A Gunnison Gravel & Glamping Experience

After a recent trip to a gravel camp in Gunnison, CO, hosted by polar explorer Eric Larsen, Hailey Moore shares thoughts on a different sort of bike camping, the riding opportunities in Gunnison county, and a route showcasing two of the region’s alpine passes.

Some words are embarrassing to say out loud. Glamping is one of those for me. Existentially, I chafe a bit at the implication of the portmanteau— “glamor” + ”camping”—as, I find, it denotes a kind of bourgeois experience that feels counter to really enmeshing oneself in the outdoors. Like there’s a little too much top shelf whisky and cashmere throw blankets between the syllables. I’m not saying this is the right mindset to have, but, the same verbal reticence arises when I try to utter such words as “après” in relation to resort skiing, or “body work” when talking about dry needling or massage. They’re just kind of cringey. Don’t get me wrong, I am into creature comforts. Fine food, good coffee, hot showers, warm beds, toilets that flush (or, really, just toilets)—I am all for it. But there is something to be said about eschewing the superlative for the essential for a few days; in stripping back the wants and replacing them with the needs and being reminded that less can, indeed, be more rewarding.

At least, that’s how I see it when it comes to bikepacking. Because going into most multi-day trips outside, pedaling in self-supported fashion, I am bringing with me the intention of embarking on a challenging personal endeavor and, in doing so, becoming more intimately familiar with a specific place (and, let’s be honest, I am also often not bringing the budget required to credit card tour). In a possibly completely contrived way, by engaging in some amount of deprivation I am increasing the pleasure of the reward at the end, too (so this whole affinity for bikepacking might just be Pavlovian?). That’s not to say that I don’t equally enjoy the process throughout, though; I like waking up to the sunrise in remote places, watching the clouds run their course throughout the day, moving over and through changing terrain and feeling attuned to the shifts in the breeze. Getting a little uncomfortable, or rather, out of my comfortable routine, brings me closer to the natural world, and this feels essential.

Some may argue that this harkens back to some kind of primordial instinct or drive, but as a species that’s been essentially chasing comfort for millennia, I’m not so sure. For myself, I can say that the feeling I’m after when out velo-roaming is one of being wholly present. In an age where (for many of us here in the United States) the amount of choice we have is abundantly overwhelming—from what to eat and how to recreate, to what podcast to listen to—limiting choice in specific contexts can, counterintuitively, be more liberating (Andy Karr recently wrote beautifully about this). The mind wanders more freely when it is not constantly butting up against trivial decision-making crossroads and, for me, pursuing a challenging experience often requires rallying all of my mental, physical, and emotional resources such that I don’t have any remaining energy to care much about, say, what to make for dinner.

All that being said, last week I went glamping. My foray into glamping was in fact for a press trip to Gunnison, CO, hosted by the polar explorer Eric Larsen and spearheaded by Eric, his wife Maria, and the collaborative organization, the Gunnison Crested Butte Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP). The invitational included four days of very plush camping in heritage-style Springbar Tents at the city-owned Campfire Ranch campground situated halfway up the very scenic Taylor Canyon, where myself and five other writers were treated to three days of supported mixed-surface rides, planned meals, demo bikes and generously-donated gear from supporting brands (this being my favorite little discovery of the schwag package).

From the riding, to the company, and shared conversations, it was a remarkably pleasant experience. My time in Gunnison also served as a healthy reminder that adventure aesthetics shouldn’t limit one’s experiences–there’s more than one way to experience a place by bike–and that sometimes having an open mind is more important than personal style.

