Glorious gravel grinding in Colorado’s Gunnison County
Words by Jason Sumner | Photos by Tory Powers
Colorado’s Gunnison County is best known as a mountain biking destination. Boasting upwards of 750 miles (1,200 km) of sublime singletrack, this sprawling and diverse 3,260-square-mile (8,440 square km) collection of supremely scenic mountains, valleys, forests, meadows, rivers, streams, lakes and high desert landscape is a true fat tire utopia. But just as with the greater cycling world, riding the area’s gravel roads has become increasingly popular for visitors and locals alike.
Indeed, the towns of Gunnison, Almont, Crested Butte and points in between are awash in unpaved adventure. But while the area’s mountain biking options are well documented via rich resources such as Trailforks and the two local trail advocacy organizations, the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association and Gunnison Trails, there’s less available information on the best gravel riding routes.
That’s why I enlisted the assistance of Arly Landry and Chris Besnia, co-owners of Goodday + Curiosity, a small Gunnison-based cycling company that makes bespoke steel and titanium bikes and custom bikepacking bags. Besides being gifted and artistic creators, Arly and Chris are passionate gravel riders who organize a weekly gravel cycling group ride. After some extended discussion, our trio chose to explore and document three of the area’s best unpaved routes that collectively capture the diversity of difficulty and terrain type.
But before diving in there are a few important caveats. No. 1 is that a visit to Gunnison County means coming up in elevation for most out-of-towners. Located at the south end of the Gunnison Valley, Gunnison (the county’s largest population center at 6,653) lies at 7,703 feet (2,350 metres) above sea level. Head 28 miles (45 km) north to Crested Butte (population 1,335) and you’ll find yourself in the thin air of 8,909 feet (2,715 m). And both these municipalities are situated along the valley floor, meaning you’ll likely be heading up from there, as is the case with the three rides highlighted here.
Secondly, “gravel” comes in many forms in these parts, some boilerplate smooth, some loose and dusty, and some rocky and rough. And because gravel roads are organic in nature, riding conditions can change dramatically over time due to factors such as amount of motor vehicle traffic, recent rainfall, and time since last application of magnesium chloride, which helps harden dirt road surfaces to reduce dust.
Point being, hope for the best but be prepared by bringing the necessary tools to change a flat. I personally like to run tires that are wide, grippy and robust, rather than pushing the rubber reliability envelope in the name of marginal speed gains.
Also remember that especially when venturing into the high mountains, be prepared for drastic temperature changes. Generally speaking, the area’s summertime weather is amazing, with sunny skies and comparatively mild temperatures that make Gunnison County a great escape from the frequently oppressive summer heat of Colorado’s Front Range, never mind nearby neighbors such as Oklahoma and Texas.
But we also see our fair share of variability, meaning it might be 70 ºF (21 ºC) and sunny in Crested Butte when you start your ride, but raining and 50 ºF (10 ºC) a few hours later when you reach the high alpine summit of Paradise Divide, one of the routes highlighted here. I always bring a rain shell, gloves, and a beanie just in case.
Finally, be prepared to be blown away – in a good way. While Gunnison County may not (yet) be on most mainstream lists of best places to ride gravel, this area is a true wonderland of unpaved adventure. Whether you’re seeking lonely backroads, monstrous mountain climbs, epic high alpine scenery, sweeping high desert views, or all of the above and more, this place delivers.
Route 1: Gunni Grinder 30
Gravel cycling events are popping up across the US and Gunnison County is no exception. September of 2021 marked the debut of the Gunni Grinder, a race/ride that starts and finishes in downtown Gunnison and includes routes of 120, 60 and 30 miles (193, 97 and 48 km) that fan out into the spectacular – and ever-rolling – high desert landscape south of the city.
All three routes are stunning, but Arly, Chris and I decided Day 1 of our adventure would be something of a warm-up so we opted to ride the Gunni 30, which as the name indicates is 30 miles with 18 miles (29 km) of lightly traveled gravel and approximately 2,400 feet (730 m) of climbing. Top times for the event were around 2.5 hours, but we planned to take things at a more leisurely pace. No need to rush when there’s so much great scenery to take in.
First, though, we needed some fuel, which meant a morning meet-up at the Back Country Cafe on Main Street in Gunnison. Like most places around this historic ranching community, the fare is simple, hearty and reasonably priced. Breakfast options range from basic bacon and eggs to huevos rancheros and scrumptious skillets. It’s all good stuff – and plenty filling for a day on the bike.
With hunger satiated, it was time to ride, which started with an easy paved spin south out of town via the frontage road along U.S. 50, which bisects the city on its east-west route across the state. Two miles (3.2 km) in the route turns south onto sleepy County Road 38, where you can immediately spy Tenderfoot Mountain and the giant white “W” on its western face, a tribute to nearby Western Colorado University.
A few miles later we passed the main entrance to the Hartman Rocks Recreation Area, a nearly 15,000-acre swath of public land that boast 53 miles (85 km) of superb singletrack and abundant first-come-first-served camping on a landscape that’s covered in fragrant sagebrush and whimsical granite outcrops of all shapes and sizes. Most of the beginner-rated trails are smooth decomposed granite, making them perfectly navigable on a decent gravel bike. And there are 45 miles (72 km) of gravel roads.
But our journey continued south on CR38, which turns to gravel around mile 7.5 (kilometre 12) if you use the race route GPX file as your guide. The next 9 miles (14 km) is almost entirely uphill, rising gently to the route’s high point at 9,744 feet (2,970 m). The day we rode, conditions ran the gamut, from buttery smooth road to molar-loosening braking bumps, to one narrow road section near the end of the main climb that was littered with softball-size embedded rocks. Overall the road gradient is never terribly steep (typically in the 3-4% range), save for the final two miles (3.2 km) of ascending, which frequently pitch upwards at 9-10%.
Scenery along the way is classic south-central Colorado with fields of sagebrush intermingled with granite rock outcrops, groves of Aspen, cottonwood and pine, dazzling wildflowers and sprawling far-off views of the Continental Divide. It was also eerily quiet, with nary a car encounter during several hours in the saddle. Best of all, once at the highpoint it’s nearly all downhill on mostly smooth roads back to the starting point in Gunnison.
Follow the link to see the route for the Gunni Grinder 30 on Trailforks.
Route 2: Spring Creek-Taylor Park Loop
Day 2 of our Gunnison County gravel odyssey dawned sunny and cool, perfect for another day of exploring the area’s roads less traveled. First, though, more fueling (and caffeinating) was required.
For coffee, Gunnison’s Double Shot Cyclery was the call. The dual-purpose establishment is one of the area’s best bike shops and serves a mean espresso to boot. Next it was breakfast time, which meant a trip to the Almont Resort Restaurant and Bar, a gloriously rustic old-west establishment 10 miles (16 km) north of Gunnison on CO Highway 135. There you’ll find an oversized log cabin-looking building with a mountain lion pelt hung on the dining room wall and all manner of hearty day-starters on the menu.
Bellies full, we headed 7 miles (11 km) up CR 742, winding along the Taylor River to our starting point near North Bank Campground. On tap was the Spring Creek-Taylor Park Loop, a 47-mile (76 km) round trip with 26.3 miles (42 km) of gravel, 2,717 feet (830 m) of climbing and a high point of 10,575 feet (3,220 m). Figure it will take 4-6 hours, though your results may vary.
The first couple miles are paved and flat. Then the mostly smooth gravel arrives along with 13.5 miles (22 km) of gentle, but near-constant climbing. It was a grind to be sure, but once again the scenery lessened the pain, with steep granite canyon walls, giant scree fields, and the clear rushing water of Spring Creek providing a symphony of sights and sounds for the senses.
Around mile 8 (kilometre 13), the canyon walls opened up, providing space for wildflower-laden alpine meadows to occupy both sides of the road. And so it went for the next several miles before the road split. Go left and you soon reach Spring Creek Reservoir. But we still had more climbing to do, which meant turning right, direction up and over the pass to Taylor Park.
It was 4.5 more miles (7.2 km) to the day’s summit, with a few steep ramps along the way. Initially the final ascent is a tree-lined affair. But then the views opened up near the crest of the pass, availing our first look at the towering Collegiate Peaks.
Up top it was time for a drink and snack. Then the next 6 miles (10 km) were almost all downhill on fantastically smooth gravel. Just remember to keep your head up; we encountered at least a dozen oncoming off-highway vehicles on the way down.
Around mile 21 (kilometre 34), the road flattened out, giving us the chance to take in the sprawling expanse that is Taylor Park with the Taylor Park Reservoir shimmering in the distance and majestic mountains scraping the deep blue sky all around. Next it was time to grab another snack and top off water bottles at the well-stocked Taylor Park Trading Post, which is on the left about 2.5 miles (4 km) past the end of the day’s gravel section. (There’s also decent cell service along this portion of the route.)
Now all that remained was the paved run back to our starting point. Again, the good news is that it’s almost entirely downhill along a rushing river through yet another spectacular high-walled granite canyon. The bad news is that just about every time I’ve descended Taylor Canyon there’s been a headwind. This day was no exception. Thankfully they also serve lunch and cold beer back at the Almont Resort.
Follow the link to see this route on Trailforks.
Route 3: Paradise Divide Loop
If I could do only one gravel ride the rest of my life – and had superhuman lungs and legs of steel – the Paradise Divide Loop would be the easy choice. In just under 30 miles (48 km) – including 21 miles (34 km) on dirt – you face a testing 3,123 feet (950 m) of climbing, with the toughest 2 miles (3.2 km) entirely above 10,000 feet (3,050 m). The ride’s highpoint is 11,250 feet (3,430 m) and some of the “gravel” sections, especially the descent off the summit of Paradise Divide, are rough, steep and rowdy 4×4 jeep roads that require skillful line choice and well-functioning brakes. MTB gloves and toothy tires in the 40 mm-or-wider range are recommended.
But the payoff for your efforts during the entire ride is a constant barrage of truly epic Rocky Mountain scenery. Towering snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, fields of colorful wildflowers, and the aptly named Emerald Lake are just some of the highlights of this true bucket-list ride. Indeed, it’s so good you just might forget how hard you’re suffering.
