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Steamboat Springs Gravel Grinding

Last weekend, Meg and I embarked on our first majority non-pavement bicycle trip. No, we didn't take the bikes on water -- we decided to give the rural dirt and gravel roads in Steamboat Springs a try.

dirt road mountains reason 1,789,563 springtime is a gem in CO

I've been riding a modernized steel 90s mountain bike ever since Meg and I moved to Colorado last year. Once we found a sick deal on a Surly Disc Trucker for Meg, we've both been itching for a chance to take the bikes out on some dirt and gravel. You might know that Steamboat Springs is world-renowned for mountain biking and skiing, but it also happens to have one of the greatest gravel biking communities in the world. This was our chance to see what that's all about.

nate biking awyeah, finally caught in action

Travel to Steamboat

We headed out to Steamboat after work on Friday. Fortunately, we're getting close to the Summer solstice, so the days are awfully long right now, giving us a lot of daylight for our journey.

Unfortunately, it's the off season at Steamboat right now between prime ski season and prime mountain bike season. Which means that most of the restaurants in town close down at 9 PM or so, which actually means that most kitchens stop serving food at around 8 PM.

steamboat hotel 65.00 is a god damn steal

Sadly, it's also snowmelt season at Steamboat right now, which means that the Yampa River, which flows right next to the bike path from our hotel to town, is super high right now. Which means that some sections of the bike path are currently underwater. Which means detours.

So we showed up at Steamboat around 7:30, and tried to take the bike path to town (we just drove 3 hours!), but we were really hungry, so the detours were really confusing, and daylight started to dwindle, which made us realize that all of the restaurants were about to close. Note to Steamboat DOT: orange paper is not very visible towards dusk, so you should really mark your bike detours with something reflective.

We ended up driving up to town in the car. Then we:

  1. Wolfed down a tasty burrito at Taco Cabo. Bonus points for pressing your burritos, Taco Cabo.

  2. Got a beer and a salad at Mountain Tap Brewery, a key lime lager and a coconut brown ale.

  3. Split a to-go crowler of Mountain Tap's haziest brew back at the (outdoor!) (heated!) (not populated!) pool at the hotel. Nothing like a nice swim under the stars at the end of a long day.

  4. Hit the hay so we'd be ready for an early morning of gravel biking on the...

Sleeping Giant Loop

steamboat map an artist's impression of steamboat springs, colorado

The town of Steamboat Springs sits in the middle of a big ol' valley. The Yampa Valley, to be specific, if the local bank conglomerate is to be believed. The two largest geological formations in the valley happen to be the two things we looped on this trip. The first of those formations is Elk Mountain, which some folks apparently nicknamed "Elk Mountain". Don't even bother looking that up to see if I'm lying -- it turns out that almost every state in the country contains an "Elk Mountain", because I guess the answer to the question "what do we call this mountain?" tends to be "Uh, I guess elk live there, so maybe 'Elk Mountain'?". Not like "Sleeping Giant" is that original either.

elk mountain elk mountain in all it's glory

Anyway, on Saturday we looped around Elk Mountain on a bunch of dirt and gravel roads. We got up around 7 AM and immediately biked our way over to breakfast at the Seedz Cafe, which served up a surprisingly healthy (but still tasty) veggie chorizo breakfast burrito and a plate of eggs benedict covered in a phenomenal white pepper gravy. My only regret is not ordering my burrito smothered in green chili -- my favorite local burrito place in Denver contains plenty of green chili already, so the thought didn't even occur to me.

seedz fueling up before the big ride

meg brekky okay, maybe meg's breakfast wasn't exactly healthy

Once we were fueled for the day, it was time to hop on our actual bike route. We began the trip with the most unpleasant section: a 2 mile connecting stint on a medium-high traffic highway with cars blowing by at 45+ miles per hour. Yuck. Fortunately, that didn't last long, and we were quickly dumped out on a side road with poorly maintained pavement and the promise of cows in the distance.

dirt road biking the first uphill climb of the day

Soon after getting off the main road, we summited a (at the time) pretty huge hill. Our past rides have never really gone above 8% grade or so, so this was our first chance to drop down into the very lowest "granny gear" of Mandarb and Sully to crank out the hill at a slow but steady speed. We passed with flying colors, and moved on ready to crush whatever hills challenged us next.

After a couple more miles, the poorly maintained pavement dissolved into dirt at a suspiciously photogenic "pavement ends" sign. Meg and I finally got our first taste of biking on a totally dirt road, though personally I'd say that the constant roadwork, resurfacing, and potholes in Denver have already treated us to plenty of that.

pavement ends time to grrrrnnd some grrrvvvlllll

Once we hit the dirt roads, we barely worried about cars any more. You can only drive so fast on a dirt road, and the small scattered rocks kicked up by any vehicle create enough noise that we were warned well in advance of the one or two vehicles that passed us the entire ride.

