Mountain Biking the Colorado Trail – Segment 6: Kenosha Pass To Breckenridge

  • 32.6 Distance
  • 10 Difficulty (1-10)
  • 5717 Total Ascent
  • 11874 High Point

Kenosha pass sits 21 miles east of Fairplay and 65 miles west of Denver on HWY 285. This pass was first traversed by the narrow-gauge Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad, Providing the first rail link between Denver and South Park in 1879. Although the tracks were removed in 1938, there is still an interpretive trail on the east side of the pass showcasing the wetlands and the remnants of the historic railroad. Today, the pass is mostly known for its intersection with the Colorado Trail. A 567-mile point to point trail spanning 28 segments from Denver to the town of Durango in the southwestern portion of the state.

It's on this very pass where Segment 5 finishes, and Segment 6 begins. This pass marks a notable change in the difficulty of the Colorado Trail. It is here where distance and altitude come into play, and things move slower.

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Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail is the longest of the 28 segments spanning 32 miles. It also starts at 10,000 feet and has a low point of 9,831 feet before reaching the town of Breckenridge at its conclusion with a total elevation gain of 5700 vertical feet. As a mountain biker planning to complete this in a single day, you will need to start early, start slow, and fuel often. I have read in some trail comments that riders have consumed over 3 liters of water and ran out. If you forget any of these things, you will be craving the bailout point on Tiger Road at mile 16.9, or the base of the 1,100-foot West Ridge climb at mile 19.5. Don’t forget that it’s there; I have ridden it while blown up and even fresh.  It demands respect as it carries you once again above 11,000 feet, it’s a beast of a climb.

Do I have your attention? Great! Because if you heed the warning and plan your nutrition strategy correctly, you will love this trail in its entirety and want to start planning to bike pack the whole thing! The views are amazing, the aspen groves are out of this world, and the descents will make you forget about all the matches you burned until the trail starts to climb again.

Segment 6 of the Colorado trail

As a remote point to point trail, I wasn’t confident in doing this trail myself for the first time. I may consider it later, but it is always better to ride with friends on rides like this due to elevation and distance. The trail is not super technical, and you will not be surprised by anything sudden that a hiker with a full pack would not be able to navigate. However, there is an impressive amount of chunky rock on the descent into Missouri Gulch, but we aren’t there yet!

Oh, yeah, where was I, yes, it’s best to start at the beginning. I have a Strava friend named Max, who is absolutely killing it this year. So, I asked him if he wanted to do a 30-mile ride with me. I believe we both didn’t know what we were getting into, not really. We settled on a date and a time that worked for both of us, and before we knew it, we were committed and ready to go. Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019, had us waking up early and meeting at my place at 7:00 am to shuttle the 43-mile 1-hour drive from Breckenridge to Kenosha Pass. I had also prevailed upon my dad to drive us out there, so we wouldn’t have to drive back out to Kenosha Pass after our ride to pick up my vehicle.  As it turned out, neither of us would have liked to take care of that in the dwindling hours of daylight.

We arrived at the trailhead at 8:00 am, we aired up our tires with my floor pump, double-checked our gear, and started on our adventure. The beginning of Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail was incredible. It begins in an aspen grove and climbs 400 feet to an undulating ridgeline that starts to show you views of south park and the mountains you will be climbing. Within another mile, you will reach your first descent, which drops through a meadow and gives you a complete view of the beauty in the area. From the beginning of the descent, Jefferson Hill will be the closest and most prominent hill among the vast mountains and fields that make up South Park. The beauty will grab you just as much as the exhilaration of the first descent, and you will realize you are in for something special. The first descent will drop nearly a mile and a half over 500 feet. Don’t forget to take in food as it’s going to be a BIG ride.

The second climb will have you popping in and out of trees across a vast landscape for over a mile, climbing another 400 feet. You will have a few tech sections through the aspens and some creek crossings, but eventually, you will end up behind Jefferson hill where you will start the 1-mile descent into Jefferson Creek after crossing Jefferson road. The creek will have a substantially elevated log crossing. You will have ridden 6 miles so far with around 840 feet of climbing with 860 feet of descending. Rest here for a bit, fuel up, the next climb is a big one. The creek sits around 9,960-foot elevation. From here, you will start your first major climb of the day as you make your way above tree-line and up to Georgia pass.

