Recommended Routes: Gold Camp Loop, Colorado
The world of gravel cycling is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter, safer roads, exploring the world around them in the process. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be hard to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline of the sport.
Enter our Recommended Routes series. In partnership with Continental, we’ve pulled together a bunch of the best gravel cycling routes around the USA. Stay posted for future episodes in the weeks and months to come. And head to Trailforks to see the routes themselves.
Words by Michelle Beaudin
Above the dusty plains and sprawling city, a tunnel bores through the mountain, revealing a dark-framed view of deep green pines and stone towers above. The rider ahead pedals through the frame in the dark, the rasp of gravel underneath tires the only sound filling the empty stone tunnel.
Just outside the city limits of Colorado Springs, Colorado’s second largest city, lies a treasure. A series of gravel roads and quiet trails tucked into the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, shaded by towering pines and aspens, intersected by mountain streams. Access is easy from a number of local trailheads or by simply riding from home if you live in the area, and routes vary from a casual 15-mile (24 km) weeknight jaunt to big 75+-mile (120 km+) adventure loops.
For the visitor or newcomer looking for dirt road riding in the Colorado Springs area, most people in town will first mention Gold Camp Road. It’s close to town, but just a few bends around the foothills and it’s a remote, closed-to-cars, chunky road cutting across and through the folds of the Front Range.
“Gold Camp is the place where you could test yourself, have your times to compare your fitness and check in before a race,” says longtime professional and now manager of the Aevolo team Michael Creed, a resident of nearby Manitou Springs. “But it’s also a great loop because of it being gravel and not a practical road for most traffic. I know riding on gravel only started five years ago. So I’m not sure how we managed to do it back then but we did,” he jokes. “Maybe we walked it?”
The road that is now called Gold Camp was formerly a railroad – the “Short Line” – stretching from Colorado Springs to the town of Cripple Creek. The railway was later converted to a toll road for cars called the Corley Mountain Highway, later becoming a free scenic public road. Finally in the late 1980s Tunnel #3 collapsed, and since then, the road has been closed to car traffic, beginning at the Upper Gold Camp parking lot.
There are dozens of ways to arrive at Gold Camp Road. There’s the local favorite training route up the paved, steady 26th Street climb, a road which eventually turns into Gold Camp. Or the world class Cheyenne Cañon climb; a smooth paved route winding through a beautiful canyon, shared with cars and vans full of vacationing sightseers during high season. My preferred approach is via the Stratton Open Space trails.
Park at the lower Stratton parking lot and follow one of a handful of smooth singletrack options up to meet Chamberlain trail, which then meets Ladders trail (the uphill sister of the downhill-only Chutes trail). A friendly, winding series of well-maintained trails, up and around two glittering reservoirs, the Stratton Open Space trail network is an urban gem. Trail maintenance in this area is organized by Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates, whose mission is to create and maintain a world-class network of mountain bike trails in the Pikes Peak Region.
After some four miles of quiet, wooded trail, Ladders arrives at a small viewpoint marked with a sign “PULL OFF 6.” This is where we join Gold Camp, paved and open to cars for now. The climb continues at a friendly grade, turning to gravel within a mile. The road bumps and winds along the mountainside, passing through two of the old railway tunnels in the next two miles. Glimpses of the black ribbon of North Cheyenne Cañon Road are visible now and then far below.
The road arrives at the Upper Gold Camp parking lot before long. It’s a very popular jumping-off point for hikers and mountain bikers to access the surrounding trails. Here is where the closed-to-cars portion of Gold Camp Road begins. You’ll be accompanied by dogs and kids and groups of friendly hikers for the first stretch after the parking lot, so be patient with your fellow users.
Most of the hikers and cyclists will turn off the road after less than a mile, taking the Seven Bridges trail and Buckhorn trail, respectively. And it is at this point that the world around us gets much quieter. I find my pace often slows for a moment here and I admire the view across the canyon of the portion of Gold Camp we’ve just ridden on our left, a steep pitch of decomposing granite towering above the trail on the right.
Less than a quarter mile on, the road arrives at the first of the collapsed Gold Camp tunnels. Taking a peek through the towering iron barricade into the dark abyss is as spooky as it sounds. Ghost stories about the abandoned cavern abound.
Look to your left and you’ll find the trail that has been rerouted around and over the abandoned tunnel. It’s a loose, rocky section of singletrack with a view of the canyon below and the city beyond. As you push onward, there is a fork in the trail. Navigate to the right and you’ll be headed to St. Mary’s Falls, Mount Rosa and eventually Frosty’s Park. Stay left to remain on the Gold Camp trail where you’ll soon encounter a shady stream crossing. (Finish one of your bottles and refill!) Then it’s back out onto the wide railroad grade.
Note that this section of Gold Camp road is largely exposed in a way that makes high-SPF sunscreen a necessity. Or a good wind jacket. Maybe both on a crisp spring or fall day.
Up here there’s a low rumble of trucks laboring up the open-to-cars portion of the road far below, and an occasional revving from a driver who has mistaken the scenic Cheyenne Cañon road for a raceway. Otherwise it’s near silence. Just the crrruush crruush crruush of fine Front Range gravel under tires. St. Peter’s dome comes into view up ahead. It’s a 9,500-foot (2,900-metre) mini peak, the base of which our route circles before reaching the intersection with Old Stage Road.
Pines, aspens, juniper and other scrubby high-altitude vegetation line the trail throughout, and the landscape appears gradually more alpine as we climb. There’s a bluejay sitting on a bough of pine watching as we stop for a quick snack: Chewy molasses ginger cookies from the best bakery in town, Nightingale Bread. I keep them stacked in the freezer at home, ready to stash in a jersey pocket or handlebar bag.
