Mountain Biking Breckenridge Colorado: The Wheeler Pass Trail

  • 20.6mi Distance
  • 10 Difficulty (1-10)
  • 5,083' Total Ascent
  • 12,645' High Point

I can look back on my 20 plus years of cycling and count on my fingers the trails that have etched their way onto my Epic Trail list of blood sweat and gears, lots of gears! They all have things that elevate them into the next-level category of sheer effort, grit, and determination. These are trails that require you to dig deep in order to finish, and they command such a level of respect that you are in awe of yourself and the adventure when you do. Mountain biking the Wheeler Trail in Breckenridge Colorado is one such trail.

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The Wheeler Trail snakes its way through the 10 Mile Range above the towns of Breckenridge and Frisco to the east and Copper to the north in Colorado. With a few 12,000-foot passes, this summit county trail will take all of your skill and reward you with excellent climbing, descending, tech, and hair-raising exposure.  If that is not enough, you will be granted with views that take your breath away long before the elevation does.  You can access the Wheeler Trail through several popular routes and maybe some unpopular routes that I haven’t heard of yet. Which is your Favorite route?

A few years back after I had just moved to Breckenridge, I tried to get to the Wheeler trail from the Miners Creek trail.  I did not have the legs or the lungs for it and ended up only making it to the lower switchbacks just above tree-line before turning around.  The truth of the matter is that I may or may not have seen a trail running goddess who wasn’t even breathing hard as my body attempted to dredge oxygen out of the 11,000-foot air.  Technically, as I learned later, I had been climbing for 7.5 miles on Segment 7 of the Colorado trail from the Gold Hill Parking Lot and hadn’t even made it close to the pass.

Since then I have been looking for ways to ride the high elevation and high alpine sections of the wheeler trail.  I am not without options which is both satisfying and comforting. I’ve ridden the peak nine access road which starts behind the Beaver Run Resort.  It connects to the wheeler trail at 11,900-feet near its halfway point.

From there you can either head right which will take you over wheeler pass and to segment 7 of the Colorado Trail.  The trail Forks at the Colorado Trail.  Down will take you to Copper Mountain where you can ride the Rec Path to Frisco and then on into Breck or catch a bus on the free transit system. Navigating the Colorado Trail back up the mountain will net you a 2.2-mile 1100-foot climb, but you will be rewarded with a 5-mile 2200-foot descent on the other side of the 12,000-foot summit between peaks 5 and 6 to the Peaks Trail Junction.  From there you have two options to the left and one option to the right. The left will take you down the peaks trail past the Gold Hill trail and around 2 miles to the rec path in Frisco.  If you want to try the gold Hill trail you are looking at a few hundred feet of climbing over a half mile back up to 10,000 feet and then a sweet 2.5-mile 1100-foot descent to the Gold Hill Parking Lot near Tiger Road and back onto the rec path.  If you have the legs for it and you were looking to extend your ride to head back to Peak 7 and Breck on the Peaks trail, you can turn right and take the 10.5 miles on the peaks trail back to Breck with a few more hundred feet of climbing.

If you wanted to head right, which I haven’t done yet but plan to this summer, you will crest over 12,500-feet with stunning views of 14,000-foot Quandary Peak and Lower Crystal Lake on your 1,000 Foot 1-mile descent to Francie’s Cabin. From there you can take another steep 1.5 mile 800-foot descent down the Crystal Creek Road or go a little farther on the Wheeler trail to the Spruce Creek Road and take it down to the Burro Trail. The Burro trail will take you 3 miles and another 800 feet descent down to the Beaver Run Resort and the southwest section of Breckenridge.

On August 25th of 2017, I set out to stake a claim on one of the most excellent and most brutal and rewarding rides Breck has to offer. The route I took was nearly all of the Queens stage of the Breck Epic, although I finished using the Gold Hill trail rather than the Peaks trail back to peak 7.  I started at the South Gondola Parking lot and made my way to the burro trail behind the Beaver Run resort and just to the left of the Peak 9 access road on the other side of the Quicksilver Super Chair.  The Burrow trail follows a creek for 1.5 miles before it sets out on its own making it’s way up through the woods in varying degrees cool single-track, rock gardens and old double-track.  While on one of the double-track sections near Crystal Creek junction, a large golden eagle soared overhead in pursuit of food; unfortunately, I wasn’t fast enough to snap a photo of it.  That bird was an impressive site and reminded me that I live and ride in a wild ecosystem full of life.

