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Hinsdale County Colorado from the Seat of a Bike

Entering Hinsdale County from the north along Highway 149 along the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.

When I started my series of Colorado counties from the seat of a bike, Hinsdale County was at the top of my list of counties I wanted to write about.

Hinsdale County Colorado is, in my opinion, one of the best-kept secrets in the state. To be honest, I’m a little conflicted here. On the one hand, I want people to know about this treasure. At the same time, it’s one of those last unspoiled mountain areas, and I really don’t want that to change.

The Hinsdale County website says that the county is the most remote area in the lower 48 United States.. 96.5% of the 1,123 square miles is made up of public lands. Five 14ers (mountain peaks over 14,000 feet) and twenty peaks over 13,000 feet cover this county in the heart of the San Juan Mountains.

Built in 1877, the Hinsdale County courthouse is the oldest in the state that continues to be used as a courthouse. One of its most famous trials was that of Alfred Packer, who was the only one of his party to survive a severe winter and was accused of cannibalism

As large as the county is, it only has 788 residents according to the 2020 census. Lake City, with a census population of 432, is the only incorporated town in the county.

The nearest incorporated towns to Lake City are Gunnison (55 miles to the north and east) and Creede (50 miles to the south and east. Both are along Colorado highway 149, the only paved highway through the county.

Riding a Bike in Lake City, Colorado

Part of downtown Lake City as seen from the town park. Of special note is the San Juan soda company (the blue building) with one of the few remaining classic soda fountains in the country.

Lake City has been the go-to vacation place for us for years. This little town swells considerably with tourists in the summer. It gets its name from nearby Lake San Cristobal.

Lake City had its start as a mining center. When mineral deposits including silver were discovered, the town grew to as many as 5,000 people in the late 1800’s. By the early 1900’s, the mining era had come to an end. By the 1930’s, tourism had become a viable industry that helped keep the town alive.

Highway 149 through Lake City

We’ve taken our bikes with us several times when vacationing in Lake City. It’s a great place to casually ride around town. There are no dedicated bike trails in the area, but traffic is not a problem on the city streets. The picture above of an empty highway going through town is not an unusual scene.

There’s just something very peaceful about riding around town. The main roads are flat and easy to ride. Some roads on the outskirts climb up into the hills. At 8700 feet, climbing some of those hills can be a challenge if you’re not in shape.

I do see people from time to time riding along Highway 149 north of town towards Gunnison. It would be a gorgeous ride as you wind through a beautiful canyon as part of the Silver Thread scenic byway. It’s one of my favorite drives in the entire state. However, with no shoulders and a lot of windy roads and blind curves, I’m not one to risk it.

Riding around Lake City from a local perspective.

I reached out to Laurel Darren, who provides tours through her Wild Bunch Desert Guides. She’s active on the local Facebook pages. She was leading some group rides on Tuesday mornings off and on to try and get visitors out riding.

She said that there are not a lot of single-track trails for mountain biking like there are in a lot of the state. Outside of town you pretty much have the highways, gravel roads, or forest service fire roads.

Alpine Loop: Engineer’s Pass and Cinnamon Pass

I may have lied when I said earlier that Creede and Gunnison were the closest towns. Ouray and Silverton are actually much closer, but you can’t get to them on normal highways. Ouray is 19 miles away as the crow flies, but 188 highway miles.

Two mountain passes make up what’s known as the Alpine Loop. Engineer’s Pass heads out on County Road 30 towards Ouray, while Cinnamon Pass goes towards Silverton. You can drive both passes in a 50-mile loop, but it’s a pretty technical drive requiring 4-wheelers or Off-Highway Vehicles (OHVs). This is a very popular draw for Lake City.

The Hard Tack mine is often open for tours, just a couple miles up Engineer’s pass from Lake City.

The pass is rideable on bicycle. My wife and I have ridden up portions of the loop. Every year the city hosts the Alpine 50, a mountain bike race around the loop.

When we’ve ridden, we’ve never had any issues with the traffic. There’s a lot of four wheeler traffic but most of them have given us a wide berth and been respectful of as as we plod up the hill.