This ride starts and finishes in Crested Butte, where there’s ample parking at the Chamber of Commerce near the intersection of Gothic Road and Elk Avenue. Elk Ave is also home to the best food and drink options. Our trio started early to duck possible afternoon thunderstorms, but my favorites for a quick morning bite are Camp 4 Coffee, Butte Bagels and the Gas Café, which churns out some of the best breakfast sandwiches around.
After about 3 miles (4.8 km) of easy paved spinning past shimmering Nicholson Lake and into the mouth of the Slate River Drainage, the road turns to dirt. The next 6.5 miles (10.5 km) rise gently uphill, passing the crystal clear Slate River, Gunsight Pass, Oh Be Joyful Creek and telltale signs of destructive wintertime avalanche paths that scar the forest. Pay particular attention around mile 7 (kilometre 11) and you’ll spot mangled full-grown Aspen trees near both sides of the road.
Then at mile 9.6 (kilometre 15), it was time to suffer. Here the road makes a sharp 180º turn to the right and thrusts skyward. Locals affectionately call the next several miles Slate d’Huez, a nod to the famous road climb in France with its infamous 21 switchbacks. There are only four to navigate here, but the heart of this climb gains nearly 1,000 feet (305 m) in just 1.75 miles (2.8 km) with an average gradient of 10% and several ramps upwards of 15%, including a final nasty, loose, rocky, and steep pitch that brings you to the intersection with Forest Service Road 811.
From there, it’s another (slightly) less challenging mile to the Paradise Divide summit. If you’re modestly fit and acclimatized, figure it will take you an hour to cover the first 9 miles (14.5 km) and another 60 minutes to conquer the ensuing 3 miles (4.8 km). But the rewards are ample, with inspiring views back downvalley and the satisfaction that we’d already climbed over 2,600 feet (790 m).
(If all that sounds like too much, you can bail at the FS811 intersection, which after a small climb, funnels down Washington Gulch and back to Crested Butte.)
The rest of the ride was equally memorable, though far less anaerobically challenging. Following the aforementioned techy descent off the top of the Divide, the road leveled out as we crossed the breathtaking Paradise Basin, then made the short ascent to the Schofield Pass summit, locale of the famed Trail 401 trailhead. From there it was basically all downhill back to Crested Butte, save for a few short bumps near the end of the dirt road section around mile 22 (kilometre 35).
In between, we spun past Emerald Lake, crossed a small snowfield that’s remnants of a frequent avalanche path (usually there through mid-July), then sailed down smooth and fast gravel, before arriving at the historic Gothic Townsite, which is home to the highly regarded Rocky Mountain Biological Lab and a great little coffee shop.
After a few more miles of smooth dirt and great views of Mt. Crested Butte, the route returned to pavement at mile 24.4 (kilometre 40). Here we passed through the town of Mount Crested Butte and Crested Butte Mountain Resort, which has some of the state’s best skiing – and a great bike park and scenic chairlift in the summer. Soon after we jumped on the bike path, spinning back to Crested Butte.
Follow the link to see this route on Trailforks.
What you need to know
Flying Here: There are daily flights from Denver to the Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport, plus varying seasonal arrivals from places such as Austin, Dallas and Houston. Get the latest flight option info here.
Driving Here: It’s about a four-hour drive from Denver to Gunnison, with Crested Butte another 30 minutes up the road. Other nearby Colorado cities with airports include Montrose (90 minutes), Grand Junction (2.5 hours hours) and Colorado Springs (3 hours).
Lodging: The local tourism website has all the info you need.
Food and Drink: Options run the gamut from country casual to chichi chic. There are also numerous great coffee shops and drinking establishments.
Climate: Gunnison’s summertime temperatures are generally in the high 70s (~26 ºC) during the day, mid 40s (~7 ºC) at night. In spring and fall expect mid 50s (~13 ºC) during the day and mid 30s (~2 ºC) at night. Crested Butte is a touch cooler, with low 70s (~22ºC) and low 40s (~6 ºC) typical in summer, and low 50s (~11 ºC) and low 30s (~0 ºC) in spring and fall. Of course these are all just averages, so be sure to come prepared with plenty of layers so you can adapt to whatever Mother Nature serves up.
Wildlife: Depending on where you ride, you may see deer, marmot, and a wide variety of birds, sometimes including bald eagles, which nest along the river corridor between Gunnison and Crested Butte in the spring and fall. If you’re lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of elk, fox, coyote, moose, and even black bear, who roam the hillsides around Crested Butte during the summer. And if you like to fish, expect to hook various trout species from the area’s numerous lakes, rivers and streams.
Bike Shops: Head here for the complete list plus information about the area’s great gravel cycling opportunities.
Other Routes: There are countless amazing options, so along with this post check out the great gravel cycling route compilation put together by the Gunnison Crested Butte Tourism Association and head over to the Goodday + Curiosity website for more info about their weekly group ride, which runs through late August.
Other Questions: Hit up one of the friendly staff at the local visitor centers.