Georgia Pass Climb

The Georgia pass climb is like most climbs of the Colorado Trail in and around Summit County. It is steep and long. You will want to look for a sign pointing to the left for the Colorado Trail and stick with that one. The Jefferson trail is a popular return route from Georgia pass and is less traveled and safer for such a big descent. It’s best to leave that trail for another day.  I don’t have averages on my GPS for this climb, but there are some very steep sections of trail and lots of roots down low that will drain you physically and aerobically. Expect some pitches above 15 to 20 percent. Keep eating and keep drinking there isn’t anything super technical that will have you walking except for elevation until you reach lunch rock at 2.5 miles up the climb and you will want to rest here anyways.

After taking in some of the views through the trees at lunch rock, you will find the gradient to be more relaxing if only a few percent until the trees start to thin. With thinning trees comes higher elevation, but the occasional glimpse of mount Guyot and its closeness will give you more energy, I promise! When the trees thin out entirely and the views open up, you will find it hard to stay on the trail. Your eyes will be so captivated with your surroundings you may forget to watch your front tire. Just a little further, and you will be at the pass!

Georgia Pass  11,870-foot Elevation

Georgia Pass is worth the effort and a great place to sit and admire panoramic views all around you. It’s also a great time to take in carbs and some caffeine for use later. There is a high mountain big ride theme in this write-up. One I wished I would have followed a bit closer. Eat and drink a lot, and do it often. Rides like this burn a lot of calories, and if you are unaccustomed to fueling your body like this, it could be useful to set up an alarm on your phone. This strategy will make your whole experience even better.

You may have very little to worry about if you are experienced. It is my goal to remind anyone who reads this to consider the altitude of this trail carefully. This is one of the best trails I have been on in this area. The Colorado trail continually reminds me why I am so passionate about cycling. The challenge, the trail, the views, the training experience, and the wildlife at times, are constant reminders of why I love this sport so much. Take your time up at the top, and don’t forget your camera, unless, of course, there is a storm rolling in or it is getting closer to noon. It’s always best to get out of the high country in the summer seasons by 2:00 in the afternoon. We started at 8:00 am and started our descent to the Middle Fork of the Swan a little after 11:00 am. It took us 3 hours to climb to Georgia Pass from Kenosha Pass.

Ridgeline of Georgia pass

Some of the Best Singletrack I have ever ridden is on the north side of Georgia pass. Riding above tree-line is always fun, but when there is a descent involved, even a small one, it is the thing of dreams. There is close to 2 miles of trail that make up this section I am calling the ridgeline. It is not all downhill, and it’s undoubtedly not steep, but there is enough of it that you will know you have hit something special. Even the small climbs as you work your way to the next descent do not appear as hard as they were on the south side. You may be wondering why then; we would be going this direction and not the opposite direction from Breckenridge to Kenosha Pass. You will get your answer shortly. But for now, reaching cruising speeds in the tundra above tree-line and above 11,000 feet is something that must be experienced, and the best place to do that in this area is right here!

Please keep your eye out for through-hikers and other hikers in general. Imagine how quick you would be able to dodge out of the way of someone careless with a 50-pound pack. The only places you should allow your speed to increase are those where you have the visibility for it and the room to stop and either pass safely or get off the trail.

Georgia Pass Descent into Missouri Gulch and the Middle Fork of the Swan River

You will know when you are approaching the descent down to the middle fork of the swan by a bit more climbing, a bit more roots, thicker trees, and a steeper slope that seems to get steeper. The descent down to the Middle Fork of the Swan River is 3 miles long and drops close to 1500 feet. From the forest at the top of the descent, the trail will eventually open back up for a short time, move through some turns, and then start getting chunky. There will be more and more rocks on the trail, and your speed will drop as you bounce around feeling your fingers turn into claws on the breaks. Halfway down you will come across a pond where the trail may get away from you. Stay to the left, and you will see the path again. After several long switchbacks and even bigger rocks, you will start to hear sounds of the Middle Fork of the Swan River. Slow down; the trail will get more technical and thrill you in in it’s technical ways.

