Steamboat to Salida (part 3). Fairplay to Salida

Fairplay has a little theme park, a reproduction of a 19th Century mine town (which seems a little irrelevant as the old street is quite well preserved), and it calls it South Park City.  There certainly seem some mixed views in the town as to whether the South Park connection is worth it… 

The other Fairplay claim to fame is the annual Burro race, apparently the longest and toughest in the world. 

I rode on for 18 miles on the road before rejoining the official Divide route at the tiny town of Harsel.  I had lunch there and regretted it.  Interesting place, but not good on the stomach.

From Harsel the ride to Salida was straight across the South Park basin.  This really is a strange place, a wide open area with just some buffalo and cattle grazing.  If you check it out on google maps it almost seems to be a city, with a dense network of roads set out in blocks.  But in reality, these roads are (apart from some incongruous looking road signs), almost invisible.  It seems that during every housing bubble someone gets the bright idea of laying out this vast area in subdivisions.  Presumably someone who thinks that half Denver wants to move up closer to the mountains.  But even in the biggest bubble, nobody is stupid enough to actually buy an acre in the middle of the desert (its not like this is Nevada….).  So all thats left are signs, faint tracks across the plain, and some very occasional and eccentric houses (most of which seemed to be abandoned).  I rode for nearly 30 miles through this landscape.

I stocked up with water at the only permanent watercourse.  It didn’t look the best quality of water, but I planned to camp at a high ridge overlooking Salida, and I knew there was not likely to be any water on the ridge.

The curious thing about these basins is that while the bottoms are very dry, you only have to climb a little before reaching green forest – it seems the ridges capture whatever rainfall there is.  I set off up the final climb of this section, 1000 foot up the side of a ridge.  The cattle seemed to be welcoming me, forming a little posse at each cattle grid crossing.  Then I realised that the cattle grids were on local high points, so the cows here were just like Irish cows, standing idly on the hills when they think rain is coming.  I remembered that the forecast was for rain and sleet on the lowlands that night, which most likely means snow on the ridge.

The final climb was steep, but lovely as it went up through pine forest.  The road was occasionally sandy making it hard going.  So it was 6pm and the sun was about to set as I finally crested the ridge at 10,000 foot, giving me a dramatic view of the giant Sawatch chain of mountains across the valley. 

Now I had a decision to make – make camp at one of the rough informal spots at the ridge as I’d intended, or press on.  Camping at the ridge would be nice, it had been a few days since I enjoyed the peace and comfort of a sleep at altitude (yes, it is lovely when you have a good sleeping bag!).  It also gave me the chance of waking to a snow covered forest.  On the negative side, it might also mean a cold and hazardous descent the next morning on a snowy, icy, or just very wet and muddy steep trail.

The other alternative was to press on, and do a very steep 12 mile descent to Salida as the sun sets and darkness set in.  Not very smart.  But I do believe that you haven’t really had a proper bike tour unless you’ve tried a 3,000 foot descent on twisty broken roads with precipitous ravines on one side with nothing but a head torch and the moon to see by.  So down I went.

The light went faster than I expected, but about two miles down I saw a wonderful sight.  A huge herd of about 50 elk let by a magnificent stag were grazing at the roadside around an empty house (presumably the garden provided good grazing).  They dashed for the forest when they saw me, led by the stag who clearly doesn’t believe in women and children first.  Mind you, seeing how fond the locals are of mounting stag heads over their fireplaces, I don’t really blame him.  I got my camera out too late, you can just about see the last of them vanishing into the woods if  you double click on this picture.

Apart from a little moonlight, it was pitch black for the last few miles down.  Its probably just as well that I couldn’t see how steep the drop was to my left for most of the way.  I could see just enough to see that this side of the ridge was a very different environment than I’d cycled through before – instead of low scrub or pine trees, this is a landscape of short twisted Pinon and Bristlecone – the vegetation of New Mexico, not of areas north. 

In the pitch black just on the outskirts of town, I saw the unmistakeable blue tinted light of a powerful bike LED.  I was greeted by Scot, who introduced himself as the chief mechanic of Absolute Bikes, and he kindly offered me a bottle of beer he just happened to be carrying.  He gave me directions to the best places to stay, and within half an hour I was in the Woodland Motel. 

This might just be the last stage for me of the Great Divide Trail (at least for now).  But not the last stage of the cycling I think.

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