The Continental Divide/Monarch Crest area is one of the premiere zones in the Gunnison Valley for alpine and adventure riding. Many of the trails in this area make loops off of the Colorado Trail which primarily runs along the top of the Divide. This also makes it an area with tons of elevation gain and loss. Expect glory, ecstacy, and probably more than a little effort to get to the goods around here.
Agate Creek (Mileage: 36.6 miles Elevation: 4,400’)
Agate Creek is a remote-feeling, backcountry, motorized trail that drops 9 miles off the west side of the Monarch Crest trail back towards Gunnison. Frequented predominantly by those mountain and dirt bikers who are looking for adventure, Agate is a great option for a rider looking for a challenge. While Agate is ridden in both up and downhill direction by motorized users, we only recommend it as a descent for mountain bikers.
There are two primary ways to ride Agate: a shuttled ride or a loop. For the shuttle, park a vehicle at the top of Monarch Pass and leave one at the Agate Campground. For a clockwise 35-mile loop with 3,500 feet of climbing, start from the Agate Campground, ride north up CR 888, then ~9 miles up the Old Monarch Pass dirt road highway, and finally connect to Monarch Crest via the Continental Divide Trail.
Enjoy the amazing views afforded off the Continental Divide as you ride along the high alpine terrain of the Crest Trail. As soon as you dive off the ridgeline you have been contouring up until reaching the Agate Creek Trailhead, you won’t have any time to look anywhere but ahead. The trail begins with a fast-paced and very technically demanding section taking you quickly downhill. Rough and loose, the consequences of finding yourself off your line during this first segment could mean a solid OTB.
Once into treeline, you will find yourself in a fast, fall-line decent. After quickly losing a lot of vert, you will find yourself in Agate Creek Basin and will enjoy a fast and flowing descent all the way to the bottom. Keep your course straight ahead and headed downhill. There are only a couple instances where trails fork into Agate Creek, and so this is a very easy ride from a navigation standpoint.
Toward the bottom of the trail, the terrain will begin to constrict as you navigate the bottom of the Monarch Pass drainage. Look up and to your right to see the wreckage of vehicles that didn’t make it safely to the bottom. As the trail begins to flatten out at the bottom, look for a somewhat sneaky fork, and take the right option to head up to Highway 50. Keep a bit of energy in the tank. This short, but punchy, climb lets you know that even though you have been losing a lot of vertical, going downhill is hard work, too.
Wait until the spring runoff has slowed down to bag Agate Creek. After the water levels have fallen, the stream crossings are more manageable. You’re going to be crossing it about 10 times on your way down.
Canyon Creek (Mileage: 19.7 miles Elevation Gain: 3,600’)
Canyon Creek will leaving you feeling exhausted, challenged, and accomplished. You will experience high alpine, timbered forests, and more arid and sandy terrain on your way to the bottom. With great, varied terrain and fantastic views, Canyon Creek makes for an excellent destination ride. Just be aware, we’ve never heard of anyone getting up there and not seeing storm clouds building. Get an early start for this one and keep your eyes and ears on the sky.
Canyon Creek is the primary trail in the area, and provides a full day for most riders. There are two common ways to make the journey, either as a loop, riding up the Tomichi Pass road, or for the singletrack-obsessed, as an out-and-back. Prepare for a long day both on and off the bike, and make sure you have the necessary gear for true backcountry travel.
Regardless of how you choose to ride Canyon Creek, riders should start at the Snowblind campground for their ride. There is limited parking along the road.
The loop is straightforward, and you will stay on the Tomichi Pass road until you reach the top off the pass. This road is a grind, and can be loose in places, making it a challenge all on its own. Once you crest the pass, take a left to continue heading up! You will complete a short but punchy hike-a-bike, scrambling over large rocks and loose terrain.
Doing the ride as an out-and-back will keep you on great singletrack longer, and offers greater challenge. If choosing this option, get an even earlier start because the ride will take more time to complete and you are also less likely to encounter riders descending on your way up.
Once you have reached the summit of Paywell Mountain at around 12,260 feet (depends who you ask), it’s going to be almost all downhill! The ride begins with a long traversing section of trail which takes you down the ridgeline to the southwest away from the continental divide and back towards Highway 50. This section affords great views as you ride high above treeline on a snaking ribbon of singletrack with no shortage of rocks to keep you on your toes.
After a time you will drop into a large alpine basin, and this will mark your transition to a new biome as you begin to make your way into tree line. You will now shadow Canyon Creek and enjoy a high-speed, sometimes loose, and altogether rip-roaring descent through the high alpine forest. Be aware of the water bars and rock gardens that adorn this section of trail and can come at you fast. Eventually you will find yourself in a well established campground with a double-track road running through it. Stop and take a break; you have earned it!
Cross Canyon Creek, and continue on your way when ready, sticking to the singletrack. This section of trail sees a mellower elevation profile, and you will be able to let go of the brakes more often. Manual your way over the whoops, and keep your speed up in the flatter corners for maximum enjoyment. You will be on the left side of Canyon Creek now, and will continue to follow it lower. As the soil begins to become more granular, you will know you are getting closer to the bottom. Just as the terrain begins to flatten out, the trail will take a hard left, and there is one more punchy climb left to complete. After cresting this last stretch, some fun switchbacks await you as you ride back to the road.
Again, we have to point out that you need to watch out for afternoon thunderstorms when doing this ride! For riders who are looking to add a little more on to their day, we salute you. You can ride the Waunita Trail as an out-and-back. This fast and flowy trail is short, but a lot of fun. Just remember, anything you ride down, you will need to ride back up. Finally, the Horseshoe Creek Trail can be ridden to mix this ride up, but be prepared for a very loose, steep, and rocky ride. Horseshoe Creek is most commonly ridden as an ascent by dirt bikes, so expect to find a very raw trail which will challenge you!
Your main challenge for knocking out Trailquest in this zone is the Colorado Trail between Marshall Pass and Tank Seven trail. Tank Seven has it’s fans, but regardless of how you slice it, it’s a tough trail and a difficult loop.
If you ride Agate Trail as the loop described above, you’ll leave a couple miles of the Colorado Trail between that intersection and Marshall Pass. That can be a good addition to your CT/Tank Seven loop as an out-and-back if you do it before you venture down the Colorado Trail towards Tank Seven.
There are several spurs off of the normal Canyon Creek loop. It may be worth spending a whole day hitting up these trails along with Quakey Mountain (#537). Waunita (#437) is definitely a gem of a trail, although it is short. We’ve also heard good things about South Quartz (#483), but it’s loss of elevation, difficult driving access, and the fact that none of have ridden it yet leaves it as a question mark in our books.
Trail Heads 2
- Agate Creek Trailhead
- Snowblind Campground