Having Eric (who’s had plenty of decidedly non-glamorous camping experiences in the Arctic) in the role of host served as an inspiring illustration to the above sentiments. I lost count of how many times during the trip I heard him say, “I just love camping,” in a non-campy way. His crowded and eclectic resumé includes such line items as dog-musher, chimney sweep, teacher, guide, bartender, and published author, but the through-line of his professional pursuits has been two-fold: an extreme devotion to polar exploration and a commitment to fostering connection to place, in himself and in others. He understands that everyone’s thresholds for feeling at ease and safe outside are different—though not fixed—and that pulling back creature comforts incrementally may be a more effective method for getting more people to enjoy time spent outside. And, so long as they’re following LNT principles, if that means adding a little extra luxury, who cares? Hence: glamping. While I personally enjoy some of the logistical challenges that accompany a more barebones approach, in my experience at our Gunnison camp having a set and comfortable base to stage from did shift all the focus to what we were really there to do: experience the riding.

On the second night—as the muted patter of a steady drizzle fell on the heavy canvas of one of Springbar’s hot tents—our group huddled around a projector as Eric shared some slides from his polar journeys. There are many parallels that could be drawn between Eric’s attraction to and strategies for navigating the physical and emotional hardships of arctic landscapes and riding bikes. Notably: the commonly-hailed appeal of ”being a small person in a big space,” and the notion of “traveling with the elements” (versus against) where “if something’s weird, check back in ten minutes and see if you need to make a change to stay comfortable.” But what struck me most is how Eric described his motivation and approach to sharing his experiences, “[George] Mallory said ‘Because it’s there,’ but the reason I go on these trips is because It might not be there in the future… Our job as explorers isn’t to go conquer places, it’s to protect them.”

Eric believes that the best way to get people to care about the natural world—from the nether reaches of the globe to the backroads of Gunnison County—is the entertainment-inspiration-education triad (yes, I just coined this model). In his words, “it has to be one-third entertainment, one-third inspiration, and one-third education. All entertainment, you’re a clown. All inspiration, there’s no substance. All education and you take people straight to snooze land.”

For Eric and the city of Gunnison, this starts with bringing people to the area to enjoy the myriad and diverse riding opportunities. And these opportunities are ample—Gunnison County occupies a high desert environment but the scrubby, sage-laden terrain is riven through by enough water such that many of the ranched rolling plains feel Midwestern bucolic. Look at a map and you’ll see that the corridor from Crested Butte to Gunnison is also almost completely surrounded by National Forest, protected wilderness and accompanying alpine peaks and passes. Starting in the southwest, the Curecanti National Recreation area is host to the Dillon Pinnacles and (man-made) Blue Mesa Reservoir, the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests form an arching eyebrow from the west to the north and east and are home to the Elk Mountains and Collegiate Peaks, and the Rio Grande National Forest stretches below in the south. Those familiar with the Colorado Trail will also know that the iconic mtb route skirts Gunnison County to the southeast as a result of said wilderness.

After spending the week riding in the area—on our three day rides and on a bonus solo overnighter I tacked on—I can personally attest that this area offers some of the most varied terrain I’ve seen in Colorado. Each day felt delightfully unique as, geographically, I sampled sections roughly from Gunnison County’s four corners. On the eastern edges, the climb up Spring Creek, the tiny outpost of Tincup and Cumberland Pass offer a more arid, evergreen alpine experience while to the north, the lushness of Schofield Pass and the surrounding Elk Mountains feel more reminiscent of the verdant San Juans. The heart of the county and the southern reaches are cow country and high desert with sweeping views and rolling relief. At the southwestern edge, the spires and buttes of the Curecanti National Recreation Area feels more like a New Mexican tableau than a Coloradan one. And with the density of mountains on the fringes of the county, you can be almost guaranteed that traveling to the next valley over will yield new scenery.

On the morning of my fourth day in Gunnison, as our group began to disperse—some catching flights to different coasts, others starting drives of varying lengths home—I strapped bags to my bike and gathered leftover snacks in preparation for a couple days of solitary pedaling. The funny thing about bringing a bunch of writers together is that there’s a pretty good chance you’ll end up with a group similar to the one Salinger describes in his short story, “For Esme—with Love and Squalor”: “there wasn’t a good mixer in the bunch. We were all essentially letter-writing [errr, blog-writing] types…” To be fair, although I’m sure our little cohort consisted predominantly of introverts, we mixed very amiabley but none of us ever seemed hesitant to duck in the tent a bit early. Speaking for myself, while I enjoyed the time socializing more than I had expected, I was looking forward to some solo decompression.

