June 19, 2021

Tour Divide '21: Salida to Del Norte

 This post needs a brief backstory introduction. Back in 2019 I attempted the Tour Divide, I made it to Salida, CO before having to bow out due to a staph infection above my right knee, turned out to be MRSA. Good times. During that ride I met a fella from Iowa, Justin Heckman, and we became instant friends sharing many miles & campsites over a few days. Justin ended his ride in Del Norte, CO.

Here is a full Tour Divide Index from each day on the route.

Over the ensuing months we hatched a plan to return to Salida, CO in June of 2020 to finish our ride. Then 2020 happened. We pushed back our date to June 2021 with the idea of starting on the Saturday a week+ after the Grand Depart. Sometime in January, Justin suffered a knee setback and as the months passed he realized his knee wasn't up to the task of multiple back-to-back-to-back....100 mile type efforts. Drat.

I had 11 days or so free on the calendar and reached out to a longtime buddy of mine, Travis (Trav) we both grew up in the Allentown, PA area and hung out riding BMX flatland freestyle bikes in the late 80's & early 90's, to see if he'd be interested in joining me on a overnight bikepacking ride from Salida to Del Norte on the Divide route. He was game and this would be his very first bikepacking ride, how cool is that? I let Justin know of my plans and we now plan to finish our Tour in June 2022 from Del Norte. Things were shaping up. I then decided after our two day ride to take a very scenic route home through Colorado visiting as many friends as I could all while putting my tires on new-to-me dirt. I like that kind of challenge. More on all those rides in later posts.

Back to the Divide. Trav and I were trying to finalize logistics since this was a 153 mile point-to-point ride. Trav now lives in the Denver area and I'd be driving up from the Valley of the Sun. He didn't really have the capacity to carry two bikes either. Then, one day I saw a post on a Tour Divide FB group page from Brandi Blade. She completed the Tour Divide in 2019, getting to Antelope Wells under 25 days!! Awesome. She mentioned that any rider could camp in her yard, use a shower, etc. since she lived ON route. I reached out to her and as luck would have it, she offered us a couple of beds not only for the night before our ride, but the night after too. Things were coming together. Trav reached out to her and was able to drop his bike off before meeting me in Del Norte as I'd be leaving my car there. Perfect.

I hadn't seen Trav since the summer of '16 when we were passing through Denver on a massive two week roadtrip to North Dakota. It had been much longer since we actually rode bikes together. This was going to be fun!!

We met right on schedule in Del Norte, found a good parking location for my car and hit up the local brewery before making our way to Salida and Brandi's place.

We settled in for the night and readied our bikes for the planned 7a departure.

The Tour Divide follows this multi-use path and it's right next to Brandi's place, talk about convenient!!

Trav looking the part of a Divide racer.

Scene of the crime from 2019. This is the exact spot I left the route, felt so good to be back.

The climbing kicked up a bit after reaching US285.
Thankfully there was a large shoulder as 285 is a very busy road. Most drivers used the passing lane and gave us plenty of room, most. There was one semi that would've moved over, but it was getting passed as it drove by us. It was a tad close for comfort and we were careful to hug the outside of the shoulder until we came to our dirt turnoff.

Ten miles on the dot and we arrived at Marshall Pass Rd. We were ready to ditch the pavement and traffic.
Relieved to be off the busy US285 and on quiet dirt in the mountains. Photo by Trav.

Instantly our conditions improved.

Back in '19 I rode a Binary Bicycles Havok, this time I brought a Binary SSP, mostly because I wanted to do a lot of trail riding after this bikepack.

Trav cranking away on the steady grade.

Weren't we just down there??

O'Haver Lake was a pleasant surprise.

Taking 5 by the lake overlook. Photo by Trav.

Mount Ouray had been dominating our view most of the climb so far. PeakFinder app.

With elevation comes aspens, lots of aspens.
Somewhere about near the halfway point of the climb I could feel a bit of discomfort in my left Achilles. I had re-aggravated it a few weeks earlier and took it easy leading into this trip. The first two rides were fine, no issues since they were both short. But now, a long ride on a loaded bike. How would this pan out? I swore to myself if it became a serious issue, I'd stop, cut my trip short if it starting hurting.

The flowers joined the party too.

Trav's loaded Binary Bicycles Grolar. Photo by Trav.

Catching up after getting left in the dust!! Photo by Trav.

14 miles up the grade, we joined the CDT & CT for a short bit.

Oh jeez, more flashbacks, but this time it was sunny & dry unlike the 2017 CTR!!

Looking towards the west from Marshall Pass.

Go Team Binary!! Thanks to a northbound tourer for snapping this!!

