Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Red Rocks/Dakota Ridge Loop Run: Ice and Mud

Red Rocks-Morrison Slide-Dakota Ridge Loop
(Matthews/Winters and Red Rocks Park)
~6.5M, 1500ft gain X 2

After some deliberation, got out early Saturday afternoon for trail running near Red Rocks. This is a fairly common loop, though I've seen a disparity and confusion on mileage and elevation, but I think the above estimate is accurate if not conservative.

The attraction was getting to trails with only a half hour drive (still hate driving to run), but I was worried about crowds enjoying the nice weather. The crowds were there compared to what I'm used to, but quite manageable at this time of year. And once I started moving on the trail, my mood improved considerably, and of the folks that were there, I enjoyed brief chats, waving to kids, and playing toss with a dog that brought a branch to my feet (guess I looked like I wanted to play).

I decided to start from the Matthews/Winters and do a counterclockwise loop, followed by a clockwise loop. It was warm enough that I enjoyed the luxury of stopping at the car mid-run to take a swig of water and ditch the shirt.

Beginning with the clockwise run, after a short, flat, rolling section, that trail dipped and climbed into shaded switchbacks, a nice section of roller coaster through the snow. Without traction, I definitely had to focus on short, choppy steps on the hilly sections. After this, there's an option to continue on the Red Rocks trail, or take the Morrison Slide option instead, which is ~0.4 miles longer and also climbs more. Easy choice, as the Morrison Slide trail has a fun climb up to a gorgeous, broad plateau. I definitely enjoyed the scenery here as much as any foothills trail, especially being able to look out at the rolling ridges of Green Mountain. I like being on top of stuff and looking at other stuff I've been on top of, even in the foothills.

Next comes the downhill that you earned, again on switchbacks, which is just barely technical enough to make you pay attention but mostly a fairly clean descent. At the bottom, you're back to roads for a bit, or you can loop back on the Red Rocks trail and stay within Matthews/Winters. Otherwise, the signs help guide you to follow the Red Rocks trail further, a couple more road crossings, to Dakota Ridge.

The Dakota Ridge section is just over a couple miles, but is an entirely different world of rocky, technical climbing, with some landscaped stairs that ended up forming a ramp of solid ice in the winter. At the top, the rolling climbs keep continuing, with some off-camber slabs and rocks that force you to pay attention. (Reminds me of some sections of Devil's Backbone). Despite having views of civilization, it's still a nice perch. Of the folks that weren't walking up here with dogs, many of the rest were walking with mountain bikes instead.

Finally, the descent back down to Matthews/Winters is a less-technical blast down switchbacks (I overran a couple switchbacks, not because of speed, but because many other people have overrun them so the trail generally continues a few feet past each corner), which leads back to Hwy 93 across from the parking lot.

These trails give a good selection of whatever-you're-in-the-mood-for. Both parks allow mountain biking as well as hiking. It's a great loop, but sort of an odd one for mountain biking (though it seems to be popular to do both), since there's so much disparity in the technical nature on either side of the road. I wouldn't consider it a destination mt. biking area unless you lived nearby, or were a technical perfectionist that wanted to clean all of Dakota Ridge. But the interior park roads are also quite nice and had a decent number of cyclists on them, so I could imagine a fun day for many riders could include some road miles as well.

I was quite happy with an early season snow and mud romp. I bet I encountered much less mt. bikers than I would in just a few months, especially since the mud in Matthews/Winters was utterly unrideable. As for the loop, I enjoyed both directions for different reasons, but was surprised on the return clockwise trip, when I saw impressive, glowing red rock formations that somehow I completely missed on the way out (daylight/sun angle also had an effect there). Predictably, the shady areas of the descent on Morrison Slide were really slick and sloppy on the way back.

Finally, when I saw another runner in the parking lot, I asked him,
"Do you think we'll get in trouble for being dirty?"


  1. I remember last yar running up the stretch from M-W parking lot to the first deep loop into an east-facing drainage. Sloppy...the kind of sloppy that makes you feel guilty for being on the trail at all. The lower part of Belcher Hill Trail from the parking lot to the beginning of the real climb at White Ranch is similarly guilt-inducingly sloppy this time o' year.

  2. I used to mt. bike more than run, and *that* was certainly not good on muddy trails (not fun anyway, when it would get caked in the v-brakes), cutting ruts in the trail and sliding sideways. For the most part, the worst I saw as far as trail damage last wknd were hikers that would go /around/ deep mud and water, perpetually widening the trail, on the flats.

    At least it seems like trail runners do the /least/ damage by methodically and unthinkingly plodding through the mud but staying on the main trail. I'll stick with that rationalization for now!

    Definitely need to get out to White Ranch, I'm afraid of crowds in the summer, but I've always heard good things from mt. bikers and runners alike. Have to get out there early in the morning sometime!

  3. Same issues up here at Elk Meadow. People start to walk around the pack ice in the trail tread (hardened and slower to melt due to foot traffic) and end up either widening the trail or turning what used to be singletrack into double(or more)track. Tough to get people to walk on the ice/mud/water when nice dry ground is just a few inches away.

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  5. So you were a mere one park south of us at Apex on Saturday. I should have waved.

    That dirt road up the hogback can be the worst, clay-filled muck you will find for many miles, and even the grass will barely allow you to avoid it. The meadow portions can be sticky too.

    To balance that out, lots of the park has sandy soil and no mud, and you can still run it right after rainfall. On wet days I tend to park near the south side of Morrison Slide (there's a pull-off), and run it and/or the hogback. In other words, out and back.

    You are right about White Ranch in the morning; way better. And IMO the 13-mile outer loop at White Ranch is one of the better runs in JeffCo.

    If either of you plan to be in the west metro 'hood some time and want an extra let me know.

  6. Cool, definitely gotta check out White Ranch then!
    Definitely would enjoy company: since I share a car with my wife, most of the time that I run a local trail, I end up doing so at the last minute when it works out to take the car for a few hours (otherwise we do something together or I run urban stuff). Especially as the days get longer, though, I'll be looking at either bike riding to trails in the morning or afternoon. Ideally, my school schedule this summer (after May) will be more regular and predictable.

    Same goes if any of you are ever in the mood for flat, east metro rec paths! (I joke, they probably are better than much of the country, just get bored with same ol', same ol'...)