Our next tunnel — Tunnel #4, the third tunnel that we ride through — appears around mile 11. It’s especially dark in this one — a cool respite in the summer months, a little eerie on a dark and stormy day. After popping back out into daylight, there’s a stream that runs under the road. Unlike some of the other dry stream beds we’ve passed at this point, this one seems to run consistently most of the year. If you’ve emptied your bottles by now, this stream is the spot for refills. Be sure to have a good water filter on hand.
Less than a mile later we arrive at Tunnel #5, the last of the tunnels we thread. Still no ghosts to be seen.
There are small portions of Gold Camp where the fine gravel and sand surface become what I consider irritatingly soft. Pedaling hard, moving slow. And there is sometimes evidence of some rockfall from the mountainside above. Otherwise, the surface is great, and since it’s a former railroad bed, the grade of the steady climb up Gold Camp is very friendly, and it sheds water after storms.
Our time on Gold Camp ends at the gate where Old Stage and Gold Camp roads meet. Up and to the right you will continue on Gold Camp Road (at this point open to cars) all the way to the town of Cripple Creek if you’ve got all day, and some snacks. If a nice gradual descent is appetizing, head right back down the way you came. We, however, are headed down, turning left onto Old Stage Road, which is also open to cars — a reality that is unmistakable in the summer and early-autumn months when Jeep traffic is at its peak. And don’t be surprised if you hear the pop pop of gunfire clattering off the mountainsides up here; the area is popular for shooting up the road a few miles.
After a somewhat steep gravel descent, Old Stage road rises briefly at the turnoff to Old Stage Ranch. Local lore asserts that the spot has been a watering hole for centuries, originally for horses drawing stagecoaches (and their humans) along a last grueling stretch of the road up from Colorado Springs. It will soon be apparent why this story is plausible when we set off again down the steep road to town.
Old Stage Ranch is worth a quick visit any time of day, but if it’s a sunny afternoon the cantina here is the ideal spot for a beer. Horses flick their tails waiting to give riding lessons to visitors, and the Old West-style facades make me think of tumbleweeds and movie-villain moustaches. We see neither today, sadly.
Down the road again – it’s hard to imagine most cars, let alone horse-drawn coaches being capable of this stretch of road – on our descent back to town. Note that this portion of Old Stage Road often features some impressive washboard, though it varies season to season. But keep those elbows loose.
The return to pavement signals our return to civilization. What felt moments ago like a far-off adventure is now a suburban neighborhood less than five miles (8 km) from the city center. Enjoy a few moments of smooth pavement before you’re back at the Stratton Open Space parking lot.
What you need to know
With an average of 300 sunny days each year, Colorado Springs enjoys a mild, agreeable climate. Aside from afternoon thunderstorms in the summer months, humidity and rainfall in the region is low. Given the altitude of the mountains above town (this loop tops out at around 9,000 feet, 2,750 meters) there will occasionally be snow to contend with, but only during the winter months. Most years, Gold Camp is clear of snow and comfortably rideable April through November, with April highs reaching around 60 ºF (16 ºC) and November highs averaging around 50 ºF (10 ºC).
You can bet it’s usually dry here, and the gravel drains well. Check out @cos_trailconditions on Instagram for updates.
Layers are the name of the game when it comes to dressing for a ride up Gold Camp. On a recent mid-September day, we were comfortable in light jackets for a 7am start, then bare arms and knees by mid-morning. I have also been caught in a teeth-chattering hailstorm up there in mid-July. Always check the weather radar before setting off. It never hurts to pack a good jacket.
Bike shops and repairs
There are a number of quality bike shops in Colorado Springs to pick up ride essentials. We recommend ProCycling, with two locations in town – east and west – and Criterium Bicycles up north. Their experienced staff can also be helpful with trail status information.
Tech tips, gear and setup
You’ll mostly see mountain bikes and gravel bikes with wider tires (think Continental’s Terra Speed 700 x 40c) on the Stratton Open Space trails and upper portion of Gold Camp. It’s doable on a road bike with narrow slicks, but why?
On a hot day, my body requires more than two water bottles on this ride. Bring along a small water purifier, like the SteriPEN Ultralight UV Purifier, and you’ll have all the hydration you need with two reliable streams along the way for refills.
Keep the Trailforks app handy, since you’ll probably want to come back on a mountain bike and explore the offshoots another time.
As always, be sure to have all the tools, plugs, etc. you’ll need to take care of any mechanical issues yourself. You may not have cell service and you’ll likely not see a soul for a while up high on Gold Camp.
Nightingale Bread, Edelweiss German Restaurant and Ivywild School top our list of local favorites. Also on the list are Shuga’s, an eclectic bar restaurant in an old Colorado Springs home serving creative cocktails and a killer coconut shrimp soup, and Josh & John’s, a local outfit serving the best ice cream in town. I recommend a scoop of Purple Mountain Majesty. Make it a triple if you rode all the way to Cripple Creek.
The first thing to drink here is water. Especially if you’re visiting from lower elevation, be sure to stay well hydrated before, during and after riding.
The coffee roasting scene in Colorado Springs has boomed in the past half decade. For a locally roasted cup, Loyal Coffee, Switchback Coffee Roasters or Building Three Coffee are great options, depending on where you’re staying.
Forgot to stash a cooler of cold post-ride beverages in the truck? Check out one of two local favorite bar-restaurants: Edelweiss German Restaurant and Ivywild School. Edelweiss describes itself as a “rustic Bavarian beer garden” and has been serving schnitzel and German draft beers since the 1960s. This is the spot for hearty fare, great beer and lederhosen. Ivywild, once an elementary school, is now a large space housing the Bristol Brewing Company and other food and drink options. Bristol’s Laughing Lab ale is great, no matter the season.