Underexposed is a series dedicated to showcasing trails around North America that fly under the proverbial radar for most riders. PEARL iZUMi athlete Brice Shirbach has seen firsthand what sweat equity can mean among mountain bikers and its impact on the places we call home, and this series will look to help open eyes and shift our attention to some of the brilliant riding that exists in places both unexpected and unheard of.
In the mid-1990s, a group of mountain bikers in the Fort Collins, Colorado area decided to form a sister mountain bike patrol organization to the area’s backcountry ski patrol known as the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol. The Diamond Peaks Mountain Bike Patrol formed and was actually a part of IMBA’s National Mountain Bike Patrol program, and signed patrol agreements with the United States Forest Service (USFS) as well as Lory State Park. In the years that followed, DPMBP acquired additional patrol agreements with Larimer County, Colorado; the City of Fort Collins, Colorado; and Wyoming State Parks. Throughout the decade-plus of its existence, DPMBP saw exponential growth among its membership, and a growing number of diverse initiatives, the most prominent of which was undoubtedly trail building. In 2009, DPMBP transformed into a 501c3 and became the Overland Mountain Bike Association. While patrolling trails are still in OMBA’s bag of tricks, much of their focus of late has been on educating the community about the recreational resources available throughout the area, and of course, on building rad trails. Enter Horsetooth Mountain Open Space.
Located seven miles from downtown Fort Collins, Horsetooth Mountain is a 7,259-foot tall mountain located in the foothills of Colorado’s Front Range. Cities like Boulder and Colorado Springs garner quite a lot more attention than Fort Collins for riders. Still, it’s mostly due to the nature of population centers and less the quality of the trails, which makes sense because the trails on Horsetooth are as good as anything I’ve ridden in the aforementioned communities.
Throughout Horsetooth Open Space, the trails are situated above the Horsetooth Reservoir, a 6.5-mile long man-made lake a mile above sea level. Horsetooth has a plethora of hiking-only trails and dozens of miles of multi-use trails available to riders. The “foot traffic only” designation is actually great for riders, as the majority of hikers tend to stick to the trails that will see little to no bike traffic. As far as the riding itself goes, well, my expectations were exceeded. There are a handful of trailhead parking areas, but I’d recommend parking mid-mountain at the primary Horsetooth Open Space lot, which will give you the quickest access to the upper mountain trails featured here. The climb up is reasonably pleasant and quick, a two-mile fire road jaunt (South Ridge Trail) that climbs 1,300 feet at a generally steady gradient. From there, you have several options, including another half-mile climb to the base of Horsetooth Rock. You can also take the Westridge Trail, two miles across the top of the mountain to access the trails throughout the northern half of the network. Or you can do what I did, and sniff out a properly fun and rowdy trip down the mountain that starts with the mile-long Wathen descent before connecting and finishing on Spring Creek. All told, you’ll end up dropping just under 1,000 vertical feet over the course of a mile and a half before climbing out of the canyon. Speeds are generally as high as you want them to be, with loose over looser dirt, more rock gardens than you can shake a stick at, and plenty of ear-to-ear grins from top to bottom.
When I began planning for this trip, I remember asking some Colorado friends about Fort Collins and whether they had ever had the chance to ride the trails at Horsetooth. Most had not, and those who had were separated from their visit by a few years. As the crow flies, the area is relatively close to Denver, the largest population for days, but various other communities filter out much of the traffic and attention. Still, Horsetooth seems to be seeing quite a lot of love, and much of that comes from the people who call it home. It’s incredibly accessible while offering up a genuine look at the beauty that is Colorado’s Front Range. It is an excellent example of how to manage a significant amount of open space for a multitude of trail users. I can’t think of a better measure of a great trail system than that, and the next opportunity I have to ride Colorado’s Front Range, I’ll be headed straight towards that craggy rock formation above Fort Collins’ skyline.