This is an amazing trail with considerable elevation gain that brings you to 13,000 feet over nearly 18 miles. Plan carefully and expect to be exposed above treeline for 2-3 hours on this epic-inducing loop. I used 2L of water on the ride, wished for 3L. If you are wary of hike-a-bike this ride is not for you. The descent is expert terrain, with difficult switchbacks, loose rock, and consequential falls. This ride is not for the faint of heart. An enjoyable and safe ride will only reward those who are fit, experienced, and ready for "type b" fun.
Bring 2-3 liters of water, 5-6 energy bars, tools, spare tubes, and a camera. If you've never been at altitude before, know how your body reacts before you get there; you'll be above 12k for many hours. There is no cell service roughly from the powerhouse to the pass, so plan accordingly.
If I were to do this ride again, I would do it as an out and back to the high point of John McCarron junction (the pass) so that I could enjoy a long descent with less consequences and hike-a-bike.
The ride starts from town and heads towards Bridal Veil Falls. The ride to the top of the falls is quite a haul in it of itself. At 4.5 miles there is a gate leading away from the switchbacks. Head right, through this gate, which may be closed. You'll find yourself standing above the powerplant with beautiful vistas.
If you feel strong here, continue up the 4x4 road past the falls. This will go straight for a number of miles. You'll reach a stream crossing, make sure you stay the course and head LEFT, away from the crossing. There are numerous waterfalls along the way, and at the largest of the falls you there will be switchbacks off to the left. This is pretty much where the hike-a-bike begins. Head up those switchbacks. After the switchbacks, the trail will start to level off a bit, but only the heartiest of riders will be able to conquer the lung-leg burn. Soon the trees will turn to scrub, and you'll encounter another trail junction. To the left is Blue Lake
; you want to head RIGHT towards the Wasatch Trail. There is no signage.
After this junction, you'll continue some time through the scrub. After what looks like it will be a pass, you'll enter the alpine zone. The trail is not extremely steep here, but the air is thin by now and for me, most of the riding was done in short spurts. About half way through the alpine zone, you'll encounter your first hitching post with no signage. Head RIGHT. Continue up through the alpine zone on a faint trail until you reach a fairly good road with another post. There is a sign that's been removed which is illegible on the ground next to the post. You want to head LEFT here, up the road. There are numerous snow crossings along this road, and then a sign appears indicating the Bear Creek Falls Trail
. Head RIGHT here, up towards the snow cornice. The cornice is passed on the right, depositing you at John McCarron junction.
So starts the descent. Sorry I don't have any pictures, but honestly I just wanted down by this point! The first part of the descent is rather enjoyable, with a few walking sections due to steep switchbacks and some snow fields, but is rather inconsequential based on the falls into a grassy alpine meadow. When you reach the cutoff for the east fork head RIGHT. What ensues is a series of steep, extremely tight switchbacks that for me, were too difficult to navigate on the bike. It would be awesome if the Telluride crew would widen the turns and make them possible with 26" wheels.
After what seems like forever, you'll reach a large stream crossing. I am guessing this could be dangerous in the early summer since there will be much more water and the consequences of flowing downstream including going over numerous falls. After this crossing, the original Wasatch Trail will catch up with you, and new obstacles including bridges, bushes, and switchbacks in deeply wooded areas become the norm. There are numerous smaller technical stream crossings, and it's difficult to have forewarning of the trail as it winds through the underbrush. This eventually deposits you on the Bear Creek Trail, and after a rapid descent you find yourself back in town. Be careful not to pick off any tourists on the descent as this is a popular hiking trail in the area. It is prudent to slow down and give notice, even though you are ready to just get it over with by now!
Upon entering town, you'll see Smugglers on the left. Make sure you stop for your well-earned brew!
I don't know the history of this ride, other than it is included in the "Tellurides" book by author Dave Rich. There is some mining history, and a considerable amount of leftover infrastructure can be seen along the route.