Travel: Pushing Limits in the Rocky Mountains
Bikes and 4x4s in the Rocky Mountains
Many of the trails that snake through the Rockies can only be described as gnarly. What better environment to explore the capabilities of a 4x4 truck and a group of off-road motorcycles? The expedition was on (last year, we coupled the fourth-generation Toyota 4Runner with Yamaha's WR-series four-stroke dirt bikes and had a lot of fun). This year, we headed to the old-world town of Clark, Colorado, driving the namesake Chevy Colorado, with Honda CRF250X motorcycles in the bed. The team consisted of three riders from Dallas and L.A.
The 2004 Colorado LS Crew Cab is equipped with a 220-horsepower 3.5-liter inline-five, and, in this case, the Z71 off-road suspension, fundamental for this trip. The test vehicle, built in Shreveport, Louisiana, has a retail price of $32,250.
Coming out of Denver, the route's altitude and angle of ascent increased. The Colorado's handling and feel for the road conformed to the winding mountain roads. The ride stayed relatively comfortable for a pickup hauling neither a trailer nor a significant cargo load. Interstate 70 intersects with Route 40, which can take you all the way to Steamboat Springs.
Steamboat is an interesting, touristy town in the midst of high peaks and green slopes. The main strip, Lincoln Avenue, is lined with restaurants and pubs, each bearing a distinctive mountain-heritage theme. Next stop was Action Motorsports, the local Honda dealer setting up the CRF250X off-road bikes. Hondas strapped to the Colorado's cargo bed, we followed the Elk River and made a stop at the uncomplicated log cabin community of Clark.
Off-road, the Colorado gave a credible first impression, demonstrating sound traction on dirt roads and dual-track trails crammed with gullies and scattered rock. In addition, it carried its own weight up the steeper grades. Chrome runningboards added a spark to the picture, at the same time limiting ground clearance outside the frame rails.
That day, we broke in the new four-stroke liquid-cooled Hondas. A quick ride from the cabin is Hahns Peak Village, where we fueled up before tackling trails through the Routt National Forest. More often than not, we're the only off-road motorcyclists in the area, but today there were scores of fully outfitted bikers. It turned out to be an annual event dubbed the Rocky Mountain 300. It's by no means a competition, just a fun 300-mile trek sponsored by Parts Unlimited, a wholesale parts distributor. Each year, 200 to 300 select dealer personnel congregate to ride at various Rocky Mountain locations. What does this mean to us? We found out what trails they were riding and went elsewhere--a critical step in avoiding head-on collisions.
We opened up on familiar territory leading back and forth across the Wyoming state border. These historic trails are no walk in the park, incorporating an abundance of twisting single-tracks. Then we ran parallel with the Continental Divide, steering back toward Hahns Peak. Part of one of the trails included an intricate rock climb.
Next was a straightforward run to Farwell Mountain. An older Honda XR600R was part of our group. The target summit came into clear view after traveling a substantial distance--but we never made it to the top. Here, the XR's drainplug oddly worked its way out of the engine's crankcase, allowing every drop of oil to gush onto the trail. The engine consequently seized, cutting the tour short, and leaving us to lug the victim back to base with a tow strap. Another functional XR had been retained as backup.
The following morning, we plotted a line out of Buffalo Pass. Advancing on the trails led to more technical single-tracks crowded with roots and rock ledges. Then we found the south entry to the renowned Grizzly-Helena Trail. The initial segment was fairly complex, and sunlight was vanishing behind the trees, so we opted to call it a day. On the way back, a young girl waved us down. The 12-year-old--dirty, dehydrated, and ready to break down in tears--was in a bit of a predicament. She had hiked out of the Teal Lake Campground and lost the trail. We gave her some water, put her on a bike, and shuttled her back to camp.
This is one of the most notorious motorized trails in the region, and we planned accordingly. It didn't make sense for our third rider to make an attempt on the Grizzly-Helena on the bulky XR600R. He acted as an escort, using the Colorado as a chase vehicle. At the south trailhead, we hid a container of fuel in case we had to double back. These bikes go about 60 miles per tank and the extra fuel would get us back to Steamboat. Rider three took the Colorado around the Mount Zirkel Wilderness to pick us up at the north trailhead. Total trail distance is about 30 miles; we estimated travel time at six to seven hours.
The Grizzly-Helena is a rocky, single-track trail, but the CRF250X suspension held a straight line over the jagged terrain. Then things get interesting. The ascents get steeper and the boulders larger, with no way around. Some trails are 12 inches across, riding the edge of 75-foot cliffs for extended lengths. Repeatedly, we were forced to lift the motorcycles over downed trees and impassable boulder-strewn sections.
One rider went down on a river crossing when his front tire struck a boulder hidden below the waterline. The electric start fired the engine without a hitch, but the rider pulled out totally drenched. Our trail map indicated we had gone only halfway in seven hours as we came to an isolated dirt road. Temperatures steadily dropped with the oncoming darkness. At this point, attempting the remainder of the trail seemed suicidal, so we chose that solitary road off the map.
We eventually discovered a cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere. The owner offered to load the bikes on a horse trailer and transport us to the north trailhead. It was pitch-black by the time we arrived, and there was no sign of our friend and the Colorado. The plan was for him to wait at the trailhead until dark, and then return to the cabin and check for a message about our situation. We started riding the deserted roads, with temperatures dropping fast. It wasn't long before our wet rider was cold and shaking from the wind and speed. We concluded it was time to establish a fire on the roadside, confident our friend would return this way on a search. Still wet from the river, our sole cigarette lighter refused to spark. This wasn't the high point to our expedition, and hypothermia became a real concern. After a chilly 20-minute delay, the lighter came to life, finally igniting a welcomed fire. Rider three returned hours later, and we reached the secure cabin site by morning--the Grizzly-Helena Trail was undeniably gnarly, staying true to form.
The spectacular Colorado Rockies delivered a fun-filled blast of off-road exploration, as always. The capable Chevy got us where we needed to go, and Honda's CRF250X took us one step further by bringing us back in one piece. We spent the last day nursing a back injury and a cold at the famed Strawberry Park Hot Springs, followed by a night on the town in Steamboat. We've already begun to evaluate candidate vehicles for next year's Rocky Mountain challenge.