By Jeanine Barone, Special to The Denver Post
Is your first instinct to jump on a train when you need to travel long distance? Hardly. But, by the turn of the 19th century, most every American traveler went by train. While the railroad’s heyday is long gone, its derelict corridors are being resurrected as rails-trails — multi-use paths where you’ll be able to check out historical features, nearby museums and restaurants, or become enwrapped in natural landscapes. And, most importantly, you’ll have little, if any, contact with motor vehicles. They are perfect for cycling.
There are almost 2,100 rails-trails in the U.S., 42 of them in Colorado, according to Andrea Holliday with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The four scenic rails-trails discussed here offer a safe, enjoyable way to stay fit, commute and commune with nature. Plus, they’re protecting natural resources and revitalizing local businesses.
Animas River Trail
Flowing from the San Juan Mountains, the sparkling Animas River that runs through Durango defines the city, providing numerous recreational opportunities that often take advantage of the 100-foot-wide river’s whitewater. But life along the riverfront was very different in the mid-1800s when silver and gold were first discovered in the mountains, and myriad mining camps sprang up along its banks. No wonder the old Denver and Rio Grande Railroad laid tracks through the Animas Valley to bring ore from Silverton to Durango, where smelters, with easy access to coal and water, retrieved the precious metals.
Today, the paved Animas River Trail follows 7 miles (soon to be 8 after an extension is finish later this year) of the river and the original rail corridor, in places paralleling the active tracks of the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad that still uses most of the original equipment, according to Cathy Metz with Durango’s Parks & Recreation. (You may see this historic train in the northern section of the trail where the tracks are nearby.)
Pedaling from Animas City Park south to Dallabetta Park, you’ll notice an array of interpretive signage that offers a window into the area’s history. One sign describes the dance halls, saloons, gambling joints and parlors for “fancy ladies” that once ran for two blocks along the river. On another, black and white photos document the history of the river’s flooding.
The Animas River Trail may be short and flat, but that’s no reason to rush along. After all, there is a wealth of sights to capture your attention, whether the cottonwood and willow groves along the waterfront; kayakers, paddleboarders and rafters navigating the river; spectacular views of the rugged San Juans; and, at the trail’s terminus, the curiously hued Purple Cliffs where gambel oaks and pinyon juniper grow. If all this wasn’t enough, steel, bronze and mixed-media outdoor art are installed along or nearby the trail, including a sculpture of flying birds and a piece celebrating miners.
Your route also passes many green spaces, each beckoning with a variety of amenities. Among them is Santa Rita Park where blooming flower gardens, birdwatching options, a lovely kids playground and viewing platforms above the new, man-made Class III rapids in Whitewater Park make it a real treasure.
Bike rental: Pedal the Peaks.
Things to do: At the Saturday morning Farmers Market from May to October, pick up locally sourced carrots, cherry tomatoes and other healthy snacks.
Feed the trout at the small Durango Fish Hatchery that raises cutthroats, Browns and rainbows as well as kokanee salmon.
With a flight simulator and rocket launchers, the interactive Powerhouse Science Center is housed in a building that was home to one of the earliest alternating electrical current (AC) power plants.
Eat and Drink: The 11th Street Station, a collective of seven food trucks, easily satisfies your food cravings, whether it’s for a wood-fired sourdough pizza at The Box or a poke bowl at Manny’s Fresh Co.
Enjoy a cold, house-made brew and jerk chicken wings on the outdoor patio at the chill Animas Brewing Co.
Mineral Belt Trail
Pedaling the Mineral Belt Trail, a 11.6-mile loop that circumnavigates Leadville, is like visiting an outdoor mining museum. The paved path melds sections of three different railroad corridors (Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, Colorado and Southern Railway, and Colorado Midland Railway that serviced Leadville’s mines.) It was designed both for recreation and to showcase the mining heritage of Leadville, which was once one of the world’s greatest mining camps.