We came across six through-hikers on this descent and a trail runner in the rock gnarr near the bottom. We gave them plenty of room to respond to our presence and let us pass. The rocks get bigger and bigger as you get closer to the bottom, and there is a fun rocky technical switchback to clean if you feel up to it. Just remember, if you were to fall and get hurt in this remote area, help would take a long time to respond. When you cross the creek and get up to the road, you have two options. If you are ready to call it quits and have already bonked, even if your nutrition was the best you could make it, you will want to turn left and go down the road. It will eventually get to a sharp right corner or an intersection where you will want to stay right. Tiger road will take you into town or cell reception, whichever is quicker. Tiger road to HWY 9 is 6 miles from the dog kennels. If you are ready to continue the next section of trail, turn right and follow the road a few hundred feet where the Colorado Trail sign hidden behind the trees is visible, then make a left onto the trail again.

Middle Fork of the Swan to North Fork of the Swan

This section of trail will take you to back under 10,000 feet and to the North Fork of the Swan River in two and a half miles. The trail here meanders over forest floor that is soft in some places and full of pine needles in others for a half-mile until it climbs abruptly to another great descent. This descent falls nearly 400 feet as it works its way through some turns and a switchback going back into the trees again. When you get close to the dog kennel, you will hear them before you see them. Don’t be alarmed; they have been there for years and operate under Good Times Adventure tours in the winter as dog sleds. You can learn more about them here if you are interested.

Beyond the kennels, you will start climbing again to the final short descent into the North Fork of the Swan River. Max flatted just before the boardwalk over the wetlands near the river, so we had a chance to fuel up and prepare ourselves for the climb up West Ridge. Once over Swan River, the trail turns right and follows the creek up through a campground. At the top of the campground, you will transition onto a flume trail and cross North Fork Swan Road #354. This road is your last bailout point before the climb up West Ridge. From here, the next 12 miles on Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail will take you a few more hours. If the weather looks good and you have the legs, the descent down West Ridge to the Red Trail Junction is more of the best riding the Colorado Trail has to offer.

North Fork Swan up to West ridge

Crossing the road and hooking up on the unassumingly flat flume trail will have you thinking that you’ve got this. That attitude shortly disappears as you hit the first 12% pitch that levels off ever so slightly and then climbs back up to 15% right before the first switchback. Even if I am bonking, I still try to ride this switchback. After succumbing to the elevation and not hitting my nutrition marks up to this point, I couldn’t clean it this time. But there will be more times to ride this elevational brute of a trail in the future. This trail isn’t technical by any stretch of the imagination. It just goes on, and on, for two and a half miles of varying double-digit percentiles of gradient.

When I moved up to Breckenridge in 2016, it may have even been the summer of 2017; I descended this section of trail for the first time. I had no idea the climb back up would be so hard, especially after slowing down to let two chatting female cyclists climb by me. They were talking as if they were in a lounge somewhere, not even breathing hard. On the other hand, I was not acclimatized to the elevation back then, and I ended up walking most of the way back up, I may have seen stars or ice cream sandwiches, or other mirages in the haze of the climb. It all seems a bit hazy to me now for some reason.

Although I didn’t walk up the whole thing this time, I did have quite the challenge. My shoulders and neck started to get heavy, and my power output was destroyed. It was all I could do to turn my 32-tooth front sprocket over my 50 tooth rear cogs. I rode for a while and stopped to rest in a rhythm lasting the entirety of the two and a half-mile climb. There is something to be said about riding in the pain cave and knowing you still had around 12 miles to ride and short of 2000 feet vertical left to climb before the trails end near highway 9. I focused on the more than 2500 foot of descending I would experience in 7.4 of those miles. Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail is truly a gem of a trail to ride and rewards those capable enough with memories and stories that last for years. Why, this one time I discovered this really dark and creepy pain cave on West Ridge, I wonder if it’s still there.

