This is a pretty big ride with a decent amount of climbing and, of course, descending. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that the cottonwood descent is one of the best in the region. During the course of this ride, you'll experience everything from loose, technical climbs to large rock roll-over features and everything in between.
Be prepared for anywhere from 2.5 to 4.5 hours in the saddle, depending on your pace and number of stops.
The terrain around Salida is arid, rocky and exposed. Expect to encounter the sharp, not so pleasant flora associated with such terrain and plan accordingly -- run a tubeless setup if possible and bring extra tubes!
You could do a version of this ride as a shuttle by driving up to the parking area at the Cottonwood
trailhead. This option would cut out most of the climbing and you'd miss the fun of North Backbone
At the bottom of Cottonwood
there is a junction with Backbone
and a few other unnamed, unsanctioned trails. The key here is that the unsigned trails are not open to mountain bike traffic. Please stick to signed routes only.
To start this ride, park in the lot located at the base of the trail system. Exit the lot and begin pedaling south-eastward on the gravel path that parallels the train tracks. Turn left and cross the tracks shortly thereafter.
Start the climb up Frontside
. This is a great warmup trail that features tightly switchbacking singletrack, some tricky rock sections and great views of town. Eventually, frontside dead ends into a dirt road circle with a trail map in the center. Cross the circle, consult the map if necessary and find the Lil Rattler
trailhead. Wind your way up the mostly smooth flowing trail for about a mile until you reach the terminus on a gravel road.
From here, take a moment to appreciate the view of Spiral Hill and Salida before grinding 50 yards up the very loose hill to North Backbone
trail. Turn left onto North Backbone
and begin a blast of a trail. The first third of the trail is rolling contour across dry, open rocky hillsides with a few pockets of pinion pine.
From there the trail descends towards a drainage and transitions from hard packed trail to firm sand and then pink boulders and slabs. Through this middle section of the route expect to be challenged. To add to the fun, the trail has some quick and steep transitions. It's all rideable but not necessarily all at once. Eventually, you'll be dumped out onto Ute Trail - Road 175.
Start climbing the nicely graded and maintained road, and settle in for about a four-mile grind. The road portion of the ride is not very steep and makes for a great place to chat with your riding buddies.
Look for a small, unpaved parking area on the right (south) side of the road and ride through it to the Cottonwood
/ Rumba Trail
/ Salsa Trail
entrance - just across the small, dried-up river bed.
starts with a fairly gradual climb through a shady pine forest. This will be a welcome bit of respite from the full sun exposure on the road if you're riding during the summer. This trail got a major facelift in the summer of 2014 and now follows a very different path to start. Expect smooth, nicely bench-cut trail that contours across a rather exposed topography. There are a few minor rock features to navigate on this first section of singletrack, but for the most part it is all smooth and flowing. The descents feature in-sloped corners and a smooth surface so you can really let it go here. Some of the best views of the Collegiate Range can be seen from this portion of the trail.
Eventually, you'll come to a junction with Forest Road 173. Follow this dirt road down the drainage and ignore a doubletrack that splits quickly off to the right. Next, you'll have a short but punchy climb up FR 173 to the top of a ridge. Once the road levels off and then begins to descend, keep your eyes peeled for the singletrack to begin again off of the left side of the road. This is the only bit of tricky route-finding. If you've descended for more than about 45 seconds, you've most likely gone too far. I suggest consulting the MTB Project mobile app at this junction.
This portion of Cottonwood
has a completely different, much more primitive feel to it than the initial segment. You'll descend the ridge line (rather rapidly), and find yourself shot out onto the dry riverbed of Cottonwood
The trail rolls up and down both banks of the gulch as well as straight lining the riverbed at times. Expect the most technical, rocky riding you've seen yet. There are large roll-over features, drops, loose rocks and tight chutes. In short, this is a technical trail rider's dream. Hold on all the way down to the junction with Uncle Nazty
and keep left to stay on Cottonwood
. At the trails terminus, turn right onto Backbone
until you reach another Junction with Sand Dunes
. Turn left and enjoy the fast descent back into town.