A Slippery Slope

Riding Colorado’s Backcountry Discovery Route

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.

Ready To Rally

The 10th Annual KTM Adventure Rider Rally

WORDS & PHOTO: Matthew Fehrmann

KTM's official motto might be "Ready to Race," but "Ready to Rally" is a more appropriate slogan for the gaggle of orange-blooded ADV enthusiasts who gather each fall for KTM's annual Adventure Rider Rally, held this past year at Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I attended with a small group of like-minded Midwestern adventure riders lead by Craig Johnson from CJDesigns, as part of an 11-day, 5,000-mile epic ride epitomizing everything that makes adventure riding the most exciting segment of motorcycling right now. We put the ADV in our adventure starting with a weeklong pre-lap of the great state of Colorado, beginning just outside of Estes Park. We spent the first four days exploring the eastern range, traversing Rocky Mountain and Great Sand Dunes National Park, Roosevelt National Forest, and, of course, Pikes Peak—a very special place where you can't help but imagine the racers climbing to the clouds. Our southerly route ended at Navajo Reservoir, just across the border in New Mexico.

After a swim and a good night's sleep, we headed west to Four Corners, where we picked up the Colorado Backcountry Discovery Route, a track available from Butler Maps. This route is a must-travel for any adventure rider, encompassing everything from miles of greasy mud to deep-water crossings to ruggedly breathtaking passes like Corkscrew and Hagerman. It's so gorgeous no one even minded when one of our group got a flat partway up Ophir Pass—an absolutely beautiful place to break down.

The Butler route dumped us right into Steamboat Springs, where Johnson, along with industry friends from Wolfman, Klim, CPR Fab, and Big Anges, organized a "Mountain Tech" pre-rally for the two days preceding the official KTM event. The campground was sold out, but monsoon-like rains that struck the area that week drove all but the most die-hard into local hotels. Those who remained piled into the nearby Taco Cabo on the last night to swap tales of their pre-rally adventures over beers and burritos late into the night.

Even with such an epic prelude, the official KTM event still didn't disappoint. How could it, with so many of us getting our first look—and first demo rides—on the Austrian firm's all-new 1190 Adventure? (Demos on the 990 Baja and 690 Enduro were available as well.) KTM provided 11 GPS loops for DIY demos, or you could join rides guided by KTM's top off-road racers; Jimmy Lewis was there putting on riding classes, too.

Great riding, great bikes, great food, and, of course, great people. I'll certainly come back for another Adventure Rider Rally. See you all next year—unless I see you on the trail first!

2014 Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited
2014 Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited
2014 Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited
Butler Maps’ Pinzgauer, piled high with steaks and beer, added a layer of luxury to this adventure. All of COBDR is passable in a high-clearance 4x4, but it’s better on a bike.
The abandoned mining town of Tin Cup was once a violent outpost ruled by outlaws and gold seekers. Nowadays, it’s a great place to stop for lunch and photos.
Abandoned mining outposts and other historic relics litter the landscape near Animas Forks in the San Juan Mountains—the heart of Colorado’s Gold Country.
Aptly named Corkscrew Pass is a highlight of the trip. Attack it early in the morning, before the Jeepers get out of bed. We were lucky to encounter this stunning rainbow.
2014 Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited
KTM’s 530 makes short work of a creek crossing near Taylor Park Reservoir. Water levels are manageable in late summer; earlier in the season it can be much deeper.
2014 Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited
Nothing says adventure like backcountry camping. Quiet, creekside campsites like this one located on Los Pinos Pass are easy to find anywhere along the COBDR.
2014 Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited
2014 Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited