FATMAP difficulty grade
Imagine the most epic mountain top views in the world and combine them with beautiful, flowing singletrack, followed by a raucous, high-speed descent down a mountainside ending on the valley floor, and you have the epic Monarch Crest Trail in a nutshell.
The Crest is often ranked as one of the best mountain bike trails in the United States, and even the world.
It's deserving of that ranking, too, with a roughly 10-mile portion of the trail that hugs the top of the Continental Divide, offering incredible views in every direction. Almost 100% of riders use a shuttle to get to the top of Monarch Pass.
The top of the pass rests at 11,312 feet in elevation, and the town of Poncha Springs, where you catch the shuttle and end the ride, is at 7,464 feet, meaning the shuttle nets you almost 4,000 free feet of vertical gain.
However, don't make the mistake of thinking that the Crest is a downhill ride--you'll still climb thousands of feet as you go up and down along the top of the mountain range, before the main descent down the mountainside.
The ride tops out just shy of 12,000 feet. While the "Crest" portion of the Monarch Crest Trail that runs along the Continental Divide, clinging to the tops of the mountains, is relatively non-technical, other portions of the Monarch Crest are definitely technically-challenging.
After the Continental Divide Trail descends into the trees, one of the descents along the ridge before reaching Marshall Pass is quite technical, with blocky boulders, a scree field crossing, mud-slicked roots, and wheel-sucking mud holes.
The Silver Creek descent is the least technical singletrack descent off of the Crest, but don't let that make you complacent! The upper portion of Silver Creek is fast and steep, with scree-filled singletrack that seems to plummet straight down the mountain.
Blind switchbacks funneling into rock up-and-overs will keep you on your toes.
Eventually the trail straightens out as it drops into the trees, picking up speed and blasting through high-speed root webs and whoops.
Near the bottom, the trail follows the creek, crossing a bridge and twisting through the woods before reaching the Rainbow Trail portion. The Rainbow Trail offers sweet singletrack with some beautiful bench cut riding through wide-open meadows, with glorious views of Mount Ouray.
However, to reach these sweet sections you'll have to suffer through short, steep climbs that are unrideable for most people.
But they're over quickly, and the flowy portions of singletrack more than make up for the pain! A word of caution: the Monarch Crest Trail traverses the Continental Divide for many miles, meaning you'll spend a long time at high elevation.
During the summer months in Colorado, thunderstorms routinely build out of nowhere on top of the mountains in the early afternoon.
While thunderstorms bring with them rain (and often snow) and quick drops in the temperature, with the risk of hypothermia, the major danger is lightning.
Lightning strikes above tree line are extremely common, and can prove deadly.
As a general rule of thumb, you want to be back below tree line by noon, but 11am is even safer.
Since the Monarch Crest spends so much time above tree line, in order to safely cover the high alpine distance and begin your descent before the lightning moves in, you'll need to begin your ride early.
I recommend departing from the top of Monarch Pass by 9 am.
If you're utilizing a commercial shuttle, that means you'll ideally need to catch the earliest shuttle available. While the commercial shuttle companies will run shuttles late in the morning and even in the early afternoon if there's demand, that doesn't mean that weather conditions on the top of the Crest will be safe.
Even if the weather looks clear at noon, the storms can build rapidly and the situation can change in an instant.
So start early, bring a rain jacket, and plan your bailout option if the weather goes sideways.
But if you prepare adequately, the Crest is one of the most beautiful and entertaining mountain bike rides anywhere!