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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Great Divide - Camp Host Extraordinaire

Oh, ho, ho, it's magic, you know
Never believe it's not so
It's magic, you know
Never believe it's not so

Magic, David Paton & William Lyall (1974)

USFS Hopewell Lake campground in Carson National Forest, New Mexico.
I wish I had a picture of Dawn, the awesome Camp Host, to post here.

Trail Magic is real. And appears in the most unexpected places.
In the four days since leaving the La Garita Cash Store, I've crossed over the Continental Divide several times and climbed four high mountain passes, namely Indiana Pass (11,910'), Elwood Pass (11,631'), Stunner Pass (10,541'), and La Manga Pass (10,234'). Like much of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, this stretch of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico is pretty much all up or down.

As I work my way south, the country becomes less and less developed, with fewer ranches and smaller towns, if any. The roads generally grow rougher, both less used and less maintained. I encounter fewer locals and practically no tourists. The last North Bound Great Divide cyclist or CDT through hiker I saw was hundreds of miles ago in Wyoming. This ride continues to get more and more out there.

Southwest of La Garita, USFS Low Standard Road 665 delivers miles of amazing two track.

There's not so much as a fence post along this unnumbered road.

Not surprisingly, the ride up Indiana Pass from Del Norte is a grind, but the road surface is hard packed and fast. Although advertised as the pass with the most elevation gain and the highest elevation, I did not find it particularly difficult. Just long. After the sustained climb ends, the road runs along a lumpy ridge for another 10 miles, with almost as much climbing as descending. With no obvious summit and no marker of any kind, the top's exact location is not apparent. It's all a bit anti-climatic, although fabulous scenery and big views abound.

Dropping down the other side toward the seasonal town of Platoro, colorful mountainsides reveal concentrations of heavy metals exposed by natural forces and mining that wash into surrounding surface water. Even if filtered, the water here is too contaminated to drink. So, I pull into the Gold Pan General Store for water and whatever food they may have. Turns out, the Gold Pan offers a well stocked store, a good cafe, and a cabin for Great Divide cyclists only. I decide to support all of the above.

Leaving Platoro heading for Horca, I descend along the Conejos River on a bluebird sky morning. A pickup draws near from the rear, but slows on approach. The passenger asks, "Do you know a cyclist named Andi?" Yes. Then she asks, "Are you Craig?" Yes. She smiles and says, "Andi has your camera. I saw it on the road a few miles back and stopped to pick it up. I was thinking about what to do, when two cyclists rode up. I asked them if they knew whose camera this was. Andi said that it was yours and that she'd see you again and get it back to you." You must be kidding. Trail Magic. Out here.

Climbing Indiana Pass (11,910'), the highest elevation of the entire Great Divide route.

Trout fishing draws many to the Conejos River, evidenced by the washboarded road.

Approaching the New Mexico border after La Manga Pass, I find dozens of cars parked along the road, with people scattered all over the mountainside. Some sitting, some standing, most looking down a valley, many peering through binoculars. I'm thinking there must be an unusual wild animal happening, like a large elk herd moving or a couple of big horn sheep battling. So, I stop to look. Seeing nothing unusual, I ask.

It's nothing I expected. These people are train aficionados, breathlessly awaiting the arrival of a wood burning steam locomotive brought in for the 50th anniversary celebration of the historic Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. They're like kids waiting for Santa at a Thanksgiving Day parade. And, right here on the Great Divide route, that railroad track crosses barely graveled USFS Secondary Road 117. 

I enjoy talking with several of these folks, all with a passion for these trains, especially in this Wild, Wild West setting. It's a whole different world for this cyclist. Then one train guy spots my loaded bike and excitedly tells me of his friend who rode the Great Divide a few years ago. He says he knows what lies ahead and insists on filling all my water bottles. Cool.

Looking back into the San Juan Wilderness Area on the climb up La Manga Pass.

