A Slippery Slope

Riding Colorado’s Backcountry Discovery Route

Photography by Mike Calabro

If your dream of adventure riding has advanced from browsing bike mags to parking a new adventure tourer in your garage, you might be wondering, what next? Where do you ride your 500-pound dirtbike with a license plate? Making that leap from the coffee shop to a backcountry campsite can be intimidating. Packing for camping and cooking is just one hurdle. Land access, lack of dirt-road knowledge, and fear of the unknown are even more reasons to stick to the pavement. But thanks to a nonprofit group named Backcountry Discovery Routes (BDR), those excuses are getting harder to swallow. Backcountry Discovery Routes' tireless efforts are making off-road adventuring easier and more accessible each year. The BDR goal is simple: to create routes and resources for riders of street-legal adventure bikes to cross entire states using as little pavement as possible. The BDR is a volunteer-run organization that receives assistance from motorcycle industry companies such as Touratech-USA and Butler Motorcycle Maps. Three completed BDR routes stitch together public roads traversing the most stunning landscape in North America: Washington's fern forests, Utah's red rock desert, and the route we followed for this story, through Colorado's spectacular alpine passes. A fourth BDR, through Arizona, will be ready this winter.

As a BDR board member, I have been fortunate to participate in scouting expeditions for all these projects. This fall, I gathered a group of friends, family, and colleagues to get feedback on the Colorado route. Our group was diverse, ranging from experienced off-road racers to dirt newbies from the flatlands of Illinois. Bikes ran the gamut from KTM 990 Adventures and 690 Enduros to a Suzuki V-Strom 650 and a KTM 530—the Austrian firm's lightweight, street-legal enduro racer. As our sample of bikes shows, all different types of machines are appropriate for a BDR.

My enthusiasm in planning this trip proved problematic from the beginning, when there were more people confirmed for the adventure than there were bikes to ride. The solution was to hand my bike off and instead take the wheel of Butler Maps' official support vehicle, a 1974 Steyr-Puch Pinzgauer 710. Like the offspring of a Hummer and Volkswagen Bus, the Pinz is rugged, charming, and extremely capable. It also afforded us some unique luxuries not found on a typical backcountry adventure, like hand-cut steaks and the Jimmy Buffet-signature margarita machine.

Before you cast judgment, let me say this: I've motorcycled across Mongolia and Siberia, cooked plenty of meals on the lid of a Touratech Zega Pannier, and spent countless evenings on the frozen ground next to my bike. I've suffered bird-sized mosquitoes, freeze-dried rations, and enough other camping discomforts that I have no shame in firing up a charcoal grill to cook a tenderloin. I'm done trying to out-adventure anyone. Adventure biking doesn't need to be daunting. Camp if you want stars; get a room if you want a soft bed. Grill a hot dog over a fire, or find a restaurant for a burger. Recruit a non-riding buddy to Sherpa your blender and cold beer. It doesn't matter. Just get out and do it.

The Colorado BDR begins at Four Corners, where the borders of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona converge. Since camping is limited on these barren tribal lands, we spent our first night at a roadside motel in Cortez, Colorado. BDR routes are created to accommodate remote camping, but they also connect towns that are happy to sell rooms and meals to traveling bikers. Given the torrential rain that had been pounding the state for days, the Tomahawk Lodge was the right choice for us that night.

The rain was relentless. We found ourselves smack in the center of the same storm that later settled over the foothills surrounding Boulder and dispensed untold flood damage. The situation was so bad that we worried we wouldn't be able to follow the first leg of the BDR, which is composed mostly of soft, silty roads. The only way to find out was to try. Within minutes several bikes and bodies were on the ground, with greasy climbs and mud holes big enough to swallow a car catching several of our riders off-guard.

The BDR route is divided into sections covering anywhere from 60 to 130 miles a day. That might not seem like much to a street rider, but in conditions like this it can take hours to cover even a few miles. The conditions were nearly impossible, but with a little teamwork (and help from the support truck) we made progress, managing nearly 100 miles to reach the mountain town of Telluride for fuel and provisions. Telluride is a great place to pitch a tent or find a B&B, but with several hours of daylight still remaining, we pressed on.

From here we entered the steep and rugged San Juan Mountains, a haven for outdoor recreationalists on motorcycles, in Jeeps, or driving side by sides. Abandoned mining equipment and other relics dot the ore-colored mountainsides. Ophir Pass is a rocky, precarious road carved through a granite rock field well above tree line. While the bikes darted past slower-moving Jeeps, I kept laser-beam focus and prayed a descending Jeep didn't push me off course, depositing the Pinz and everything in it on the valley floor several thousand feet below. From the summit at 11,789 feet a light rain accompanied a gray sky draped over jagged peaks. With cold and darkness approaching, time at the top was short.

The descent off Ophir Pass was cold and wet, leading to some hesitation to setting up a high-elevation camp. Remembering our promise not to out-adventure anyone, we decided another motel wouldn't hurt anyone's ego. We made quick work of the famous "Million Dollar Highway" (Highway 550) before settling on rooms at the Victorian Inn in Ouray. Hot showers preceded dinner on the patio under a clearing sky. With cold beers in hand, retelling tales of the day's struggles and triumphs helped reinforce my appreciation for adventuring like this. Although camping was the plan, it didn't work out that way. Weather changes, bikes break, and bodies tire. Flexibility is essential to a backcountry trip. Knowing when to say when is an important part of being a savvy backcountry rider. Besides, it's hard to argue that soaking your bones in a hot tub after a hard day in the saddle is ever a poor decision.

Feeling fresher than ever the following morning, we rejoined the BDR to traverse stunning passes including Corkscrew, California, and Cinnamon. Ghost towns like Animas Forks offered a great opportunity to take a break and contemplate the challenges of life a century ago. The biggest challenge for us in the present was keeping our photographer from stopping every mile—though after seeing his amazing photo of a rainbow arching over riders on a golden hillside, I can understand his enthusiasm.

With the high-elevation summits in the rearview, the route becomes wider and faster past the town of Lake City. This was our third night on the road and our first in the tents. A flat, shaded spot along Cebolla Creek on Los Pinos Pass is the kind of place a camping biker dreams about. It was the perfect place to set up my Redverz motorcycle expedition tent and enjoy the evening with a frozen margarita and homemade tacos. The convenience afforded by the support truck, and the comfort of a crackling fire, made for an unforgettable evening.

With half of the state behind us and clear skies above, the group made good time on day four's mix of wide gravel roads and casual Jeep trails. After passing the small towns of Pitkin and Tincup, we enjoyed some low stream crossings and a dramatic ride up and over Cottonwood Pass. The eastern side of Cottonwood is paved, and judging by the smiles on some of the rider's faces, I could tell the asphalt was a welcome relief. Another advantage to the versatility of adventure bikes is their competency on all types of road surfaces.

The Colorado BDR officially ends at the Wyoming border, 675 miles after it starts. What you do between those two borders, as you can see from our example, is entirely up to you—adventure and discovery are in the eye of the explorer. There is no wrong or right way to go about it. Backcountry Discovery Routes are thoughtful resources the ADV community should be proud of. Beautiful, waterproof maps (butlermaps.com), free GPS tracks, professionally produced documentaries, and a dedicated website (backcountrydiscoveryroutes.com) should encourage even the most pavement obsessed among us to head for the hills on the dirt.

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