My wife ahead of me winding through Engineer’s pass

Laurel talked about that in our conversation. “As mountain bikers who respect the roads and would like to be respected have had many days of all vehicles and motorbikes pass us and be extremely kind and slow down to not dust us out. There have been a small number of people in all kinds of vehicles who choose to drive speeds that exceed the posted speed limit and that is always rough in terms of dust for us.”

Lake San Cristobal

San Cristobal island was formerly a private island but was recently make public through the Lake Fork Valley Conservancy. This is the suspension bridge to the island.

Lake San Cristobal is a major draw to the Lake City and Hinsdale County areas. It’s a large enough lake for some boating and is a great place to fish. There are quite a few campsites and cabin rentals around the lake.

The lake is about a 4 to 5-mile ride from downtown Lake City. You can ride the two county roads that surround the lake for a little under six miles of unpaved riding. One of those roads, County Road 30, continues southwest as Cinnamon Pass.

There’s a fair bit of traffic around the lake, but generally everyone is moving pretty slowly. I’ve never felt unsafe riding around Lake San Cristobal. Starting in town, a ride out to and loop around the lake and back to town would be about fifteen miles.

Slumgullion Pass

As you leave Lake City going south on Highway 149, you’ll soon start climbing Slumgullion pass. The pass is paved the entire way.

In our conversation, Laurel said that “Slumgullion Pass is a road ride on any bike that is something to say you did and is epic.” Like the rest of the area, the view from Slumgullion pass is amazing.

Lake San Cristobal as seen from higher up on Slumgullion Pass

Climbing Slumgullion pass is probably out of my league. It’s the steepest maintained paved road in Colorado, with grades up to 9%. The summit is 11,530 feet, one of the highest paved highway summits in the state.

Since I’ve gone to mostly riding an e-Bike, I’ve wondered if the 19 mile climb to the summit is something I could pull off. But I have to be honest here, I get pretty winded even climbing gentler grades on my e-Bike.

Sunrise from Slumgullion Pass

Whether you drive or ride, there are some gorgeous views to be seen. There are several overlooks. I really enjoy Windy Point which overlooks Lake City and several mountain peaks.

Early morning view of Uncompahgre Peak from Windy Point

County Road 50 from Slumgullion Pass to Powderhorn

While we were last driving near the peak of Slumgullion Pass, we decided to turn down County Road 50 towards Deer Lakes and see what it was like. As of this writing, we haven’t ridden this on a bike, but I think it’s on our bucket list.

County Road 50 is a well-maintained gravel road starts near the summit of Slumgullion Pass and runs along a series of creeks that ultimately join up with Cebolla Creek, which ultimately flows into Blue Mesa Reservoir near Gunnison. It becomes Gunnison County Road 27 as it crosses the county line, and eventually runs through the unincorporated village of Powderhorn, half way between Lake City and Gunnison.

This young fellow was taking a dip in the lake near the Deer Lakes campground turnoff from County Road 50.

The road was a very gentle grade and we rarely ran into other vehicles. It was one of those “follow this road and see where it goes” moments, where we thought it would eventually dead end at a campground somewhere.

As we drove down this beautiful drive, we kept thinking this would make an awesome bike ride. Maybe sometime we’ll have to have someone drop us off at the top of the pass, then drive around to pick us up at Powderhorn.

One day…

County Road 50 just south of Deer Lakes campground

Final Thoughts about Riding a Bike in Hinsdale County, Colorado.

There’s a lot of riding you can do in Hinsdale County. There’s one theme that seems to stick out though: Almost every bike riding option involves sharing the road with other vehicles. Highway 149 north of town tends to have more highway-speed traffic, which I’m less comfortable with.

There are some great routes to ride on county roads and on fire access roads in National Forest areas. Many might require greater levels of fitness, especially if there’s a lot of climbing involved. I’m pretty sure the low point in Hinsdale County is still well above 8,000 feet, so altitude will always be a factor.

However, there are some great opportunities for riders of all fitness levels. The last time out, I took my converted Surly Disc Trucker, which has a mid-drive motor that kicks in as I add torque to the pedals. It definitely helps level the playing field a little but still creates quite a workout.

In the end though, if you want a less-crowded part of the mountains with some incredible views to see from the seat of your bike, you can’t go wrong with Hinsdale County.