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Jun

18

2014

Riding on the Range

curt-gowdy-wy-mountain-biking

Johnny Greenham climbs granite on Curt Gowdy’s Stone Temple trail.

Eastern Wyoming emerges as a mountain biking destination.

When Joey Klein arrived at Wyoming’s Curt Gowdy State Park nearly 10 years ago, it was primarily a boating destination. People drove in from Laramie and Cheyenne, both 20 miles away, to fish and float on Curt Gowdy’s two reservoirs. And that was about it.  Climbers from Colorado’s Front Range came to eastern Wyoming, too, but they drove past Curt Gowdy to climb off-width cracks, slabs, and multi-pitch trad routes near the Vedauwoo Campground. “Curt Gowdy is only a mile from Vedauwoo,” Klein says. “And sure enough, it has the same super-grippy, rainbow-colored granite domes.” Without a substantial trail system in the 3,500-acre park, the mountain bikers, hikers, trail runners, and bird watchers stayed away.

That’s where Klein, a trail builder with the International Mountain Bike Association, comes in. Todd Thibodeau, a mountain biker who works as a planning coordinator with Wyoming State Parks, wanted Klein’s input on a radical idea for Curt Gowdy: a purpose-built mountain bike trail network.

Klein immediately saw the potential. In 2006, he flagged eight miles for future trails. Professional trail builders like Colorado’s Arrowhead Trails and Singletrack Trails teamed up with volunteers from the Overland Mountain Bike Club. Volunteers put in 4,500 hours, valued at $85,000, and many came from Colorado to join the locals, crossing state lines to lend sweat equity. In part, that’s because trail building in Colorado has been a much slower affair, where varied stakeholders and a host of land agencies struggle to agree on plans—if access is granted at all. Whereas Wyoming’s State Parks wrote mountain biking into the master plan, and then set about building trails.

“They had a vision,” Klein says. “That vision was a regional trails destination that targeted mountain bikers. And that’s opened up trails to other users too.” Today, Curt Gowdy’s trail system brings economic benefits in the form of bike shop business and park fees. Plus, there’s the fun factor. “It’s somewhat selfish,” says Paul Gritten, the non-motorized trails program manager for Wyoming State Parks. “There are folks within State Parks that are avid mountain bikers, and there really wasn’t a lot of opportunity within Wyoming to go to a bike-specific trail system.”

Their collective vision is fully realized at Curt Gowdy—as I discovered on a visit in late May. Thirty-five miles of trail welcome everyone from beginners to experts, but it isn’t a network of paved paths. The Curt Gowdy trail builders were insistent on incorporating natural terrain features. Still, a five-year-old can navigate the rolling Shoreline trail. For my part, I followed Stone Temple Circuit through meadows rioting with purple and white wildflowers, up and over granite slabs, and on switchbacks through pine and aspen forests. On Crow Creek Trail, I rode singletrack that dropped off granite blocks and climbed punchy, technical sections. Klein prefers riding big slabs, domes, and drop-offs on the Canyons trail.

Curt Gowdy is now a regional draw: About 200 racers showed up for the 2014 edition of the annual Gowdy Grinder races on the mellower trails. This week, the Stone Temple Mountain Bike Camp for teenagers is in progress. The best feature? Each trail ends with a descent to the trailhead. That’s no mistake—that’s the payoff you get with purpose-built trails. Which is why Curt Gowdy is one of just 21 IMBA Epics in the world, a designation reserved for demanding singletrack adventures in a natural setting.

The numbers back up IMBA’s endorsement. Back in 2006, about 51,000 people visited the park. Then came the trails, and in 2012, 113,000 people came to Curt Gowdy. Boaters and anglers still frequent the reservoir—and with good reason. Over dinner, I saw trout rising like over-caffeinated porpoises as an easterly breeze dropped flies on Crystal Reservoir. Mountain bikers were plenty, and so were hikers, riders on horseback, and trail runners. Because Curt Gowdy sits two hours from Boulder and one hour from Fort Collins, it’s not unusual for half the cars in the park to bear Colorado plates.

More good news: Curt Gowdy was just used as a test case for a revamped outdoor recreation corridor through eastern Wyoming. Head 100 miles north of Cheyenne to Glendo State Park, and you’ll find 37 miles of purpose-built mountain bike trails—eight more miles will be complete this fall, and 65 miles total are planned. Klein’s also working on a conceptual plan for Guernsey State Park, a former Civilian Conservation Corps test site just east of Glendo. After that, Thibodeau and his colleagues plan to build trails at Keyhole State Park, which sits in Wyoming’s northeast corner, just across the border from Rapid City, South Dakota.

If you think of eastern Wyoming as just a long stretch of highway on the way to somewhere else, think again. It’s a mountain bike destination, and it’s only getting better. —Olivia Dwyer

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