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Long Weekends: The Pedaler's Haute Route

Outside magazine, August 1994

Long Weekends: The Pedaler's Haute Route

Summertime hut-hopping on Colorado's Tenth Mountain Trail
By Peter Shelton

The highlights of our five-day hut-to-hut bike tour on Colorado's Tenth Mountain Trial came on the downhill glide from the Peter Estin Hut to Crooked Creek Pass. For eight coasting, giddy miles we slalomed a dirt road paved with golden aspen leaves that crunched under our wheels like rice paper and swirled up in our wake. We were literally laughing out-loud with delight, at the slight risk of losing control and sailing off over the amber horizon.

Last summer was the first season that the Tenth Mountain Division Hut System was fully open to mountain bikers who wanted to replicate the acclaimed high-country tours originally designed for backcountry skiing. The route we pedaled, known informally as the Holy Cross 100, is one of the two most-traveled long-distance itineraries. Starting at the Sylvan Lake trailhead, it uses four of the system's 12 huts, crosses the continental divide at 11,925-foot Hagerman Pass, and skirts the western and southern edges of the ragged Holy Cross Wilderness, shooting the gap between that area and the Hunter Fryingpan and Mount Massive Wilderness Areas before ending up at Turquoise Lake. The other route, popular because if its easier accessibility from Denver and the Front Range, starts three miles off I-70 at the top of Vail Pass and runs along the eastern boundary of the Holy Cross, using portions of the Colorado Trail along the way. Here you'll find a bit more trip-planning flexibility, with five huts on a 50-mile stretch of trail and quick outs to paved roads.

The Forest Service, which grants permits for the huts, was originally leery of opening the system to summer use. Water is a problem. Skiers can simply melt snow, but warm-weather folks must haul water from nearby springs and creeks. The Forest Service was also concerned about bikers straying into the wilderness areas, which are off-limits to mechanized travel. But alternate routes--using old logging roads, turn-of-the-century railroad grades, and the occasional single-track trail--have been worked out, and riders seem content to haul their own water in exchange for wood-burning stoves and soft beds every evening.

Use of the huts costs $22 per person per night. Each sleeps 16 people divided among three or four bunk rooms, and since they are booked to capacity you may have to share with other groups; call the Tenth Mountain Hut Association at 303-925-5775 for reservations as far in advance as possible (they're accepted as early as January 1 for the following summer). The Tenth Mountain Association publishes a fine map of the system but recommends that your bring topos, too. Mountain bikes can be rented at Christy Sports in Vail ($20 per day; 303-949-0241) or Aspen Velo Shop in Aspen ($27-$35 per day; 303-925-1495).

Finally, you can weasel your way out of hauling water--and food, sleeping bags, bike tools, and just about everything else--if you sign up for a guided trip with Paragon Guides of Vail (303-926-5299). Paragon's five-day, $990 package includes a support vehicle with plenty of room for water jugs and other weighty essentials, like chardonnay and salmon steaks. There's nothing quite like the deck of the Estin Hut with the smell of poached salmon wafting out the door and the last, pink light of the day lingering on the cliff of the Maroon Bells.

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