Right after snapping the above pic, I thought I may have cell service and our Marshall Pass sign would be a good one to post. I typically do these long rides with my phone in airplane mode, I have a Google Pixel 3a phone and it requires a swipe down, then across to access the sub-menu. When I swiped across the phone went black. Like dead black. Nothing. It slightly vibrated when I held the power button, but I couldn't see anything. Shit. Not only did this mean I couldn't snap any pics, but I had no way to get in contact with everyone I planned to see along this trip. Before full panic mode set in, I figured I needed to get to a darker place to see if anything was visible on the screen. We were one long downhill away from lunch at the Tomichi Creek Trading post. Of course about halfway down the winds seemed to shift and blow directly at us. Ahhh, downhill pedaling!!

We had made good time getting to the pass, the highest of our route at 10,842'. I had a stretch goal for us to reach Luders Creek CG near mile 90. Trav was a little apprehensive about that mileage, but I had a feeling he was up for the challenge. It wasn't a big deal if we didn't make it there, it just set things up nicely for the second day.
Looooong downhill!! Photo by Trav.
While waiting for lunch to arrive I began looking at my phone. I could barely make out the icons, maybe lit 1% or so. Trav also has a Google phone and pointed out the brightness bar at the top of the phone after you swipe down. Hmmm, I bet I hit that unexpectedly when the screen was drenched in sunlight up at Marshall Pass. I never noticed the brightness bar there before, had always accessed it from the settings menu. Gah! A bit more futzing around and we were able to finally get the brightness adjusted, panic averted, phone all good. Whew!!
What a great stop, friendly staff and tasty burgers hit the spot.
We were somewhere around mile 42 and still had 10 or so miles of fast pavement riding after lunch. The bad news? The headwind continued.

One of the steeper downhill grades on US50 with freshly minted asphalt.

Doyleville signaled our transition from pavement back to dirt and hopefully out of the wind.

The return to dirt did provide relief from the wind, now more of a cross/tailwind!! However, the skies were threatening.

I was surprised to get passed by a day rider out here, never heard her coming!! She soon left Trav & I in the dust. Must've been doing a loop from Gunnison.

Trav tops out on a short punchy bit of road.

And the reverse shot. Photo by Trav.

Big country out here.

So far we had managed to dodge the surrounding rain squalls, but it wouldn't last.

Razor Creek flowing through a lush valley.

Time to break out the rain gear!!

Thankfully, it only sprinkled for 15-20 minutes. Photo by Trav.

I love these wide open roads.

This shot really sums up the Tour Divide experience.

Cue the downhill!!

I thought this would be a good place to see if we had a signal...nope.

We were making great time as we crossed Hwy 114, the weather had improved and we both knew we could reach our camping goal for the night.

Cochetopa Pass was pass #2 on our route and camp was only a mile beyond.

We found a good place to filter water, here at Cochetopa Creek where the Colorado Trail Race route joins the Tour Divide. The CTR comes in from straight ahead.

Entering a large wildlife area.

Passing by upper & lower Dome Lakes while the threat of rain returns.

Thankfully the ominous skies only provided interesting photos!!

Munching on leftover fries from lunch. I may have to add this as a staple to my feed bag.

Returning to the Nat'l Forest and beginning our slow climb to Cochetopa Pass.

It's a bit faint, but we caught a glimpse of a rainbow.

Trav cruising up the gentle grade.

The CT/CDT split off here.

The gain in elevation meant a return of aspens.

In 1874 a toll road was constructed over Cochetopa Pass. Cochetopa means 'Pass of the Buffalo' in Ute language.

Unfortunately, someone found it necessary to remove the historic plaque.

This is what should have been there. Photo courtesy of Passbagger.org

One mile later we arrived at camp with plenty of daylight.
There was one other camper at the campground, a northbound rider who gave us intel on water for the next morning. Brandi had mentioned there was a handpump at the campground but we couldn't find it. I think it ended up being in the third enclosure that we didn't inspect. Oh well, it wasn't needed.

Camp was setup and we devoured our Mo Burritos. Always a good call to bring a burrito.

I've really been enjoying my Big Agnes Flycreek UL1 tent for these types of outings. It's lightweight, sets up fast/easy and there's enough room inside to change if need be. No, I'm not sponsored by them!!

It was a little chilly the following morning. Photo by Trav.

We were rolling downhill from camp before 7a, sights set on our water resupply a few miles ahead.

It was a cool, but not cold morning. We knew the final 25 miles or so would be warm and we wanted to start our climb up Carnero Pass before the heat kicked in.

It didn't take long for the tall pines to disappear as we flew down Rabbit Canyon.

Vast open countryside was now our view.

A steam engine from a long gone era.

Hwy 114 offered more fast riding.

We found our watering hole the northbound cyclist suggested, Saguache Creek. It was a bit tricky getting down to the water, then the battle with mosquitos took over!! Let's get outta here!!

We turned off 114 onto CR41G and stopped for a snack break as a couple of ranchers arrived with the morning feed for the herd. We also watched a stray bull get rounded back up with the herd. Real live cowboy stuff.