So when Eric offered to let me crash at his and Maria’s house that night in Crested Butte, I sort of panicked. My first thought was that by accepting the invitation, I’d be taking the soft option and setting myself up for a delayed second day start and, thus, initially declined. But upon reexamining this logic, I thought, Soft option? What am I out here trying to prove? The only practical camping spot given the ground I hoped to cover on the route I’d mapped (see below) was around 100 miles in and alongside a creek, which in mid September above 9,000’, foretold a chilly night. And if I slept at their place, I wouldn’t have to carry a sleep system and would make better time… Pretty soon the “soft” option was sounding more appealing and, I reasoned, I didn’t need to make a supposedly easy/casual thing needlessly harder. Just before setting out, I texted back to ask if the offer for a warm bed and shower was still on the table.

I’m glad I did. After a near-midday start, I found myself topping out the high point of my route—Cumberland Pass (12,034’)—just before 7pm as the quickly fading sun cast golden light across the distant Collegiate Peaks, rendering them a deep purple. Shivering, I put on all my clothes for the ensuing 40mi of downhill riding. And even after cutting out an extra climb and previously recce’d dirt section, I still rolled into their quiet neighborhood at nearly 10:30pm.

The next morning, I did indeed get a late start, having first breakfast and coffee at Eric and Maria’s and the second at the bustling Butte Bagels in downtown Crested Butte. But, with the heavy and cold condensation of the night before, I didn’t much mind and was happy to have slept dry and warm. Rain greeted me on the climb up to Gothic and beyond as I wound my way up to the defining feature of the day: Schofield Pass (10,707’).

Once the weather subsided, the lingering gray-washed sky only served to accentuate my stunning surroundings. For me, Fall is always a heart-achingly wistful time of year—something about the creeping cool air is both enlivening and ominous and the tick of passing time feels more tangible—and even though it was still a few days before the formal equinox, the rich browns, reds, and greens against the deep charcoal of the road ahead lent a feeling of longing to the ride, even though I was exactly where I wanted to be. How strange, to long for the present.

The section of my route over Schofield formed an aesthetically abhorrent clover leaf—but well worth it, in my opinion—and I found myself back in Crested Butte by mid afternoon. The morning’s trance was broken and the remaining miles all felt pretty workmanlike to regain my car, left parked in the lot of the Gunnison City Market.

The end of a bike trip, even if out just for one night, always strikes me as abrupt; just a snap of the fingers and you’re back to reality. As my drive home took me right past Campfire Ranch—no longer any pitched Springbar tents in sight—I was already thinking about “improvements” I could make to my route to avoid the Schofield clover leaf, and showcase more of the riding we’d done as a group. Roads that deserve to be ridden and shared. I was itching to look at a map, but moreso, already itching to come back with more time, for more riding.

*Of Note: The first 8mi are on smooth singletrack which is great fun until it inexplicably peters out… I had to walk 100 yards(ish) to the highway then hoist my bike over a short fence. If you’re not up for this, take the HWY starting from town (there is a good shoulder). There are two markets in the town of Pitkin (~43mi in) and myriad food options in Crested Butte. There is a lot of water on the route that one could filter from, but given the amount of cows that graze here, I always tried to fill up in towns. In addition to water opportunities in Pitkin and Crested Butte, the small outpost of Gothic on the way up Schofield Pass has a visitors’ center with an outdoor water spigot (there is also, supposedly, a coffee shop in Gothic though it did not appear to be open when I rolled through). The cloverleaf to Schofield Pass is not the most aesthetic route choice, but, the pass is incredible and I wanted to keep the route sub 200 miles. This could be ridden in either direction; I went CCW but CW would offer a more gradual climb. The high point of this route is ~12,000′ and other sections spend quite a bit of time of 9,000′ so plan accordingly.