Circumnavigating the Sawatch Range: A Classic Colorado Bike Touring Route

With numerous high summits along the Continental Divide and over a dozen 14,000′ peaks, the Sawatch Mountains are the heart of central Colorado’s alpine riding. Below, Hailey Moore shares a 340-mile bike touring route that circumnavigates 14 of the 15 Sawatch peaks by linking together a few of the region’s classic high passes and resupply options in iconic mountain towns. Read on for Hailey’s inspiration behind crafting this classic Colorado cyclo-touring route, detailed information for each section, and an optional extension that loops around Mt. Holy Cross to make the route a complete circumnavigation.

Standing just south of Fremont Pass—the northern barrier to the mountain town of Leadville, Colorado—is Mount Arkansas. On its eastern flanks, a spiraling tail born of snowmelt and runoff from this high 13er and adjacent peaks starts as a whisper trickle but soon finds a clearer, streaming voice as it winds around the mountain and tumbles down canyon, skirting Leadville, before finally widening out in the valley floor below. This is the Eastern Fork of the Arkansas River but it loses its directional qualifier once it reaches its eponymous valley. Here, it harmonizes in lazy, wandering fashion with Tennessee Creek and—before you know it—their joint song has become the steady chorus of the healthy river you hear, miles later, in Buena Vista and further still Salida.

Aside from one entry-level and general education-mandated geology class in college, I never studied Earth sciences in any meaningful way, but since living in Colorado and witnessing firsthand the interplay of geologic actors, I’ve developed a pedestrian fascination with the stories they tell and the paths they travel. I first rode up Fremont Pass in the summer of 2019 on a (for me) introductory cycling tour through a small sliver of Colorado’s high country and, when my partner Tony pointed out the sign denoting the headwaters of the Arkansas River, I marveled at the improbability that such a humble stream could become the same frothing force we’d seen down valley in Buena Vista. But, importantly, the flow on Fremont doesn’t travel all the way to the Mississippi alone. As it snakes through the valley below, it picks up companions in the form of snow-fed creeks that melt-roll off the craggy shoulders of the valley’s western-standing sentries—the Sawatch Mountains.

Derived from a Ute name, Sawatch (also seen as “Saguache”) broadly translates to mean “blue earth,” “waters of the blue earth” or “blue spring earth,” and seems an apt descriptor for the range that hosts the highest concentration of 14,000’ peaks in the continental United States. From the island of Mount Holy Cross in the north and extending through the densely-packed summits of Mount Massive near Leadville to Mount Shavano outside of Salida, the Sawatch section of the Rockies lays host to 15 of Colorado’s 58 14ers. A lauded mountain running pursuit, known as Nolan’s 14, entails tagging all of the summits on foot, excepting the far flung outlier of Holy Cross, for a total distance of 100 miles, with 44,000’ of elevation gain along the way. The concept of Nolan’s—along with my own time spent in the area in the intervening summers since that preliminary 2019 tour—allowed me to see the Sawatch Range as a distinct and inspiring formation in the context of the seemingly endless spine of the Continental Divide, from Canada to Mexico.

Until a media trip last summer my experience of the Sawatch had been mostly limited to its eastern side. A personal overnighter following the aforementioned week of glamping was really my first foray into the range’s western terrain, whose leeward nature proved to be impossibly bucolic and picturesque. In addition to the Sawatch’s contrasting demeanors—lush to the west with red cliff bands, and more aspens, while the eastern side features archetypal craggy-and-pine-laden alpine terrain—human industry has led to the construction of myriad iconic paved and dirt roads that traverse the passes between peaks. Pearl Pass, the annual rite of passage for early mountain bikers outside of Crested Butte, and Marshall Pass along the GDMBR outside of Salida are just two such examples.

Summer came late to Colorado’s alpine this year, but my annual itch to revisit Leadville and its nearby peaks arrived around Memorial Day, but with it this time was also the notion to craft a route circumnavigating the entirety of the Sawatch Range. Below, I share the resulting route, which takes a cue from Nolan’s in that it does not encircle Mt. Holy Cross, as well as an optional extension if you feel called to complete the full-value circumnavigation.

You can find both the full circumnavigation and Holy Cross extension embedded below…

Circumnavigating Colorado’s Sawatch Range

Route Overview and Bike Setup Suggestions

As you’ll notice in the gallery, I rode different sections of the route across a number of trips which gave me the opportunity to dial in my preferred setup as this version of the route took shape. I say this version because the sheer footprint of this loop means that they really are dozens of variations available, depending on how long you have to spend riding, bike setup and the time of year. That said, I attempted to craft a route that felt consistently appropriate for a rigid mountain bike on fast-rolling mtb tires—after riding the initial stretch from Leadville to Buena Vista on gravel-oriented knobbies that didn’t have enough bite on some of the loose surfaces, I returned with mtb tires (29×2.35″ Ikon in the front, 2.2″ Mars in the back) and was much happier. And while this section features all of the singletrack, there were plenty of instances on the remainder of the route that still felt more enjoyable with some proper lugs: Aspen Ridge before Salida, descending Black Sage and Waunita Pass, all of the dirt riding to cross Pearl, and finally Hagerman Pass before returning to Leadville.

