Words: Ben Pickel
Photos: Ryan Cross
There aren’t too many places in this world, let alone Colorado, that have been left for the most part undiscovered. Two years ago Betsy Welch wrote about her experience in this incipient gravel destination so I won’t go as far to say that we “discovered” anything on a recent trip to Trinidad CO to scout routes for a possible gravel event but according to Strava very few have recorded rides in the areas just outside of town. Before I get into that let me tell you a bit about the town of Trinidad.
A three hour drive South of Denver, the Artist community of Trinidad has experienced the jubilation and heartbreak that come with several boom/bust cycles. Currently the town is thriving as one of the state’s most visited marijuana destinations attracting tourists from nearby Texas and New Mexico, both of which have yet to fully legalize pot. In an effort to be prepared for the inevitable bust of the current boom City Officials have begun a massive shift toward outdoor recreation and have their eyes set on becoming the next hot gravel cycling destination.
The historic downtown presents a perfect blend of grit and revitalization while maintaining all the dreamy, wistful charm of the late 1800s boom town it once was. In May of 1950 Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassidy passed through Walsenburg, Trinidad, and Raton as part of their final epic journey to Mexico City popularized in Kerouac’s masterpiece “On the Road.” Today, Trinidad has become a budding expat destination for several of Denver’s hippest business owners looking to build and innovate while preserving the drop city ethos of this artist hub. Walking the streets of Trinidad one can’t help but feel nostalgic for the postwar Beat and Counterculture generations, living life against a backdrop of jazz, poetry, and drug use.
There are infinite ride possibilities in the area with many departing from the city center. After a few rides from town we decided to venture out a bit seek out a more varied and high alpine experience. This Route starts from the ghost town of Ludlow site of the Ludlow Massacre which is known as the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history.
Departing from the Ludlow Massacre Memorial site there is a dark heaviness and moment of reflection on the value of life and human dignity followed by appreciation that worries and troubles are light and that I in fact have a very charmed life.
“But why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you're alive to see?”
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Admittedly, my experience in gravel cycling is focused on the participation of events and the training leading up to those events. I tend to focus more on the destination than the journey but a few short miles into this ride the quite solitude creates the opportunity to be more present and feel romantic about the moment and the expanse of luxury gravel as it crunched softly under my tires.
Leaving behind the Coal Field Wars of Ludlow we climbed gradually (about 3-4% grade) gaining 2,638 feet over the first 25 miles. With each pedal stroke the landscape gently transitioned from a mix of oak brush, pinyon, and juniper to a rocky terrain full of ponderosa pines, aspens, and cottonwood trees. The desolate gravel roads are as smooth and reliable as a cowboy’s smile the 20 miles we peddled to the ghost town of Gulnare.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
A few quick miles of the only pavement are we arrived at the highpoint of the ride (8,900’) and our first views of the Spanish Peaks (13,631’) just as our tires once again hummed in delight with the reunion with of the Champaign gravel that welcomed us nearly every mile of this ride.
After climbing the better part of 30 miles the ride profile starts to ease up on paper but we still had almost 3K feet of climbing and 40 miles or riding left. Fortunately the gravel continued to be smooth thanks in large part to the abundant mining operations in the area. The few cars we did encounter (extremely rare) greeted us with a warm smile and a wave.
With the Spanish Peaks as our backdrop we began to work our way from snow and coolness of the high alpine to the lower elevation sage brush and warmth of the Purgatoire River valley and Trinidad. The isolation and detachment from the Front Range of Colorado really began to take hold as the shadows from the trees danced like listless gypsies from the gentle mountain breeze.
At high speeds and determined to beat sunset we descended the final 10 miles through Reilley Canyon and Vallorso, another ghost town from the once lucrative coal mining heritage of the area, with a fervor that is earned by exploring new areas and seeking adventure on two wheels. I found myself lost in the history both tragic and remarkable of the area, lost in the absolute beauty of the region, and lost in the sense of optimism and positivity of the people who call Trinidad home.
And The Ride by the Numbers (blatant Dustin Klein rip-off):
4:24:15 Rolling Time
5,148 Feet of Elevation Gain
The City of Trinidad is working hard towards something special and sustainable for the future and have all the critical elements to in fact become the next gravel hotspot. City Officials who have a vision and are passionate about embracing an identity that seamlessly blends art, music, local history, and outdoor recreation, innovative entrepreneurs chasing a dream of their own but keeping true to heritage of the area and seeking only to enhance not change the things that already make Trinidad a great place to visit.
The kindness and positive energy, even during a pandemic, of the area left a mark and has me already planning my next trip to the area. Hopefully the Trinidad Lounge will be open and we can all enjoy a post ride drink together.
“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Ben Pickel is a former professional runner and a 20+ year veteran of the run and bike industry. Connect with Ben on the gram at: @benpickel
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