Update. Monarch Crest Trail is dry and clear now! We love the trail, it's so awesome. So special, and such a short season!
Let's talk about that season. Why so short? Quick answer: high elevation.
The Monarch Crest Trail is very simply put the section of Contintental Divide Trail between Monarch Pass and Marshall Pass. It's 11 miles. The other stuff is not The Monarch Crest. Most bike riders ride it from Monarch to Marshall, and then continue on to do more bike riding. Many, many riders call the full ride they do the Monarch Crest. But for clarity, when staff from Absolute Bikes are talking about The Monarch Crest, we are referring to the 11 miles from Monarch to Marshall. The longer ride, which includes the Silver Creek Trail and alternately the Rainbow Trail, we refer to as The Classic Crest Route.
The distinction is important when we talk about the rideable season. The Monarch Crest Trail is not practical to ride until July. But that is not necessarily true of all the Classic Crest Route! Why?
This photo was taken June 12, 2005. This isn't even very high above Monarch Pass.
One of the reasons that the Monarch Crest Trail is so wonderful is that it is very high. For about 6 miles of its 11 mile length, the Crest Trail is between 11,950 and 12,000 feet elevation. Which means that it is above treeline, and near the top of the Continental Divide ridge. The 360° views, the tiny high alpine flowers, and the rarified air make that stretch of trail pure rocky mountain magic.
Weather changes dramatically with elevation. Monarch Pass is 11,312. Marshall is 10,842. When riding the Classic Crest Route, after you descend to Marshall Pass you are never again anywhere close to as high as the Monarch Crest Trail's 12,000 feet. So, to be specificic, The Monarch Crest Trail is not rideable until July. However, the Classic Crest Route from Marshall down starts being rideable with minimal snow sometime in June. And the Rainbow Trail? May. Why? Because the trail to the south from Marshall is between 10,900 and 11,300. Silver Creek is 11,200 at the top, and a little below 10,000 at the bottom. The Rainbow never goes over 10,000, and finishes below 9,000.
When the snow starts breaking up, it doesn't disappear consistently. Some long stretches of trail will be bone dry by early June, but huge tall snow drifts will remain most years well into July. Even on the 4th of July the traditional opening day, at least four or five large drifts will be obstacles. It's important to avoid skirting around the melting drifts. In the mud of new snowmelt the tundra plants are trying to germinate. The season up there is short, remember. If a young plant shoots are trampled, they won't recover in time to make the blooming season. Carefully climb over the drifts above the trail, using caution when dropping off the back edge. If you try to ride before the drifts get smaller, the drop off the steep sides can be dangerous.
Enjoy the Monarch Crest Trail, please be nice to everyone you see. Enjoy those 11 miles of magic, then head on down a little lower to continue riding awesome singletrack, whether it's the Crest Classic Route, Starvation Creek, Agate Creek, Greens Creek, or the Colorado Trail down Fooses Creek. Stop by Absolute for maps, food, beta or step next door to Seasons Cafe for an excellent cup of coffee, breakfast burrito, or pastrie! Beers afterword on Seasons' back deck!