It was this desire for a mostly-consistent character throughout the route that ultimately led me to compromise conceptually and exclude Mt. Holy Cross. Adding the 100-mile extension to encircle Holy Cross made the route feel road-heavy as continuing so far north inevitably tacked on quite a lot of paved riding (bike paths, and shoulders). In the end, I left it out of my recommended route but included the extension as an alternate option.

Colorado’s alpine summer season can vary dramatically from year to year. This year, on an early June recon ride I found snow at 11,000′ on unplowed roads while in years past I’ve gone up 14ers over Memorial Day in summer conditions. The most conservative window for passage over this route (without snow on the 12,000′ passes) is July through early September, but on drier years you might be able to sneak through from June to later in the season.

Despite its rugged terrain, Colorado’s high country actually makes for pretty comfortable touring in that there are resupply options just about every 50 miles. Still, I would caution that while on paper the distance from Crested Butted to Aspen, over Pearl Pass, is only 35 miles it is by far the longest stretch in time between resupplies (especially if you are coming from much lower elevations). I would advise those unfamiliar with Colorado riding to start the trip by packing heavier between resupplies then adjusting based on your pace as you move through the route. Finally, water is fairly abundant on route and I often rode with just two 26oz bottles and a Katadyn or Sawyer filter. However, given that I’m quite familiar with the route it’s easier for me to anticipate water crossings—I would recommend three 26oz bottles, or two liters bottles, to most riders. Of note: it is ill-advised to filter in the immediate vicinity of Leadville given its mining history and I would extend this caution to include both sides of Hagerman Pass.

Gear-wise, there’s nothing too specific that I would recommend that most wouldn’t already be carrying for an extended tour: a robust first aid and repair kit is (of course) essential, the big swings in altitude on this route (7,000′ in Salida to 12,700′ on the summit of Pearl) might be enough to recommend an insulated jacket and warm sleeping bag no matter the time of year, and sun screen is an absolute must for riding in CO. Otherwise, I hope folks get out there to enjoy this Colorado classic!

Mile 0 to 110: Leadville to Marshall Pass

While it’s possible to start the loop from any of the major towns along the route—Leadville, Buena Vista, Salida, Crested Butte, or Edwards—I opted to start in Leadville because it’s the closest to home for me, it is the highest town on route, and it offers the most continuous view of the Sawatch Range. I’ve never had any trouble leaving a car at the public library or school parking spaces across the street (on the weekends), however there is also a Safeway in town that I bet you could park at. For coffee, pastries and pre-ride breakfast burritos, my go-to is the City On A Hill coffee shop!

The start of the route eases you in with downhill miles out of town before turning due south for a brief spell along the Arkansas River. A combination of county roads, a short section of the Leadville 100 MTB course, and a few Colorado Trail miles bring you out to HWY 24. There are several factors that led me to suggest the route in this, clockwise direction and the unavoidable five miles on 24 were among them. In this direction, the miles go fast as you continue along the net downhill to reach Buena Vista and there’s a decent shoulder. Turning off left and crossing the river leads to much more relaxed pedaling in the form of nine dirt miles that overlook the river—stopping for a dip is strongly recommended!

Once in BV, the resupply/food options are numerous. I’ve made a habit of frequenting Buena Vista Coffee Roasters on East Main St. for quick snacks and I enjoy House Rock Kitchen for a more substantial meal. There’s a City Market not far off the main drag and if you head that way be sure to make a stop at the local walk-up frozen treat and burger institution, K’s, for a milkshake!

The route leaves BV by recrossing the river and picking up the Midland Trail—a fun, gravel-bikeable section of single track. The initial climb is a little rude but once you’ve gained elevation from the river the trail levels off, save for a few short rollers. The trail ends with exactly one mandatory mile on the highway then it’s onto Aspen Ridge—a burly ~2,000’ climb before the final bomb down into Salida.

The streets of Salida have the easy leisure of a town that’s close to water and it doesn’t take long to pick up on the strong cycling culture present, too. There are bikes everywhere: downtown is abuzz with kids hopping curbs on MTBs; cruisers and townies fill the abundant racks, with overflow bikes lean against the old brick storefronts. There are three bike shops in town and, of course, the zany mainstay bag maker Oveja Negra. It’s understandable why Salida is such a highlight for many Tour Divide and GDMBR riders.

Once through Poncha Springs, the route moves to the highway and shares the miles up and over Marshall Pass with the Tour Divide and GDMBR. Marshall, which tops out at 10,842’ is the first of several high alpine passes to come.

Mile 110 to 224: Marshall Pass to Crested Butte

Fast miles drop you into the next valley over and deposit you at the door of the Tomichi Trading Post, a convenience store that pulls double duty as a grill. Fuel up here if you feel the need but don’t skimp on water as the miles and two short passes to reach Pitkin always take me longer than I expect. As the southernmost point of the route, the stretch to Pitkin also feels the most arid and is reflective of the large swaths of Colorado given to cattle grazing.