Dozens of historic markers and mining relics pepper the trail to tell the stories of pioneers and notables, as well as the mines themselves, from the early days to the boom and ultimate bust. These artifacts include ore cars, a mining train, an ore crushing mill and wooden headframes that once towered over operative mine shafts, according to Donna Childress with Lake County Tourism. You’ll notice photos of a Graham Park miner’s cabin, and learn that the Blind Tom Mine was named for the resident mule that lost his sight in the darkness.
As you begin cycling clockwise from the Lake County Recreation Complex, your route gently ascends, alternating between pockets of dense lodgepole pines and open areas that provide vistas of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, Colorado’s two highest peaks. You’ll pass through drier terrain laden with sagebrush as well as a smattering of meadows speckled with wildflowers, such as lupine and yarrow.
Near where you started, the Mineral Belt Trail provides easy access to downtown, with its National Historic Landmark District preserving Victorian architecture. The path also brings you near the historic Matchless Mine, where you can hop off your bike and take a surface tour, or keep pedaling and check it out later.
After the trail’s highpoint at 10,600 feet, an aspen grove is especially striking in the autumn when the leaves take on a golden hue. On the low-key downhill, don’t miss the panoramic viewpoints over downtown Leadville and California Gulch, where gold was first struck. Cruise along the last couple of forested miles, and don’t be surprised if you spot deer, foxes or even a black bear.
Bike rental: Cycles of Life.
Things to do: Prowl through replicas of mines and caves in the multilevel National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum.
Explore the Healy House Museum, the restored clapboard home of August Meyer, one of Leadville’s founders, and his wife that shows off grand Victorian furniture.
On a guided surface tour of the Matchless Mine, you’ll learn about the rags-to-riches (and back to rags) story of Horace and Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor.
Eat and drink: The menu at the Tennessee Pass Cafe emphasizes locally-sourced fare, such as the grass-fed buffalo meatloaf.
Periodic Brewing, a family-owned business, has beers to suit all palates. If you’re hungry, try the BBQ pulled pork sandwich.
Galloping Goose Trail
The 18-mile Galloping Goose Trail is a mixed gravel and dirt track, with stretches of unpaved forest roads. No worries: this off-road cycling is mostly mellow and non-technical. Plus, if you drive about 20 minutes from Telluride, park your car and start cycling at the more than 10,000-foot-high Lizard Head Pass, you’ll be coasting gently downhill (with two short steep uphill exceptions) to the parking area at the Ilium Trailhead, where many cyclists stop. (If you’re energized, pedal uphill to the trail’s terminus at Lawson Hill, a development a few miles outside Telluride.)
The trail follows the grade of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, a narrow-gauge line that, beginning in the late 19th century, snaked its way through the rugged San Juan Mountains, including stops in Telluride and other remote silver mining towns. This rail line was considered an engineering feat, most famously its Ophir Loop, a tight, hairpin curve the trains followed as they climbed up the valley via numerous wooden trestles, according to the Galloping Goose Historical Society.
In the early 1930s, the line downsized, replacing the too-expensive-to-power steam engine locomotives with less costly gas-powered engine rail cars (aka motors), and the Galloping Goose was born. This nickname referred to the seven custom-built “geese” that each combined an automobile (or later a bus) body front with a freight box rear. With horns emitting a “honking” sound, and the waddling motion as they ran on the narrow gauge, it’s no wonder the goose symbolism took hold. (The “geese” traveled this rugged route until the early 1950s, according to the historical society)
Cruising downhill from Lizard Head Pass where clouds scuttle across the seemingly endless vistas of high mountains, you’ll have numerous opportunities to gape at Vermilion Peak, Yellow Mountain or other craggy summits. But don’t miss the relics from the railroad’s (and mining’s) era scattered about, including, near Trout Lake, the one remaining trestle (of some 140); and a massive water tank once used to refill the steam engines. Much farther along are wooden railroad ties; and platforms built of old rails displaying photos of the old Galloping Goose, and the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant, the first AC-generating plant in the world.
