The West Elk mountains were formed 30 million years ago during a period of intense volcanism in Southern Colorado. The resulting mud and ash flows have eroded away to produce some of the most stunning geologic features in the Gunnison Valley including the Dillon Pinnacles, The Castles, and the Palisades just outside Gunnison. Since much of the heart of the West Elks is located in the massive West Elk Wilderness, much of the singletrack riding is at lower elevations around the margins of the boundary.
Almost all the riding in this area has a cross-country feel to it. Another feature of this area is it’s sagebrush, views, and general lack of cover in a lot of places. Bring the sunscreen or get fried.
Steuben Creek Powerline Rd. to Sun Creek Trail to Unnamed Motorized Singletrack to Sun Creek Rd. to Beaver Creek Spur A2 to N. Beaver Creek Rd. (Mileage: 8.6 miles Elevation Gain: 1100’)
This figure eight loop is the best option for exploring the mesas surrounding Blue Mesa Reservoir. It’s generally south facing so the upper singletrack on Sun Creek Trail dries out pretty quick, although the access point on Gunnison State Wildlife Area doesn’t open up until April 1 each year.
To reach the trailhead drive west on US 50 about 6 miles and turn right on N. Beaver Creek Rd. directly across the road from Cooper Ranch Recreation Area on the Gunnison River. Drive this road about 2 miles until you see a large parking area above you to the right. If you reach the archery range area you’ve gone too far.
From here start your ride with the steep climb up Steuben Creek Powerline Rd. It’s steep, with a likely bit of hike-a-bike, but thankfully it’s short by Gunnison Valley standards. Towards the top keep a careful eye out for a bit of singletrack that cuts off to the right. There are no trail signs on this loop! It’s unlikely that your paper trail map will have this trail listed either, so bring CBGTrails with you or we can almost guarantee you’ll get lost.
The Sun Creek Trail that you’ve just found is a great, underutilized trail that’s generally pretty easy and mellow. Elk and deer use this trail more frequently than humans and it shows. Follow it 1.2 miles to another intersection with a road, and then another .9 miles around a little knob on the mesa. At this junction the Sun Creek Jeep Trail climbs steeply to your right, but what you want is the Unnamed Motorized Trail that heads down to Sun Creek Rd. (it’s different than the jeep trail, trust us). This section of trail is awesome and very unique along it’s 1.6 mile length. Large cliff bands tower above you and it can be easy to lose the trail in some of the wooded sections. Eventually you’ll be spit out on Sun Creek Rd.
Follow the road down for 2 miles until you intersect Beaver Creek Spur A2. Climb back up to the mesa and then descend to N. Beaver Creek Rd. where you’ll turn right to meet your car.
Lowline Trail (#438) to Little Pass Trail (#563) to Swampy Pass Trail (#439) (Mileage: 12.6 with shuttle, 25 without Elevation Gain: Best guess is ~2000’)
This cross-country ride may be better the other direction, or it may be worse. There aren’t too many sustained uphills or downhills on these trails, but what the climbs they do have are often punch and short. It’s also worth noting that even with the relatively low mileage and elevation gain (by Gunnison Valley standards) this trail is an a**-kicker and it may be better to shuttle it to avoid the long, soul crushing road ride on the way back.
Now that we’ve gotten that bit of negativity out of the way, this trail really showcases some of the best of the Gunnison Valley. Much of the ride is in direct view of The Castles, towering stone buttresses that are one of the prominent landmarks of the Gunnison Country. In the meadows throughout the ride are some of the most gorgeous displays of wildflowers with a particularly lush display during most of June closer to the Swampy Pass end of the trail.
Bring a fly rod and some lunch with you and do some fishing on Castle Creek or Little Pass Creek. Probably the best way to experience this trail is to take your time when you can and ride through with views and nature as your primary motivator. Be wary of unmarked spur trails on this section too. Because these trails follow the wilderness boundary there are often unmarked hunting trails into small drainages and up ridges.
There aren’t too many logistical difficulties or random spurs to be worried about when knocking out West Elk miles. And since there just aren’t that many miles that count in this area it’s a good one to save for later.
The only trail that stands alone, way out in the woods, is April Gulch Trail. You’ll likely need a solid 4×4 or to put in some serious gravel miles to knock out this 1.4 mile dead-end trail.
If you want to snag some winter miles you can fat bike on the groomed winter trails at Mill Creek TH like Ellebrecht Ditch and Little Mill Trail.