Every so often, you ride a trail and are reminded of why you fell in love with mountain bikes. A trail where you can't decide whether to check out the views or to watch out for the rapidly approaching obstacles in the trail. So yeah - this is one of those kind of trails!
Did I mention views? Probably the best views of any ride in the area; the Bitterroots to the west, the Pintlers to the south, Rock Creek and the Flints to the east. In one section of a recent burn the granite has been sterilized of all their moss lichen. Leaving the stark white rocks contrasting with the blackened trees.
Besides one exception (a good adventure ride needs at least one section of hike-a-bike), all the climbs are manageable, but just barely and assuming your legs are fresh. Plenty of boulders and roots will let you show off your bike handling skills. The final downhill is a steep, loose test piece that will have you thanking the heavens for your dropper post.
Don't be deceived by the relatively short distance, and the fact the there is more descending than climbing. Experienced riders can expect to take in the neighborhood of 6 hours.
Even getting here and setting up the shuttle screams adventure. The ride starts at the top of Skalkaho Pass, the only graveled highway that I'm aware of. From the top of the pass it is over 50 road miles and at least an hour and half to the Burnt Fork pickup. Of course this guarantees that only the most the dedicated riders will be on the trail, since there are no commercial shuttle services.
Don't be tempted to use the 313 trailhead at the top of Skalkaho, it is a brutal hike-a-bike. Use the Crystal Creek
Call in favors to get a driver for the shuttle. It is at over 50 road miles (1.5 hours), quite a few of which are dirt between the drop off and pick up areas.
Check with some locals before attempting this ride. If there is snow, or if hasn't yet be cleared, the ride will be an epic of the unwanted kind.
Grab a beer at Blacksmith Brewery in Stevensville afterwards.
Give your shuttle driver a kiss, a hug, a firm handshake, a pat on the butt, or whatever the appropriate demonstration of affection might be. You owe him or her a big favor and you'll want a rig waiting for you at the other end.
With that out of the way, start climbing the Crystal Creek
Trail. The climb up to the junction with the Bitterroot - Rock Creek Divide Trail (313) is a sustained moderate 2.25 mile climb with the occasional short push. Just past the junction at 3 miles, the trail reaches the ridge line. Below you is Stony Lake.
For the next 3.75 miles the trail tends to continue climbing with dramatic drop offs to your right. At 4.5 miles there is an impressive couloir descending to an unnamed lake. At 5.0 miles is the junction with Skalkaho-Gird Trail. It would eventually take you over to the Palisade Trail and Willow Creek trails. One day if we can get the resources for maintenance, it could be a fun option. For now be content to stay on Bitterroot - Rock Creek Divide Trail (313).
The trail tops out on the top of Dome Shaped Mountain at 8650 ft and 6.6 miles. Before you get there, the trail takes a quick steep dive through some loose rock. Be careful. I got bucked off here, and from personal experience an injury here is not welcome. After the quick taste of things to come, there is more climbing as the trail becomes rocky and skirts a steep east facing bowl.
Take awhile to enjoy the views at the top and check out the Burnt Fork drainage, your eventual destination.
After topping out, the reward is mile of descending, another mile of relatively flat ridgeline, and the more downhill. At mile 10, the trail enters a recent burn, and if you are lucky the trail has been cleared, otherwise good luck. The fire burned all the lichen and moss off the granite boulders, leaving them a stark white contrasting with the surrounding blackened trees. The effect is surreal as the trail seems to weaved over and around tombstones and crypts.
Leaving the burn behind the trail begins climbing again, and a steep hike-a-bike awaits you for the last major climb up to Eagle Point. If you have any spring left in you legs, contemplate climbing the pile of scree to the top. The Big Springs
trail drops down into the Rock Creek drainage, but you want the Big Springs
trail that drops down the other side into the Burnt Fork and that is still a mile further down 313.
At this point the 313 trail has a complete change in character. It gets wider and the trail is covered with flat blocks of talus. Just remember the mantra, "Don't touch the brakes," and you'll be fine. Flat pedals don't hurt, either.
At 13.5 miles, take the Big Springs
trail #147. At last check there was no sign, but rather a cairn and a milk jug in a tree. Did you get a chance to check out the elevation profile? That's not a mistake. The next three miles are steep, and the top section is the same loose rock you came to love love the last mile of 313. So it's loose, and it's steep, and despite the horror stories I had heard, incredibly fun.
By the time you reach the bottom with forearms burning and legs dead, the thought that you'll be coasting down a gravel road for the next few miles doesn't seem so bad.