley with hopes for more hospitable temperatures. We left after work on Friday and munched on chips throughout the drive to stave off hunger. We pulled into the Rincon site along the Arkansas river just outside of Buena Vista with enough time to set up camp and reheat some of the yummy Indian food that Jess had made earlier in the week. It was a cool but pleasant and dry evening. We didn’t have enough wood for two nights of campfire, so we turned in a bit early.

Wow, what a view they had in the old mining town of Saint Elmo!
Wow, what a view they had in the old mining town of Saint Elmo!

The following morning I hopped out of the tent and started work on a typical Gribble camp breakfast. That’s either a breakfast burrito with egg, tomato, onion, pepper, and garlic all cooked fresh on the camp stove or a steaming lump of barely-edible instant oatmeal. Occasionally a rasher of bacon is used to augment the burrito option. Thankfully, this morning was the former, as the latter would be the following morning’s breakfast. Normally Andy and Gretchen pre-cook all sorts of yummy food that can easily be re-heated on a camp stove, but this weekend they packed in a hurry and were without a proper breakfast. We pointed them in the direction of a few breakfast spots in Salida and the timing worked out great. By the time we ate our breakfasts, cleaned up our dishes, prepped our mountain bikes, and drove to Salida, they’d just finished eating their meals.

We’d brought the Mukka Express (thanks Erika & Heidi) in order to brew fresh coffee, but our stove ran out of fuel before the espresso could finish. The resulting drink was weak and utterly disgusting, so we met up with Andy and Gretchen to get some proper espresso and plan the day’s ride.

There were a couple of variations of the Monarch Crest ride that were somewhat appealing, but I was concerned that it was too late a start for the amount of time we’d have to spend up above tree line. After pouring over the guidebook for a while, we settled on a scenic ride from Saint Elmo to Tin Cup via Tin Cup Pass. Both Saint Elmo and Tin Cup are “abandoned” mining towns that see far more action than some fully-inhabited mountain towns I’ve visited. I’d been looking forward to doing this scenic high-altitude ride for a while, so even though the mountain biking wasn’t technically challenging, I was still pretty excited.

The old general store and post office. They didn't seem to be any mail delivery on this day.
The old general store and post office. There didn't seem to be any mail delivery on this day.

When we were heading into camp Friday night, we picked the campsites along the river for our first inspection because they involved very little in the way of detours. As we drove back past the Chalk Cliffs, we passed two lovely campgrounds that turned out to have plenty of open sites. Either would have been far more idyllic than the somewhat barren spot along the river, but it would have also made for a much longer breakfast drive for Andy and Gretchen. For future trips, these look quite lovely and would make excellent starting points for some high altitude sight-seeing mountain bike rides.

We probably didn’t actually get the ride started until after noon, but it wasn’t a super long ride, so it seemed reasonable. It also featured a single high-altitude pass, so escape from bad weather (lightning) seemed assured. We checked out Saint Elmo briefly, then headed out of town. It was a nice little descent for about a 1/10 of a mile until we crossed a little creek and started climbing. From that point, it would be all uphill until we reached Tin Cup Pass.

Looking back towards Saint Elmo from near Tin Cup Pass.
Looking towards Tin Cup Pass from the meadow where we regrouped. The pass is the low point or saddle in the middle. You can just make out the road cutting up towards the pass.

Not long into the climb, I’d opened up a small lead on everyone, and while looking back to gauge the size of the gap I caught a glimpse of my rear tire. I’d discovered that it had gone badly out of true while on our last mountain bike ride in Nederland a couple of weeks earlier, but I’d forgotten all about the issue. I stopped at a wide grassy spot and set to examining the wheel. Since I have a small spoke wrench on the little multi-tool I typically carry, I thought a little truing would be a piece of cake. By the way, I highly recommend the Crank Brothers tool. Everything you really need in a small, lightweight package. Just dry it out after super wet rides or it will rust a bit!

I flipped the bike over onto the handle bars and gave the rear tire a slow spin. The wobble was terrible! About then, Jess rode up alongside me. Just as I was explaining the issue, Andy and Gretchen appeared as well. I urged them all to ride on while I “trued” the wheel, knowing I’d likely catch up after a few minutes anyway.

Turning my attention back to the wheel, I discovered that I had broken another spoke. I have no idea when the failure occurred, but I’d bet it was during the ride in Ned. I wonder if it’s related to my neophyte wheel building? The spoke had broken way down by the head, so it was easy to unscrew the spoke from the nipple and remove it from the wheel. The head, however, was not removable without pulling off the wheel, but since it posed no risk of additional failure, I left it in place. After a few minutes with the spoke wrench, the wheel was reasonably straight and strong enough, I hoped, for the ride. I stowed the broken spoke and my multi-tool, flipped the bike right-side up, and hopped back on to catch up with everyone.

More of the beautiful scenery along the road to Tin Cup Pass.
More of the beautiful scenery along the road to Tin Cup Pass.

After several stops, we eventually made it up to this lovely alpine meadow just below Tin Cup Pass. You could see a variety of trail junctions. I was the first to arrive, so I found a comfy spot in the grass alongside the old 4-wheel drive road and pulled out a little snack. Over the next several minutes, the rest of the group arrived and joined me. Everyone was pretty worked from the long climb. The last mile or so prior to the meadow is easily the steepest and most technically challenging portion of the ride.

After regrouping and resting we continued up to the pass. From the meadow, it looked like we could practically reach out and touch the pass, but of course it’s never that easy. Riding a mountain bike is made increasingly difficult as the air gets thin. Tin Cup Pass sits along the Continental Divide at an elevation of 12, 154 ft (In Colorado we’re all very fascinated with elevation). After arriving, we hung out for a while and snapped a few pictures. Jess was right behind me up the final stretch, and Andy was just a couple of minutes back. Gretchen seemed to run out of steam, and after a bit it began to get pretty chilly and some minor sleet started falling! We’ve been in snow high up on the mountain in every month, but it always comes as a bit of a surprise anyway, especially in bike shorts! We also bumped into a family on vacation from Texas. It’s always people from Texas when you see an SUV creeping through the mountains full of nice people that simply can’t believe you rode a mountain bike to (fill in the blank) location. We chatted for a bit and helped each other snap a few pictures by the sign at the pass before heading down.

Jess and me at Tin Cup Pass.
Jess and me at Tin Cup Pass.

The ride back down the hill was a blast. It’s rather badly rutted and exposed just near the summit, but as you proceed downhill, it becomes pretty rideable. I wouldn’t call the road smooth at any point, but it’s really no big deal on a mountain bike. If you find yourself in need of a long, but technically easy, ride near the Chalk Cliffs, you should definitely consider the pilgrimage from Saint Elmo to Tin Cup (or vice versa).

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