Needless to say, when I got to the Crystal Creek junction I should have continued across the road and picked up the trail on the other side to continue my way up the spruce creek road.  Instead, after checking my map, I took the quickest route to Francie’s Cabin, and I ended up on a 1.5-mile grunt of a climb / hike-a-bike that took me up to 11,000 feet and above the tree-line.  From there I checked out Francie’s Cabin, from a distance, and slowly made my way up to the 1st of three sections of the wheeler trail where it crests over 12,000 feet!  Its 1,000 feet of climbing held some of the most magnificent views the trail has to offer over a single mile and at the summit there were views of Breckenridge far below.

Of course, if you weren’t racing the queen’s stage of the Breck Epic, and you weren’t a powerful pro like Jeremy Bishop, you would be taking your time, enjoying the sites, and attempting to see if it was possible for you to turn a crank over at this high alpine elevation. While I could pedal above 12,000 feet, my legs were hurting for oxygen, and I could not pedal far on the climbs without stopping.

It is an incredible challenge to ride above 11,000 feet, you have to measure your movements carefully because of the lack of oxygen, but to be in this place and in this moment, I couldn’t have been more excited, especially when I got to roll down the trail in the high alpine basin leading to the Peak nine access road.  When I got to the switchbacks that signaled the climb up to the 12,500-foot wheeler pass, I didn’t even attempt to see how far I could get, I just got off to let my legs retrain themselves to walking again and climbed in anticipation of the descent to the Colorado trail and the views of Copper Mountain Resort.  The exposure on this section of trail is serious and well worth the effort to ride.  From the Summit there is a definite lack of depth perception, due to the lack of trees, and other factors making it easy to judge such things.  This lack of awareness makes you believe the 18 to 25 percent gradient isn’t as steep as it is.  The three miles to the junction of the Colorado trail also goes by quickly with challenging riding all the way down.

Once I started climbing again to the next 12,000-foot summit between peaks 5 and 6, I had to remind myself why I wanted to do this whole route and not bail off down to Copper Mountain!  At some point, while I was pushing my bike up the 15 to 20 percent gradient sections of trail, I noticed that 2 of the three cable hangers under my down tube had fallen off or were getting ready to fall off as a testament and constant reminder of the challenges I had overcome.  In reality, it was because I hadn’t double-checked their tightness and the bike shop who had setup my bike a few days earlier hadn’t tightened them enough.  Eventually, I managed to make it the 2.7 miles to the summit and was rewarded beyond the views by a pica cheering me on, or yelling at me for invading it’s space!  Although the pica wanted to condemn me for intruding in its territory, it left quite quickly when I reached for my camera…

Wheeler Route

I was finally off to the next significant descent of the trail, 2200 feet over 5.2 miles.  The Miner’s Creek section of the Colorado trail is fantastic!  Full of steep sections, rock gardens, roots, and creek crossings, and high alpine meadows.  There is quite a bit of chunk on the trail so by the time you are down to the Peaks trail junction your arms will feel like jello, and you will need to shake them out a bit.  I was tired and worn out at this point so I coasted as much as I could to the Gold Hill Section of the Colorado trail, attempting to coax life back into my energy stores for the 200-foot climb back up to 10,000 feet and the start of my final descent of the Gold Hill trail with highway 9 waiting for me below. After several times resting, and even pushing my bike, I had made it to the final summit.  The ride down from there was nearly euphoric as I knew there was to be no more climbing, and I could enjoy the views and the descent with a sense of accomplishment working it’s way into my awareness of the finish line.

At 20.66 miles, an elevation gain of 4700 feet, and 14 of those miles over 10,000 feet, this ride was massive!  It requires some planning and a thorough check of the weather.  You do NOT want to be caught out in a thunderstorm above tree-line!  I can’t stress this enough, especially with high alpine storms.  The idea is to ride one epic ride after another and be safe about it while pushing your body in ways you may not be sure it can handle with the option to bail out if needed.  I ran across several through hikers on the Colorado Trail, give them plenty of space and distance and time to know you are there and don’t forget to talk to them.  I only saw one other rider and a few hikers at the top of the summit on the Colorado trail.  That means if you hurt yourself in the high alpine you may not see help for a while so have fun but don’t get too crazy because it’s remote and difficult to get help if you are by yourself.  It will also be difficult for your friends if they have to stabilize you and get you help.  Take your time, have fun, push yourself, but, if you have second thoughts about a technical section or a technical switchback as there are many, dismount and stay safe.  Do you have any Epic trails in your town? If so, what are they?