The route is a dramatic one, whether you’re coursing through dense forests of Rocky Mountain blue spruce and Douglas fir, or gazing at open valley expanses as you navigate beside sheer granite walls. Early summer brings out a multi-colored palette as columbines, bluebells, yellow phlox and other wildflowers paint your path. You might spy various jays and robins flitting about, or marmots spied sunning themselves on rocky talus.
Bike rental: BootDoctors.
Things to do: Join the Telluride Art Walk the first Thursday of each month from June through September and December through March when numerous galleries stay open late and offer refreshments.
Ashley Bowling’s Historical Tours of Telluride brims with discoveries, including a visit to the site of Butch Cassidy’s first successful bank robbery (970-728-6639).
Eat and drink: Hang out in the small tap room at the Telluride Brewing Co. with a glass of Whacked Out Wheat, an award-winning brew that’s light enough to quench your thirst.
The Butcher and the Baker, a casual Telluride spot, offers some tasty, locally sourced fare, including a dry-rubbed brisket sandwich with pickled red onions.
Rio Grande Trail
Taking its name from the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad that ran its Aspen branch through the Roaring Fork Valley, the mostly paved 42-mile Rio Grande Trail meanders along the old rail corridor from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. This railroad ceased its service in the 1990s, more than 100 years after the first trains rolled into this valley (where settlers and prospectors flocked) to take advantage of the rich silver strikes in Aspen, as well as the valley’s coal fields and vast fertile lands — perfect for cattle ranching and potato farming.
Colorado’s longest rail-trail provides reminders of this corridor’s former life: spikes, mileposts, railroad crossings, wooden trestles and, in some places, rails. Often, the sparkling Roaring Fork River accompanies you as you ride gradually downhill from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.
After leaving Aspen’s Herron Park, you’ll see Colorado blue spruce and cottonwoods along the river with mountain berry sagebrush and serviceberry shrubs growing on the drier hillsides above. This area is rich in wildlife, including black bears, foxes and mule deer, as well as a multitude of bird species, such as red-breasted nuthatches and ruby-crowned kinglets. (Bird watchers should cycle with their binoculars handy.) With bird life especially attracted to the river corridor and its flora, you may hear the chattering of the American dippers, spy belted kingfishers perched in a streamside cottonwood or spot bald eagles flying overhead.
After about 8 miles, the Woody Creek Tavern is a popular stop just off the trail (it was the haunt of journalist Hunter S. Thompson). After passing hillsides of pinyon junipers, hay meadows, fields of potatoes and pastures with horses, you may decide to veer just a mile from the rail-trail to visit downtown Basalt for its restaurants and prime trout fishing. Farther along, your route has direct access to the 113-acre Rock Bottom Ranch, a favorite detour for its serene picnic spots, birding and various ecosystems including wetlands, a trail and a farm tour that each provide an education in sustainable agriculture.
The Rio Grande ARTway is a short section of the trail showing off Carbondale’s creativity and cultural diversity. Its Latino Folk Art Garden displays a tabletop mosaic representing different Latin cultures, while DeRail Park honors railroad history with numerous train-related artifacts. About 12 miles later, at the confluence of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers, your ride ends in Glenwood Springs, renowned for its geothermal activity. There, you can head over to the hot springs to soak your weary muscles.
Bike rental: Basalt Bike and Ski.
Things to do: Grab a map at the Basalt visitor’s center that’s housed in a circa-1906 caboose, and set off on a historic self-guided walking tour.
Visit the Peace Garden at True Nature Healing Arts in Carbondale for its reflexology path, Zen garden and labyrinth.
Eat and drink: Replenish your calories at The Tipsy Trout, a riverside eatery in Basalt, with some chipotle maple sweet potato fries or pork green chili.
In Basalt, try any of the homemade desserts at Heather’s Savory Pies and Tapas Bar, such as the scrumptious key lime pie that is almost always available.