The dirt roads also signaled the start of the cute, isolated rural homes of the Steamboat region. The first section of our ride was full of developments, vacation homes, and mansions. But once the pavement disappears, all you see is ranches and beautiful country homes.

cute house one of the many very cute houses north of steamboat

Meg and I sometimes ride side by side on empty bike paths, but there's usually enough traffic (and so little path width) that we typically end up single file for most of the ride. Riding on dirt was a huge step up in conversation for us since we were able to ride side-by-side on very wide roads (for a bicycle) without worrying about other vehicles on the road.

meg bushes finding pee spots in ranch land was not easy

Around 9:40, we spotted our first non-domesticated large animal (NDLA) of the ride, a creature that I suspect was either a very large deer or a female elk. Given that we were riding around Elk Mountain, I like to think that it was the elk for which the mountain is named. Cute fella.

elk friend elk friend horizon
THE elk of elk mountain elk friend watches us watch him climb a hill

After that, it was hard to look in any direction without spotting a prairie dog nestled among the wildflowers. Seriously, there were so many of them. We also spotted a group of what might have been actual deer (or baby elk?) on a nearby ridge.

flowers flora pics at the request of whitney

deer me potentially more elk friends?

We tried to get some action shots of both Meg and myself riding up a particularly pretty hill, but unfortunately I'm a little bit too speedy on my bike -- Meg didn't tell me that she hadn't taken the picture yet, so I ended up catching up with her before she could record anything. So instead I rounded the next corner and Meg got some fake action shots of me riding the wrong direction.

Just after our action shot shenanigans, we started to spot wooly caterpillars crossing the road. Naturally, we had to make sure that our caterpillar friend made it across the road safely. And if that meant taking hundreds of close-up photos of the caterpillar... well, nobody's perfect. And I suspect that he enjoyed the photoshoot.

caterpillar meg with caterpillar
lil fuzzy boi meg watching over lil fuzzy boi's travels

At 11, we enjoyed lunch at a beautiful spot at the top of a pretty large hill at almost the exact middle our our route. At this point, we finally started to see cyclocross and gravel bikers coming in the opposite direction up the hill, clad in lycra and spandex galore. We cheersed them with our 16oz cans of hard kombucha and appreciated the fact that we packed a picnic of salami sandwiches and brownies instead of trying to make the maximum possible mile time.

lunch salami sammies and kombuch with a view

nate lunch nate claimed this to be "very comfy", meg is still sus

a good place to be a duck a good place to be a duck

Around 12:15, we reached a very tiny old cemetery with a breaktaking view. If you're looking to bury anybody, this is a pretty solid location -- you can just take in the mountains while you mourn! Cemeteries ought to be beautiful, and this is among the best I've seen.

cemetery a nice place to bury a body

nate notes nate jotting down the coordinates of the best place to bury a body

The rest of our trek routed us through even rougher dirt roads, several steeper climbs, and -- of course -- a whole lot more cows. It was awfully satisfying to benchmark our progress by our view of Elk Mountain, which was visible throughout the entire ride, but from a slowly evolving angle.

rough dirt road claggy, unmaintained dirt roads switched up the terrain a bit

cow the cows were irresistable

nate and cows behind the scenes of the cow pics

green valley letting the dirt bikes pass as we take in the views

horses some say neigh, the others say bah

The very last half hour of our ride was slightly spoiled by some significant headwinds near the airport north of town. Fortunately this section was largely downhill, which sort of cancels out the headwind... with the exception of the noise, which was maddening after just a few minutes. We soldiered our way through and made it to our first planned stop of the route: Butcherknife Brewery.

meg downhill a happy meg cruisin'

Sadly, Butcherknife was closed the day of our Sleeping Giant ride, seemingly for the entire month of May. Because I guess the off season is literally the most beautiful season to visit, with the best temperatures, the most wildflowers, and the most greenery. We rode another mile down the road and gave our valuable tourist dollars to their competitor, Storm Peak, instead. Shoutout to Moe's Original BBQ for putting damn near the maximum amount of pulled pork possible on their sandwiches -- at the end of the ride, we'd very much earned it.

beer a post-bike pils is always a good choice -meg

The brewery was right at the north end of town, so we grabbed a six pack of beer and took a nice ride down the town bike path back to our hotel to enjoy some midday brews and another swim.

For dinner, we originally planned to check out a fancy looking cocktail bar with a solid looking list of pricy appetizers. But by the time we got there, it was clear that you needed a reservation to actually get a table. So instead we ended up eating some grilled cheese bites and much cheaper cocktails at the local distillery. The bartender hooked us up with some tasters of their whiskey as well, convincing me to check them out the next time I run low on rye.