Starting our gradual ascent of Carnero Pass.

The landscape had a different feel here, small mesas, more rock outcroppings. We could tell we were getting farther south in Colorado and nearing New Mexico.

Back into the Rio Grande Nat'l Forest, trees to follow soon.

Looking back north, Mount Ouray was our focal point a day earlier on Marshall Pass.

Steady as she goes.

I think Trav was really digging his new Binary Bicycles Grolar as he dusted me on all three of the major climbs.

The initial pitch relented and gave us this open valley. Photo by Trav.

The climbing continued, temps were rising and the helmet was off!! But those aspens...

Trav snags the selfie at the pass!!

Summit No. 3!! Snack time.
It felt great to have all the big passes behind us now. My Achilles had held its own, still not happy, but it wasn't a real concern. I liked my chances on continuing my roadtrip since the next few rides were going to be short or mostly downhill.

Speaking of downhill, the descent off Carnero Pass was a blast!!

We topped off water here at the Middle Fork of Carnero Creek for the remainder of the ride.

Cool rock outcroppings were more frequent in this area.

The miles were flying by as the downhill grade continued.

Absolutely stunning area.

Approaching Hellgate!! That's the actual name. Photo by Trav.

What an amazing place.

Trav exits Hellgate!! Highlight of the route for sure.

Meet Mark from Virginia, a northbound tourer.

Another pinch point along the route.

We began to leave the trees behind in exchange for warmer temps.

More rock formations.

The last bit of lush greenery for a while.

No shelter from the sun here.

Big mountains to the south.

Back on dirt entering the San Luis Valley.

The route passes by Penitente Canyon, fun & scenic trails back there if you're ever in the area.

Steady grind into a light headwind, some washboarding and warm temps.

Our route peeled off before reaching Elephant Rocks, which are large boulders strewn about the landscape.

Pick your line through the washboarding. I was missing the Lauf fork through here, but Trav was on a rigid!!

Turning off the main road, we climb back into the hills.

This area has a very southwest feel to it.

One final sustained climb heading west.

Oof. I was feeling the afternoon heat and could taste the post-ride brew calling!! Photo by Trav.

At the top, the route turns to this 2-track. Fresh tracks from the northbound riders meander in the dirt.

This bit rode like singletrack and was mostly downhill, just watch your speed blasting through the corners!!

Trav making his way up a short climb that broke up the downhill.

We'd crest between East (left) & West Buttes.

At the pass we could see the finish line of Del Norte.
The ensuing downhill was a bit chunky at first, then followed a sandy wash. Glad I was running 2.6" tires through there and riding in the downhill direction. I'm guessing there was a lot of hike-a-bike for the northbound riders here. I don't think Trav enjoyed the sandy bits on his skinnier tires!! 

There were three of these Great Divide Mountain Bike Route signs around the airport. I believe they are the only ones on the entire route. Kinda odd, yet cool.

Trav catching up after the sandy section.

Looking like a seasoned bikepacker.

Del Norte airport / airstrip.

All flat to the finish from here.

Bison youngin's.

Welcome to Del Norte, CO!!

The mighty Rio Grande River on it's way to the Gulf of Mexico.

That's a lot of Rocky Mountain water.

My car was parked at the end of this straightaway.
We made a beeline to the convenience store next to my car, cold chocolate milk, please. Ahhh. We unwound for a few minutes, changed and made our way over to the brewery for a celebratory toast to a well executed ride.

We arrived back at Brandi's in time for pizza and were joined by another cycling legend from Salida: Janie Hayes. It was great to finally meet her, she also started the 2019 Tour Divide putting down a massive pace before stopping in Wyoming. Brandi's husband also popped in sharing stories of some crazy mountain biking adventures along the Rico100 from a few years ago. I love hearing those stories. Thanks again, Brandi for hosting us for our two nights in Salida, you are incredibly generous and are welcome in the desert anytime!!

Another section of the Tour Divide route complete!! It was such a great route with varying landscapes, plenty of well graded climbs and bomber descents. So glad to share the experience with my longtime bud, sure brought back lots of riding memories. Let's do another one sometime soon, Trav.

Can't wait to resume the rest of the Divide next year from Del Norte with Justin, perhaps Trav can join for a section too?? We plan to ride the dirt option of the Great Divide route from Cuba to just south of Grants, NM. Only a mere 770 miles remaining!! Keep note of the countdown timer in the upper right sidebar. :)


Next installment: Del Norte to Cumbres Pass (June 2022)


  1. John, I so enjoyed reading this post. Beautiful scenery, good times with friends, what an extraordinary gift and accomplishment. All the best to you and your family. Kathy Herbert

    1. Thanks Kathy!! So glad you enjoyed reading it. Such a great time sharing that adventure with Trav, I think he's hooked!! Hope you and Don are doing well. Cheers!