Wood burning steam locomotive on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Just a few miles into New Mexico, USFS Low Standard Road 87 launches up an elevator shaft littered with large, irregular shaped rocks, randomly dumped onto a shifty, dusty base. The ACA cue sheet says, "Start steep rocky uphill, may need to walk." Right. My journal says, "Impossible to ride, very difficult to walk." That pitch is a beast. I'd pay to watch someone ride it, even with fresh legs on an unloaded, full suspension fat bike.

Welcome to New Mexico, where the roads are consistently rougher, rockier, ruttier, steeper, and even more remote. It's the Great Divide, next level.

Idyllic dispersed campsite at Apache Creek, just inside the New Mexico border.

Welcome to New Mexico, pilgrim.

After that rude introduction, I bump along rough roads through the mountainous highlands of Carson National Forest, eventually dropping into open grasslands along Rio San Antonio. Threatening storm clouds build as I turn onto USFS Secondary Road 133, noted in the ACA cue sheet as "potentially mucky if raining" with a recommended paved alternative. I can see getting stuck back here for hours, maybe even overnight. Over the next 12 miles, I plow through plenty of standing water and soft mud from recent rains, but the dark clouds refrain from adding to the slog. 

With a deep sigh of relief, I reach paved U.S. Highway 64 for the final 5 mile climb to my evening's destination of USFS Hopewell Lake campground. Time for a celebratory snack. Friendly voices from behind add to the light mood. It's Rob and Andrea, leap frogging South Bound Great Divide riders who also are heading to Hopewell Lake. Sweet.

What is that?

Unknown structure on the Continental Divide near Olguin Mesa.

Just as I start to pedal up the final, paved climb for the day, those heavy clouds lose their grip. The rain falls hard, and I laugh. Loudly. I'm giddy and grateful to be off that dirt road. No rain now can dampen today's ride.

That doesn't mean I'm not tired from the day's effort. About halfway up that final climb, I stop for a break and hunch over the handlebars. As I gather myself, a pickup truck barreling down the mountain slows to a stop, presumably to check up on me.  I smile and wave to say that I'm OK.

No matter. The driver of the pickup truck rolls down her window, "Are you riding the Great Divide and heading for Hopewell Lake?" To my affirmative response, she says, "I'm Dawn, the camp host. There's good water at the shelter, and you can stay there for free. I've got to go to town, but I'll be back later." She takes another, harder look at me and says, "Can I get you anything? How about a burger from Wendy's?"

"Dawn, that sounds awesome! I will eat anything you bring back and gladly pay for it! Did you talk with my two friends a little ahead of me? I'm sure they would say the same!"

Dawn laughs, waves, and disappears down the mountain.

Storm clouds gather as the primitive road winds up Montoya Canyon.

Two cowgirls push a herd of cattle toward another pasture.

At Hopewell Lake I find Rob and Andrea, already well into setting up camp. It's great to share a camp site with them again, but we're all more excited about whatever treats Dawn brings back to us. As we catch up and attend to evening duties, another South Bound Great Divide rider, Mark, rolls in looking for water. He decides to stay, too, making us a party of four.

As the sun sets, Dawn drives into our camp site to deliver mammoth Wendy's burgers and bags of french fries. But she said that didn't seem enough, so she stopped by another store and bought milk, yogurt, fruit, candy bars, and more. Wow. 

That's a seasonal Forest Service Campground Host recognizing and surpassing the needs of weary Great Divide cyclists seeking shelter and sustenance. Thank you, Dawn. Another Trail Angel.

Magic, Pilot (1974)


  1. It sounds like the ACA Cue Sheets are very detailed, but on these remote sections and "unnamed roads" do many people get on the wrong track and get lost?

  2. I didn't hear of others getting off route and don't know the extent of that issue. I used only the paper ACA maps, cue sheets, and book and missed just two turns, both in Montana during the first week. Neither caused a significant problem. I certainly acknowledge that I frequently stopped at intersections to check those maps. Every other GDMBR cyclist I encountered used GSP navigation, with some having the digital ACA maps as a backup.