Descent to Red Trail Junction

For those persistent enough to pace themselves to the top of West Ridge, you get to ride the undulations of the 11,000-foot landscape while looking at views where the trees thin. To the west, you can see Keystone Resort in spots and marvel at riding your bike in ski country and in an area where summer and winter activities combine to provide a near 365-day outdoor playground. Soon, your 11,000-foot journey through the forest points down, and you begin to descend to the Red Trail Junction on two-wheels that turns into an extension of yourself and your spirit as you flow through the trees. Before getting into the switchbacks, you will come to a Y intersection that may or may not be marked.

You will want to stay left to continue Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail. The unmarked trail to the right is the West Ridge Trail and will take you down to Keystone Gulch road 217. From this trail junction, you will have seven switchbacks in the trees until you get to an open area above 10,000 feet that is absolutely breathtaking. From here, views of the forest and mountains open up to the southeast, and you can see 13.280-foot Mt Guyot in one of the most scenic views ever. One more switchback and a little bit further, you will reach the Red Trail Junction, where views open to the north and over the Dillon Reservoir and the town of Dillon. Look down into the meadow below, and you will see the Soda Creek Homestead, one of the region’s earliest homesteads beginning in the late 1880s.  Looking back down the Colorado Trail to the south, you will see a bench to congregate at if you feel the need. The next section of trail will have you descending over 1000 feet to Horseshoe Gulch.

Descent into Horseshoe gulch

Although the Decent into Horseshoe Gulch is not all downhill, the 200 feet of climbing will hit you shortly after you descend from the bench near the Red Trail. Give this short climbing section some time because with all the effort you have used to make it this far, it may seem a lot harder and a lot longer than it is.  The Red Trail junction marks a sharp increase in traffic. Day Hikers, Through Hikers, Trail Runners, and families with kids often frequent this trail and use its many intersections to significant effect. Keep your awareness up and expect to see people that might not understand trail etiquette or who should yield to who.  As a descending rider, you should yield to all people.

When you come across a descending hiker that doesn’t want to yield, give the trail time to get wider so you can pass safely and slowly. I have only encountered this once, and I use this trail often, be aware. Sometimes in the summer, due to heat and lack of moisture, this section can get somewhat silty, so give yourself room if you can to stop slowly and early, so you aren’t bringing with you a massive cloud of dust. From just above the clear cut and down to Horseshoe Gulch, this trail has some incredible flow. Once down at the bottom, you will have another bailout point if you need to. You can follow the Horseshoe Gulch Trail left to the Horseshoe Dredge Trailhead and hit Tiger road. Hwy 9 will be close to 3 miles from this trailhead with a single short climb up to Breckenridge Public Golf Course.

Horseshoe Gulch to top of final Climb

Three hundred thirty-four feet of climbing over a mile and quarter doesn’t sound like much, but this section usually always gets me. The climb starts easy enough after you cross the little footbridge and meadow. The trail meanders at 6 percent and lets you get used to the concept of climbing once again. Within a quarter-mile, the trail steepens to 9 percent, and from here on out, you will be climbing short bursts above 9 percent as you make your way to the Blare Witch Trail a little over three-quarters of a mile from Horseshoe Gulch.

The Blair Which Trail is super popular.  It connects a mile and a half of singletrack to the intersection of the Horseshoe Gulch trail and the Hey Trail. It is a popular trail among the locals used to connect several trails into various loops.

After the Blaire Witch Junction, you have a quarter of a mile to the junction of the Hippo trail, which marks the final climb before you start heading downhill again. The Hippo Trail is another popular trail for the locals, and as I write this, the trail is currently in the process of a complete reroute. The expected completion is the summer of 2020, and we are all excited to ride the new trail! It will connect to the Campion Trail, and the Campion trail will connect to the Soda Creek Trail.  Climb up the hill passed this intersection another 200 yards or so and you will have made it up the final long climb of the day.

