They call it a hidden downhill treasure, and for those in search of the best gnarl Mt. Elwell is spot on. From the climb to the summit and through the rock infested single track Mt. Elwell demands a pound of flesh, maybe more. Mt. Elwell rewards the adventurer handsomely with numerous vistas, mountain lakes, and a challenge to remember.
Like others in my local riding group, I was lured in by the number three downhill in the nation rating. I missed the group ride last month but made a promise to myself I would face the beast that humbled friends. Lucky for me I was not expecting something easy because one of the best riders in our group said it was the hardest fifteen miles he had ever done.
Being alone I had to ride the entire route in a 21.63-mile loop, starting from the Billboard where the Gold Lake Highway turns off of Highway 89. Riding up the Gold Lake Highway is a virtual escalator for 2000 vertical feet gain in roughly eight miles taking you to the Round Lake Trailhead. An omen of what is to come is the fact that Mt. Elwell does not enter into view until a little over six miles into the climb and 1750 vertical feet up. The beginning of the Mt. Elwell lesson in humility starts at the Round Lake Turnoff, or you can just get it vicariously through articles like this one.
Starting at the Round Lake Trailhead, take the Bear Lake Trail. The trail is smooth, fast, and give you visions of how amazing the miles ahead are going to be. Upon reaching Bear Lake, the trail changes dramatically in composition and even more so further into the ride. Stay on the steep rocky trail to Silver Lake and then turn right for Mud Lake. The steep climbing continues beyond Silver Lake to the Round Lake, Mud Lake Trail fork, take the Mud Lake Trail. The trail drops around 300 feet in around one quarter mile and immediately starts the Mt. Elwell climb upon reaching Mud Lake.
The trail to the top of Mt. Elwell out of Mud Lake climbs 1100 plus feet in around one and a half miles. Most of the climb is rideable if the flesh still has enough moxie but the top has a lot of “hike a bike”. By the time I got to the summit the tank was below empty so I ate and rested a little.
Now was the moment of truth, the reason I struggled so hard to get to the top, it was time for the acclaimed Mt. Elwell Downhill. 3300 vertical feet down to the town of Graeagle in around Eight miles. Visions of flowing single track downhill on Mt. Elwell is immediately erased by the shell shock effect of plummeting through a seemingly endless field of baby head, and tombstone-sized rock on a steep pitch. I don’t get off my bike on treacherous terrain, but I have to admit there were a few spots at the top I let it get the best of me.
At the Smith Lake Trailhead, stay on the Smith Lake Trail for more steep terrain thrills without all of the rocks. The Smith Trail forks at the bottom, and the route to take is the Graeagle Creek Trail for a 300 foot plus climb out. On the way up it is easy to think the bottom is near but it is not. Once on the ridge, the valley below is still 1200 vertical feet down. It is a short distance to a fork to the Gold Lake Highway cutoff trail. Somewhere after this point, I lost the singletrack trail and wound up riding dirt road the rest of the way. Even the dirt road was steep and fast with its Mt. Elwell flare.
In all, Mt. Elwell is not the place to take unprepared or ill equipped riders. Mt. Elwell is in every aspect a beast of a ride both up and especially down. I will go back and tie it together with the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout as shuttle start.
Finished Mountain Bike: Aug 14, 2016, 2:27:28 PM
Route: Mt Elwell
Distance: 21.63 miles