I can’t really tell what I’m getting myself into as I drop into Ribcage, a buffed out, clean-picked stretch of swooping trail in southwestern Colorado.
A nearby sign proclaims this “The Center of the Mountain Biking Universe,” though, and I’m ready to orbit around it a few times.
To make things easier, I’m following a trajectory set by 38-year-old professional ultra-endurance cyclist and fellow Texan Ashley Carelock, who decided to make a career out of biking after riding this flowy trail in an area called Phil’s World, just outside the small town of Cortez. She knows I’m not into super technical stuff, but I love flying up and down rollers.
I bounce down a few big boulders at the top of the trail, then it’s smooth sailing. And even though Carelock rides way faster than I do, I can follow her blissful hooting and hollering from the seat of the Specialized Stumpjumper I rented from a local shop. Pretty soon, I’m yipping like a coyote, too, as I zoom through banked berms and glide up and over hard-packed humps.
“It’s that true Zen state,” Carelock says as we take a break among the hip-high brush and groovy rock formations. “Hitting those corners at speed –– oh man, I feel like a big kid. Those trails are what stole my heart.”
A mountain biking destination
This corner of Colorado is gaining a reputation as a mountain biking destination, and Cortez’s location between Durango and Moab, two other mountain biking meccas, only adds to its appeal. Besides cycling, Mesa Verde Country, as the tourism officials call it, offers a rich cultural history. Mesa Verde National Park is just down the road, and the Ute Mountain Tribal Park offers incredible guided tours on its land in nearby Towaoc.
After a few hours at Phil’s, where we’re starting to wilt under the baking sun, Carelock and I load up our bikes and head to the promise of cooler temperatures and more shade at Boggy Draw, a 30-minute drive away at higher elevations. There, we start down a soft, mostly flat trail that winds into a valley where a few cows are munching grass. Then we duck into the tall pines, climb a little, drop a little and pop out on a wide-open expanse of rock. It’s fun –– and feels entirely different than the bony, sandstone tracks at Phil’s.
That’s the thing about this area –– it offers plenty of biking diversity, all within an hour’s drive of Cortez. If the sunbaked sandstone at Phil’s World gets to you, head to Boggy Draw. When you tire of pedaling beneath the pines, ride the high country farther north.
Planting the roots of a biking network
“Cortez is kind of a hub,” says Jimbo Fairley, who moved to Cortez in 1994 to open Kokopelli Bike & Board, where I rented my bike. He sold the shop a few years ago but remains active in the community.
“We’re right in the middle between desert and high country mountain riding,” he says. “On any day you can go ride pure desert slickrock or you can go to the high country and be 10 degrees cooler and get crazy elevation. The Sand Canyon Trail has cliff dwellings, slick rock and technical stuff. Go to Phil’s World to get flow, go to Boggy Draw and be in the pinon pines, and then go another 10 or 20 miles north and get 13,000-foot single track trail through the San Juan Mountains.”
Fairley gives much of the credit for Cortez’s growing reputation as a cycling destination to Phil Vigil, for whom the Phil’s World network of trails is named.
“He went out on Bureau of Land Management land and kind of started ‘finding’ trails out there (where Phil’s World is now located.) He kept it secret for a while, but if Phil liked you, he’d tell you about the trails,” Fairley says.
He must have liked Fairley, who knows the trail system well. The network of routes has slowly expanded, and the local cycling community formed the Kokopelli Bike Club –– now the Southwest Colorado Cycling Association –– to maintain them. (Be sure to drop a donation in the box at Phil’s World to help the association pay to lease the land and fund insurance and porta-potties.)
Vigil died last December, but the trails he helped develop have become increasingly popular. Phil’s World is home to the 12 Hours of Mesa Verde race, which draws about 1,000 competitors each spring, and on pleasant days, the parking lot fills with cars. Even so, with nearly 60 miles of one-way trails, most suitable for intermediates, it rarely feels crowded.
“I think what people love about (Phil’s World) so much is the flow –– you have sections with elevation change, but right after that you’ll have slight descents, so you always feel like you have constant momentum out there,” Fairley says.
After the ride
Later that night, I scrub off the dust and sweat at the restored log cabin where I’m staying at the Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch. From my back porch near a rocky mesa on the remote, 2,000-acre property, I can watch sheep and cattle, or walk down to a creek to dip a toe in the water. One night owners Garry and Ming Adams invite me to dinner; another evening they give me a ranch tour.
But then it’s back to the bike trails for me. I can’t resist a second day at Phil’s World, where I take another lap around Ribcage. When temperatures soar to 100, I find my way to McPhee Reservoir, where I clamber down a rocky shoreline and take a refreshing plunge into the chilly water. It’s the perfect way to top off a heart-pumping ride –– and plan my next voyage to this biking hotspot.
If You Go
From Austin, book a flight to Durango-La Plata County Airport, where you can rent a car for the 58-mile trip to Cortez.
For a basic, inexpensive room with a funky vibe, stay at the Retro Inn at Mesa Verde, 2040 E. Main Street in Cortez, where you can play the giant chess set outdoors or make a call from a real pay phone in a booth. For more luxurious and remote accommodations, book a cabin at the Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch, 7950 County Road G.
Eat & Drink:
Try a Navajo taco, made with hot Indian fry bread topped with green chile and sour cream, at Blondie’s in Cortez. WildEdge Brewing Collective in Cortez serves great tap beer and excellent pork nachos. For a scoop of honey lavender ice cream, head to Moose & More in Cortez. The Dolores Food Market in Dolores makes quite possibly the world’s best hummus.
For a relaxing evening after a day of cycling, drop by Sutcliffe Vineyards, 12174 County Road G, and pick up a bottle of chardonnay. It’s the perfect wine for sitting on the porch of the Wagstaff Cabin at Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch and watching the sun set.