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17 December 2020

eMTB Expedition: Pilgrimage to Pearl Pass

Riding the iconic Pearl pass route in Crested Butte, Colorado, Leslie Kehmeier explores mountain bike history with the help of Shimano STEPS eMTB.

E biking Pearl Pass Crested Butte

Words and Photos by Leslie Kehmeier

Pearl Pass. If you’re an older mountain biker like me, you might think of this pass as an important part of mountain bike history. It marks one of the oldest organized mountain bike events in the world, and it helped accelerate mountain bike technology and development thanks to the rugged terrain. The 39-mile-long Pearl Pass route connects the iconic Colorado mountain towns of Aspen and Crested Butte and takes riders up and over 12,750 feet in elevation. 


Pearl Pass Co


When I first got into mountain biking decades ago, I read various accounts about the first Pearl Pass Tour event way back in 1976. I always thought I should ride it one day and pay homage to the place, the people, and the event. It is, after all, a catalyst for something that brings a lot of joy to my life. But up until this summer, I’d never been psyched to pedal and push up this rough 4x4 road in a place where there are hundreds of miles of sweet singletrack to explore. I mean, come on, it's Crested Butte, after all. 


E-MTB colorado


Enter the e-bike into my life during the summer of 2020, and riding Pearl Pass turned into a great idea. It was a no-brainer ride. It would be a slam dunk, a veritable “rest day” during another week of adventuring with my friends in Crested Butte. 


E mountain biking


Initially, Pearl Pass was a cake-walk with easy pedaling on a hard-packed dusty road, surrounded by beautiful mountains. There was lots of chatting and reminiscing while we rode, talking about how great it would be to finally do a ride that we've always wanted to do. And then a sharp bend in the road led us to the other reality of Pearl Pass - lots of steep and loose scree and cobble. I now have even more respect for the 1976 crew after this experience— I would have turned around without an eMTB. 


Sitting after long climb with Lazer Helmet


A few days earlier, I arrived in the beloved Colorado mountain town of Crested Butte, excited to tackle another supercharged mega ride with my eMTB. With sweet memories of the July expedition to the Gifford National Forest, it was nice to explore trails in my home state of Colorado. There’s plenty of motorized singletrack in the high country: The Grand Mesa, Uncompaghre, and Gunnison National Forests provide an excellent selection of routes for eMTBs. We focused on the Cement Creek Drainage area to ride for this trip, which provides access to a cluster of trails that create big adventure loops. Located just south of downtown Crested Butte, it is a bit removed from the madding crowds and popular trails like the 401, Lupine, and Snodgrass. 


emts single track riding


After finishing my eMTB expedition in the Gifford in Washington State, I headed cross-country to the southeast for some important low altitude training (wink, wink). So, after arriving in Crested Butte by way of Tennessee and Kansas, I knew the high elevation of this mountain town was going to kick my butt. And it did. Thank goodness I had the Eco, Trail, and Boost to get me through the first ride on the Flag-Bear-Reno-Deadman loop. Rather than gasping for air at the top of the initial climb, I was able to soak in the view before descending sublime singletrack on Flag Creek. It took me a few days to acclimate to the altitude, and I was thankful that an eMTB could enable me to do it while still riding incredible trails. 


Mountain Bike Trail Sign


After a solid warm-up loop in the Reno Divide on our first day in Crested Butte, we ventured into what would become our favorite zone — the Crystal Peak and Taylor Divide area. It has “all the things” - great trails with peace and solitude, wrapped in stunning 360-degree views. The saddle between Mt Tilton and Crystal Peak was particularly special place because of the incredible views. The first time we crossed this section of trail, my mind was blown. The jagged edges of Star and Taylor Peaks, tinged with orange and red, flanked by the green trees of the forest at timberline. The scene was as beautiful as anything I’d ever seen in my mountain travels. Maybe it was the light; maybe it was a lack of oxygen. Whatever the case may be, I was humbled and grateful to be there and delighted to return later in our trip. 


Snapping memories mountain biking


Speaking of gratitude, I was impressed with the excellent trail conditions. During our week of riding, we encountered some amazing and much-appreciated trail stewardship. As a former trail-building nerd, I can appreciate the level of effort it takes to keep a popular riding destination in working order. I’m a sucker for armored trails (reinforced with hard materials like rock and stone). Riding trails like Double-Top and Block and Tackle gave me a great appreciation for the effort to build and maintain what has grown to over 450 miles of trails throughout the Crested Butte region. 


Trail Sign


Thinking back to the 1970s, when mountain biking was in its infancy, trails like these were inconceivable—riding them on a motorized mountain bike... impossible! The Pearl Pass Tour helped establish Crested Butte as a mountain bike destination, and the area now offers some of the best adventure routes and trails in the world. 


Pearl Pass Sign


As we climbed to the very top of Pearl Pass on our "recovery" day of the trip, I felt relieved. I'm glad I ticked this iconic ride off my bucket list. And I can now confirm that despite the historical lore of Pearl Pass, and despite having my eMTB to help me up this rugged climb, the miles and miles of subline singletrack is where it's at in Crested Butte today.