One of the highest-elevation bike-legal traverses in North America, Jones Pass offers smooth singletrack along spectacular ridgelines, as Greg Heil discovered.
As I struggled up the deceptively steep singletrack trail winding its way along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) south of Jones Pass, I realized that I was riding (and pushing) my bike along one of the highest-elevation mountain bike trails in North America. Granted, there are indeed a few higher trails to be tackled—this stretch of the CDT tops out at 13,208 feet above sea level, and there are several 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado that are bike-legal. For instance, Mount Elbert—the tallest peak in the state—is bike-legal and soars to a height of 14,439ft.
But if you've ever mountain biked a 14er (I've done a few), you know it's a shit ton of work: hours of pushing your bike uphill with very minimal riding before white-knuckling the steep descent on the way back down. It's always worth it, but it's a helluva challenge.
This section of the Continental Divide Trail running between Jones Pass and Herman Gulch, on the other hand, is one of the highest-elevation bike-legal singletrack traverses in the USA or Canada. The surprisingly smooth singletrack unfurls along a spectacular ridgeline, undulating up and down along the Divide and providing jaw-dropping views in all directions. Granted, even "undulations" can turn into hike-a-biking at 13,000 feet, but I was shocked at how rideable and approachable the terrain was.
Even so, a pair of trail runners that I leap-frogged for a few miles was amazed that I was up there on a mountain bike. "I can't believe you're riding this," they quipped. "That's insane!"
"I can't believe you're running this!" I shouted back.
Any way you slice it, adventuring at these sky-scraping elevations is a challenging endeavor, but the sinuous, sandy trail rolling through the alpine terrain was a true delight and one that beckons to riders from across the state.
Most riders are able to shuttle to the top of Jones Pass at 12,457ft on a two-wheel-drive gravel road, which makes this section of trail dramatically more accessible than it otherwise would be. Despite being rated as a two-wheel-drive road, some vehicles might not be able to make it all the way—I personally had to pedal and push some of the gravel road before I reached the singletrack. But even if you do make it to the top of the pass, you'll still have to complete about 1,330 feet of climbing—all of which is well above 12,000 feet.
In my opinion, any time you get above 12,000 feet, you just need to expect that it's going to be hard. Whether you're riding, hiking, skiing—whatever—the air is thin above 12k. People love to bitch and moan about the elevation, but the whinging never makes it any better. When you get up this high, you just need to put your head down and do the work. If you're biking, realize that climbs you would be able to clean at 7,000 feet or even 10,000 feet will feel defeating at 13,000 feet. That's just the game at these elevations—but if you're willing to play a challenging game, you'll be rewarded with some of the best views on the continent... and a 3,500-foot descent, too!
Why is this one of the highest stretches of bike-legal singletrack in North America?
I spent way too much time thinking about this as I was whizzing through the downhill instead of simply enjoying the fast descent, but I wondered to myself where else there might be a higher bike-legal singletrack traverse in the USA or Canada. (If you know of one that I missed, please shoot me a message.)
To begin, I ruled out all of Canada and Alaska. While they have mighty mountains, the only peaks in those northern latitudes that climb higher than 13,000 feet are (generally speaking) covered in glaciers or consist largely of rock cliffs, and aren't home to actual trails to speak of.
If we exclude the glaciated regions in the Lower 48, we are left with only two areas that have such high alpine terrain: the Colorado Rockies and the Sierra Nevada in California. So the next question I asked is: "Where are the Wilderness areas?"
Unfortunately, mountain bikes are currently banned in designated Wilderness areas all across the United States due to a misinterpretation of the Wilderness Act (written before mountain bikes existed) by the US Forest Service in the late 80s. And most unfortunately, the ban hasn't yet been repealed, despite the best scientific studies showing that bikers do barely more trail damage than hikers and dramatically less than horses (which are allowed on all Wilderness trails by default). The ban isn't based in science—it's based in politics. For more context and backstory, be sure to read this article for a primer, and this article for even more nuance.
Most of the USA's high-alpine terrain is protected/locked up in Wilderness areas. In fact, heading north from Jones Pass, the CDT skirts and eventually enters the Vasquez Peak Wilderness Area, thereby blocking what would be an even more incredible mountain bike ride than the route detailed here.
As I analyzed the possibilities, I realized that there are shockingly few stretches of bike-legal singletrack above 13,000 feet and even fewer that aren't mountain peaks. The only section of trail that can compete with the Jones Pass section of the CDT is a stretch of singletrack many miles to the south, shared by both the Colorado Trail and the CDT.
The highest-elevation section of the Colorado Trail (Segment 22) is indeed bike-legal and tops out at 13,271 feet—just a bit higher than the 13,208-foot high point of Hassell "Peak" on the section of the CDT I recently rode. Unfortunately, after spending a few miles traversing right around the 13,000-foot line, Segment 22 hits a dirt road and loses elevation quickly. Whether or not that dirt road disqualifies Segment 22 is a judgment you'll have to make for yourself.
I examined maps for the Sierras (home to Mount Whitney—the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 at 14,505ft), but again, all of the high-alpine terrain is designated Wilderness.
As I cruised down out of the alpine and entered the dark pine forest for a fast, raucous descent down Herman Gulch, I marveled at the chance to enjoy a truly unique mountain biking experience. When I set out to check another ride off the to-do list, I didn't expect to stumble onto such a rare two-wheeled trail experience.
While I did my best to savor the spectacular views as much as I could—stopping for lunch on top of Hassell Peak and taking time to shoot photos and just stare with my jaw hanging open—the ride was unfortunately over all too soon. This is ultimately a short section of singletrack in the grand scheme of things: only 4.2 miles before dropping back under 12,000 feet.
One day, we'll be able to change the law and embrace the millions of conservation-minded mountain bikers who would love to both enjoy and protect for these wild spaces. But until that day arrives, the Jones Pass section of the CDT will remain one of the most epic high-elevation mountain bike traverses on the continent!