Final Descent to Rivette Drive

You have made it to the final downhill of Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail. What an Accomplishment! But you aren’t done yet! The trail descends over 800 feet from this point but will climb in some areas another 32 feet. Both small climbs aren’t that long but shoot up north of 10 percent in places and are long enough that you will need to pedal. With economy of motion at a premium at this point, each pedal stroke makes you aware of the incredible feet you are about to accomplish. The meadow at the high point of the climb helps you to realize how amazing it is to mountain bike in the Colorado high country. As the trail makes its way back into the trees, the view changes, but the exhilaration remains. When you have completed the final punchy climb, you will descend into a clearing on a rather slick piece of trail. Take in the views of the Breckenridge Public Gold Course, the Breckenridge Ski Resort, and the prominent peaks of the 10-mile range; you are nearly finished!

Fly through the final group of trees and take note of how wicked cool the entrance into the final set of switchbacks look as you get closer. You have five switchbacks to navigate before you are down by the Village at Swan’s Nest and crossing the bridge to Revette Drive. From here, you have some options.  You can cross the road and pick up the trail to take you to HWY 9, or you could turn right on Revette Drive and ride it to HWY 9. Based on your arrangements beforehand, you can also get picked up at the Rivette Drive Parking lot, or you can catch the rec path and ride the 4 miles or so into town. You could also get on the bus at the bus stop on the southwest side of Tiger Road as long as there is room for your bike.

Conclusion

Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail is one of the biggest and one of the most epic mountain bike rides I have ever done. With two major climbs bringing you above 11,000 feet and Georgia pass being just a few hundred feet shy of 12,000 feet, you will find yourself in an exclusive group of people that can complete this on a bike, the longest segment of the Colorado Trail. Due to the altitude and effort involved, you will want to plan for this ride. Make sure the weather is clear, start early if riding the whole thing, bring plenty of nutrition and water, and maybe even a filter if you run out. Both Jefferson Creek and the Swan River are excellent places to filter water. There are other creeks along the trail as well, which you may also consider.

Plan to take your time and be careful of the matches you burn along the way. If you are from lower elevations and you burn too many matches, you will never recover due to the demands of altitude. If that is unfamiliar to you, you can think of it this way.

As you climb in elevation, the air pressure decreases, spreading out the number of oxygen molecules you can breathe. The air becomes less saturated with oxygen molecules and we call it thin. Your body, at a base level, wants to maintain a constant balance. Naturally, you will breathe harder to bring in the same amount of oxygen your body is used to using.

Your body is already working hard to maintain equilibrium naturally at rest.  When you go harder while still in a deficit due to the scarcity of oxygen at lower air pressures, you introduce to your body a higher level of stress in which it cannot recover. That deficit is burning a match. There are only so many matches you can burn until you are in an unrecoverable state of depletion. Your body cannot fuel you fast enough to recover. When this happens, your body economizes your motion.

For most people who continue to take on nutrition, this pain cave will disappear in time, maybe during the ride. This issue is more complicated than just air pressure, but it makes an excellent example because, while the air pressure is around 12.26 psi at 5,000 feet, it drops to 9.54 psi at the summit of Georgia pass. For a lot of people, this added stress in normal body functions will make the ride much harder. My suggestion would be to moderate your effort.

Segment 6 of the Colorado Trail is epic, and if you can work out the shuttling to and from the start and finish, you are in for something incredible. We rode this trail on July 23rd, 2019, and experienced a light rain shower near the end. Such is life in the mountains of Colorado. My GPS clocked us in at 5 hours and 45 minutes of ride time, but we were both moving slow on all the climbs after completing the West Ridge Climb. Our total ride time, including breaks and the time it took us to repair the flat on the trail at the North Fork of the Swan, was just shy of 7 hours. We stopped for over an hour at various points along the way. I would recommend this trail to anyone who has considered it at one point or another. You will love all of it, even the pain cave, if you find it, albeit much later!