With its granitic boulder playgrounds, lavish meadows and creekside ribbons of smooth, fast, winding singletrack, Curt Gowdy State Park handily earns a spot in the mountain biking firmament.

But don't take our word for it - look to the experts.

"Epic" is the term the International Mountain Biking Association pinned to Wyoming's then-fledgling trail network in 2009, enshrining the 3,500-acre park on a rarefied list of 21 must-ride mountain biking areas across the U.S.

In Colorado, where premier singletrack runs wild, only three spots are considered IMBA Epic Rides: the Monarch Crest Trail, an alpine adventure near Salida boasting a 6-mile descent from 11,000 feet; the Buffalo Creek Trails, a 24-mile network of smooth-rolling routes in Pine, an hour west of Denver; and a 72-mile stretch of the Colorado Trail from Molas Pass to Junction Creek north of Durango.

The Epic designation recognizes "demanding, singletrack adventures in a natural setting" with at least 20 miles of riding consisting of at least 80 percent singletrack.

Long a weekend destination for fishermen, Curt Gowdy made the list only three years after its first trails were cut, all part of a bid to diversify the park's appeal.

The state park might have had a leg up when it comes to the coveted Epic status: IMBA was hired by Wyoming State Parks to help design the network, and trail builders hewed closely to the ribbons that IMBA planners tied in the trees to mark routes.

The project yielded rapid results - drawing riders not only in Wyoming but from Fort Collins, Boulder and points south.

Located within a three-hour drive of Colorado Springs, it's faster than driving five hours to Fruita on the Western Slope or seven hours to Moab, Utah - twin wonders that are the Mecca and Medina of mountain biking spots within driving distance of the Rockies' eastern face.

But the IMBA rating also put southeastern Wyoming on the national radar.

People have "Epic bucket lists" and plan their vacations around crossing new areas off the list, said Paul Gritten, the nonmotorized trails program coordinator for Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails.

The park's attendance numbers help support the anecdotes.

Since 2006, annual visitation at Curt Gowdy State Park has more than doubled, increasing from 56,000 visitors to 120,000 visitors in 2013, Gritten said - boosting tourism and generating much-needed revenue for the park system.

"Over time, that park will pay for itself, if it hasn't already," he said.

The success has spurred an effort to repeat the approach at other state parks, including the 10,500-acre Glendo State Park.

Located 270 miles north of Colorado Springs - or about four hours by car - Glendo has 35 miles of trails that wind around Glendo Reservoir. It is expected to have up to 45 miles by the end of the summer.

Riders who come to Curt Gowdy might wish to check out neighboring trail networks, including those at Happy Jacks and Vedauwoo recreational areas, both located within a few minutes' drive of Curt Gowdy, Laramie and Cheyenne.

The trails at Happy Jacks are "equally as good as Curt Gowdy," said David Carter, manager of Bicycle Station in Cheyenne.

Curt Gowdy brims with potential for family vacations. The park offers plenty of camping and is popular with both RVs and family tent campers.

During a recent visit, children and teens were legion - they fished, jetskied, waterskied, hiked, ran and lounged around the area's two lakes, Granite Springs and Crystal reservoirs. One woman took a break from her teeming campsite to kayak on a lazy, tree shrouded section of Crow Creek.

Those looking for privacy and solitude should consider camping elsewhere, such as Happy Jack or Vedauwoo.

Disappointingly, swimming is off-limits in the reservoirs, with parks officials contending that the water at 7,200 feet is too cold to swim safely.

But a treat is in store for those who must dip: A few miles down a green, wooded path lies a hidden waterfall with a small but charming swimming hole - a well-used respite from the sun.

The park also boasts a 2-mile, 28-target archery field course, also built to IMBA standards, which encourage erosion control measures.

From a mountain biking standpoint, diversity rules the day.

With more than 35 miles of singletrack threading seven distinct habitats, riders easily can choose their difficulty level, making Gowdy a great destination for rookies and experts.

Advanced riders will find plenty of thrills. The region's black trails - all clearly marked with signs, as well as on a park map that comes with the $6 day pass for nonresidents - pack pulse-pounding technical challenges.

Throughout the park are four skills areas featuring rock outcrops, planks, banked wooden turns and other hurdles. They're available as free-ride playgrounds and also can be ridden as optional detours that add technical challenge to your ride.

The park's eastern half offers steep, technical trails along high-desert cliffs overlooking the reservoirs, evoking a Spaghetti Western oasis.

But the best riding is in the park's lush western half, where shaded trails dart through meadows thigh-high with wind-blown grasses and wildflowers, studded here and there with towering rock formations. Trails range from Stone Temple Circuit, an easygoing, 4-mile loop through the park's tenderloin, to El Alto, a harrowing proving grounds with 6-foot hucks and nerve-shearing boulder drops.

Even the most difficult trails are worth a visit - just be ready to swallow some pride and hike a bike.

You can make up for it on your next visit.

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IF YOU GO

Admission to Curt Gowdy State Park for nonresidents is $6 per vehicle per day, and camping is $17 a night.

The park's campsites are geared toward open, communal sites, many of which allow RVs. Those seeking solitude might wish to camp elsewhere, such as the Happy Jack Recreation area a few miles to the west on Wyoming Highway 210.

To get to Gowdy, take Interstate 25 north into Laramie County and merge onto westbound I-80. After a few hundred feet, take exit 357 and travel north on Wyoming Highway 222. Take a left onto Happy Jack Road/Highway 210 and drive west for 21 miles.

The park will be on your left.

To make reservations, call 307-632-7946 or visit travel.wyo-park.com, search for "Curt Gowdy State Park" and click on green "Reserve Now" icon.

Reporter

I cover legal affairs for The Gazette, with an emphasis on the criminal courts. Tips to lance.benzel@gazette.com

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