After the distillery, we had another salad to restore some semblance of healthy food after gorging ourselves on grilled cheese bites. I'm not so sure that it was that healthy an option since we also had three beers, but hey, we were at a significant caloric deficit for the day anyway after biking 60+ miles.

We topped off the day with -- you guessed it -- another beer in the pool under the stars.

Green Giant Loop

road wet luckily it was not wet

Our second day, Meg and I decided to map out a custom 20-30 mile route to take it a little easier, since we had a 3 hour drive back to Denver after the ride. We settled on a route that looped around Emerald Mountain, just west of town. Since people in Steamboat just make up nicknames for mountains, I decided on the nickname "Green Giant" for Emerald Mountain, since it's... green. And large.

We started off the day with some suspiciously good bagels for 7,000 feet. Kudos to Colorado Bagel Company for making one of the better everything bagel's I've had since leaving NYC.

By 8, we were well on our way around the Green Giant loop and enjoying the sunrise above Steamboat ski resort. As it turns out, the local biking community has dispersed a fleet of portable toilets on popular routes around town, presumably for photos like you're about to see.

portable toilet meg peeing again

After the portable toilet, we were having a blast. Unfortunately, the locals had other plans. Our original route used Elk Lane to cut down on hills and let us enjoy some forest scenery on our route. But when we got to Elk Lane, the road was marked with a not-so-friendly sign that Elk Lane is PRIVATE and that GPS USERS should BE AWARE that it is NOT a THRU ROAD. So we decided not to deal with the annoying residents (who were lying, by the way, unless satellite view of the road is wrong somehow) and turned our morning into the Extended Green Giant Loop instead. We could use the extra exercise anyway.

mailboxes it's so private, even the USPS isn't allowed

A few miles of sweeping pavement roads later, we reached the end of the pavement and our first big hill. But first, we spotted a cute red schoolhouse that it turns out is actually a private residence that you definitely should not take silly photos next to and whose residents you should totally respect the privacy of. Totally.

schoolhouse we won't post the pics of us trespassing

The first hill on this route was a slog, but the second was the steepest I've ever climbed on a bike. Still, the beautiful views, perfect temperatures, lack of traffic, and low-resistance "granny gear" all worked together to keep us moving all the way to the top without walking the bikes at all. And the views at the top of Elk Mountain in the distance made it all worthwhile.

meg uphill its the climb -miley cyrus

distant mountains climbs that lead to mountain views are always worth

nate and mandarb single pannier life making sure we wouldn't be stranded if we got a flat

After a well-earned hill descent, we ended up on another seasonal road through Emerald Mountain park along Cow Creek. Disclaimer: Cow Creek does not have nearly enough cows to justify the name. Shame on Routt County. This section of the route was my personal favorite, though, because for the first time all weekend we actually got to ride through trees! We also got to tackle our first dose of vaguely technical terrain on some rocky sections of the road, where we learned that our bikes are even more capable than we thought. Not planning on taking on any singletrack any time soon, but in a pinch...

trees into the trees!

how now brown cows cow staring contest

Anyway, once we departed Cow Creek, the ride finished very quickly. Almost the entire rest of the route was gently sloping downhill paved roads that required next to no effort. After the hills we conquered earlier, it was a nice break to just sit back and enjoy the valley views.

When we got back to Steamboat Springs, our first stop was -- as you'd expect -- food. This time, we decided to stop by Yampa Valley Kitchen, where I enjoyed the Rösti (which is totally as good as it sounds, paired with a fried egg) and Meg tried the chicken sandwich. We also tried out their Cinnamon Toast Crunch latte and a few other coffee drinks, which I'm pleased to report were all fantastically made. And of course Meg had to try out their soft serve ice cream with rainbow sprinkles, because Meg lives for soft serve ice cream.

After that, we headed back to Denver, taking the long way to avoid traffic on I-70 and enjoy the crazy views of the continental divide from Berthoud Pass.


As of this trip, we've decided that biking is our new favorite way to experience new places in Colorado (and probably damn near everywhere else, too). But just to clarify:

  • we're not road bikers (who wants to wear that much lycra and spandex?)

  • we're not gravel bikers (again, who wants to wear that much lycra and spandex?)

  • we're not mountain bikers (neither of our bikes have suspension, and fast downhill is awfully scary on a bike if you ask me)

  • we might be tourers of some light variety (I do use panniers)

  • we might be bikepackers of some variety (Meg doesn't use panniers)

  • we're probably xbikers, which seems to roughly mean "adventure on a bike"

Just remember: we don't go fast, we don't do hard terrain, and we spend a lot of time eating food and drinking beer. Doesn't sound so bad now, does it?