I spent a lot of time in the early '00's obsessing over and exploring what Gary Dye originally coined The Grand Loop: The trifecta of Kokopelli, Paradox, and Tabeguache trails. Collectively they form a ~350 mile loop with a crushing amount of vertical gain and loss, encircling a ruggedly corrugated and lightly populated chunk of the Colorado Plateau.
I only successfully completed the whole loop, in one go, once. My first effort ended with a broken frame and my second effort culminated in a broken -- dangerously dehydrated and depleted -- me. For that matter my one complete circumnavigation also ended in a very broken me: I still believe that, mile for mile, the Grand Loop is the most difficult event I ever attempted or completed.
Some of that difficulty comes from the tiny bits of use that the bulk of the route receives -- it is often soft, slow going, with lots of climbing (did I mention the climbing?) and it seems like you're almost always toiling away in full sun with no breeze. Plus, for much of the route water is scarce to non-existent.
The Kokopelli section of the route is ridden often and more or less loved to death. Easy access from an Interstate and being bookended by two mountain bike destination towns will do that.
The ends of the Tabeguache -- near Montrose and Grand Junction -- are also heavily used.
Which leaves the heart of the Tab and most of the Paradox. Over the long weekend Jeny, Pete and I set out to (re)acquaint ourselves with a chunk of that section.
Thanks largely to the tireless efforts of Paul Koski, the Paradox has had a veritable pile of new singletrack added to it, replacing steep, soft, rutted, often derelict double tracks. Simply put, this section used to be arguably the least enjoyable part of the route. It was new to Jeny and Pete and they likely thought it was fine. My memories of it were completely unflattering and have, thankfully, been replaced with memories as sweet as the singletrack that Paul has advocated so long to get.
Loved the recycled water tanks on Pinto Mesa -- too bad they were empty as we passed. Would love to know the stories behind them.
After a few hours of climbing, mostly on reasonable grades, we could sense the P/J giving way to the fringes of the alpine. Temps were still hot and shade rare, but the change kept happening fast.
It felt almost literally as though we'd turned a corner or crested a rise and WHAM -- we were in the lush, green alpine.
The only other time I'd been here the world was sodden -- puddles, ponds, and lakes were brim-full and water trickled across most of the meadows. Alas Colorado is destitute of moisture this year, forcing us to search off-route for springs marked on the maps.
Grim. Pete worked a bit at digging this one out enough to fill from, but eventually we continued off route and filled from a trickling Tabeguache Creek. Nothing makes you appreciate water like needing it but not having it.
We camped near the creek so that we'd have water when we woke. A statewide fire ban meant that for post-sunset entertainment we spectated broken clouds whizzing between us and the nearly full moon, until finally blustery drizzle chased us under tarps for sleep.
Waking up already in the alpine was, and always will be, priceless. We had lots of work left to attain the crest of the Uncompahgre Plateau, but with cool temps, abundant shade, and delicious iris everywhere we made quick work of it.
Ahem. At least Jeny and I felt like it went quickly. Pete, fit and fast and motivated to ride, likely felt that we were moving at a snail's pace. From his perspective we actually were. We're in very different places these days -- he wanting to cover ground continuously all day, and in fine fettle to do it, while Jeny and I are more interested in seeing and sensing and being where we are. Not interested in nor willing to rush through any of it.
We regrouped at Antone Spring and had a bit of lunch, sharing stories while enjoying cool water and luxuriant shade.
Pool Creek singletrack was fun, fast, rough, steep, and wild. This section is always the last to be clear of snow, and as such somewhat contentious among those whom would race the Grand Loop. One group believes it to be a spiritual and psychological linchpin of the route, indicative of the wild, rugged, difficult and unpredictable undertaking that the Grand Loop should always be. Another, more vocal group believes that this section should be nixed in favor of making the route "go" sooner in the season. They both have compelling reasons for advocating the positions they do.
For our part we were just happy to have arrived after the snow and mud were gone -- hence the title of this vignette.
Eventually it became obvious that the route we'd planned was a bit ambitious given our allotted time. We'd discussed and hastily drawn a track the night before, and hadn't accurately taken into account how slow the travel would likely be and how not into killing ourselves we'd feel. Thus Jeny and I opted to cut the loop much shorter while Pete soldiered on -- finally unencumbered.
On our descent off the plateau we had stunning views to the south and west. One minute the sky was blue and cloudless, the next there was a smudge on a ridgeline.
By the time we closed the loop late that afternoon the fire had grown such that smoke dominated the entire southern skyline. It's going to be that kind of summer.
I'd like to express my gratitude to Paul Koski for continuing to advocate for and develop the West End trail network. We don't get there often but we're always delighted by it when we do.