A short highway transfer brings you to bucolic backroads before eventually regaining dirt for the punchy effort to gain Black Sage Pass. A ripping descent follows bouncy two-track before the miles turn a bit workmanlike again to crest Waunita Pass. The community of Pitkin follows where the resupply options consist primarily of a convenience store and small pub. It’s a big push over Cumberland Pass though (which rises just over 12k’) and depending on the time of your arrival, resupply in Tincup on the other side is not guaranteed.

After gaining the top of the pass, with its front-row views of the Collegiate Peaks to the north and Elks to the west, a 15-mile descent drops you on the shores of Taylor Reservoir and at the Taylor Park General Store (store is open year-round, cafe is open seasonally). Be warned that the miles away from the reservoir can feel tedious as they follow a false flat on an often-loose, washboarded surface. I’d also advise bringing a bandana or neckerchief for this section as the dry roads paired with the prolific ATV traffic can make for a short-lived but dusty experience. After five miles the route turns back west with a climb along Spring Creek. This section is incredibly idyllic and higher up the canyon makes for some prime camping. Once the climb levels out and gravity is ushering your descent, there are a couple of forest service sites, with bathrooms, further down.

Harmels Resort Ranch sits at the junction of Spring Creek and the Taylor. The name should really say it all but despite the strong tourist appeal, there is a general store and serviceable restaurant. A final kicker over Jack’s Cabin Road brings you out of the canyon’s enclosure and on to Crested Butte. Note: the route is not mapped to enter Crested Butte proper as riding from the base of Jack’s Cabin Rd to the turnoff for Pearl Pass already necessitates ten miles on the highway. There is a wide shoulder and limited resupply options in Crested Butte South (which is on route). Still, Crested Butte is totally deserving of a visit if you’re up for the extra time on the highway. Finally, there is a trail network that can be accessed from Spring Creek (thereby removing the Harmels resupply) that theoretically would drop you directly into CB South and cut off much of the highway time, but the terrain seemed pretty technical from my internet research so I opted not to include it in my recon.

Mile 224 to 260: Pearl Pass to Aspen

The turnoff for Pearl Pass, on Brush Creek Road, lures you into thinking that Pearl may be akin to many of Colorado’s alpine passes: a gradual grade for nearly forever, with just a few grit-your-teeth miles as you approach the top. Not so. Despite the enchanting introduction along the East River, Pearl Pass soon reveals its true nature. Sharp punchy rollers would lead to short, lamentable, elevation-losing descents, followed by more prolonged steep terrain. The road is also interrupted by several creeks, which I forded with shoes off as a chance to cool down and take a break.

I had expected to walk a lot on Pearl, but I didn’t anticipate just how early I would have to get off the bike. The first few miles are very rideable but the grade grows more erratic the higher you climb, so there was quite a bit on-and-off at times. During the final mile below treeline, the road surface degrades to a rock garden and it was pretty much mostly walking from there. In total from the highway, the ascent is 16 miles with 4,000′ of elevation gain, of which I probably walked at least 3mi, with two of those being the final stretch to the top.

Pearl Pass (and its namesake mountain) is actually in the Elk Mountains which confuses the conceit of this whole route but the Elks are also somewhat unavoidable in crossing to make a logical loop. Still despite (or, because of) Pearl’s challenges it is also one of the more magnificent sections of the route. The Elks, with their characteristic red veins and sawtooth ridges, are something to behold.

Mile 260 to 342: Aspen to Leadville

Another reason to recommend the route in the clockwise direction is the initial six-mile descent off of Pearl towards Aspen. As I hiked down the rubble-strewn road, that doubled as a creek at times, I tried to imagine hiking up this side and preferred to not. Most of the elevation gain from the Aspen side is stacked in those six dirt miles and in general, though more condensed, the road is much rougher. I’d imagine that from the Castle Creek Trailhead that marks the transition from pavement to dirt, approaching from the Aspen side would entail hiking nearly all of those six miles.

Leaving the Castle Creek TH from Pearl marks the start of the most continuous stretch of paved riding on the route: the blitz into Aspen feels like a much-deserved reward after the toils of Pearl and the leisure cruising continues on the long section of bike path that connects Aspen to Basalt. If you’re debating between the two, I’d recommend waiting to resupply in Basalt as Aspen can be a bit spendy and the miles between are fast. The tarmac miles continue as you leave Basalt and follow the Frying Pan River up canyon for 30 miles.

The road is popular among cyclists and fly fishers, and its snaking nature helps control the speed of traffic. Given that the road deadends in 4×4 terrain over Hagerman, most of the early fishing traffic tapers off about halfway up once you cross the dam. I’d advise resupplying and topping off all your fluids at the general store in Meredith as there are a few slow miles on Hagerman and, with Leadville’s mining past, filtering higher up isn’t recommended.

As you approach Hagerman from the east, views of Mt. Massive hint that the top is near. A couple of truly rowdy miles immediately greet you once descending, followed by some hero dirt that brings you down to Turquoise Lake. From here, the inevitable two-mile grunt back up to Leadville gives meaning to the moniker “City On A Hill.” Once you’ve closed the loop, the only thing to do is celebrate your ride with slices at High Mountain Pies!