Bicycle touring in the Colorado mountains, 2009

Page 1: Fort Collins to Buena Vista
Page 2: Buena Vista to Carbondale
Page 3: Carbondale to La Plata Peak
Page 4: La Plata Peak to Fort Collins

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Distance: 48.6 miles
Riding time: 2 hours, 56 minutes
Average speed: 16.5 mph
Maximum speed: 30.9 mph

Living in Colorado, I've sometimes wondered whether I have the endurance to do a self-contained bicycle tour through Colorado's tallest mountains. Could I cross high mountain passes day after day without wearing out? Could I tolerate the unpredictable weather and hike to the top of tall mountain peaks? This is my year to find out. For ten days I'll be bicycling solo through the mountains of northern and central Colorado, riding from Fort Collins to Crested Butte and looping back again. My plan is to cross 12 mountain passes during 670 miles of riding, plus I'd like to hike up two mountains taller than 14,000 feet (Colorado has 54 mountains taller than 14,000 feet, and climbing them is a popular state hobby.) I don't know whether I can accomplish all that, but it should be fun to try. The scenery should be spectacular, and there are several fun mountain towns along my route. My family will miss me, but they understand why I want to go (well, Maggie is only 1 year old, so she might not understand.) I want to test myself in the mountains while traveling my favorite way - by bicycle. I'll bring the family along on a different bicycle tour later this year, someplace more flat.

Today I worked until 3 o'clock and then rode south to Boulder. I'm spending the night here with Renay, a host that I found on the "Warm Showers" bicycle touring website. I've always thought that Boulder is the neatest town on Colorado's Front Range. The city is covered with tall, mature trees, unlike many other Colorado towns. The downtown area is big, pedestrian-friendly and popular, and includes Pearl Street Mall, a pedestrian-only zone several blocks long. Bicycling is super popular in Boulder, and many professional bicyclists live here. Walking through downtown tonight I saw a neat mix of people: diners eating at packed restaurants, families out for walks, rich folks walking to their fancy hotels, and musicians and freaks performing in the street for money.

Old building on Pearl Street in Boulder.

Pearl Street Mall. This 5-block-long, pedestrian-only section of Pearl Street is the most popular spot in Boulder.

Musicians performing for tips on Pearl Street Mall.

Strange panhandling technique on Pearl Street Mall.

The steep Boulder Flatirons rise immediately west of Boulder and are part of Boulder Mountain Park, which covers more than 7,000 acres.

Boulder loves bicycling.

At the gift shop of the super fancy St. Julien Hotel and Spa you can buy both formal wear and bicycle jerseys.

Back at Renay's apartment, Renay offered me some dinner - an Indian dish. Renay is a convert to Hinduism, and now she earns a living by teaching Sanskrit, astrology and alternative medicine. Tonight she and her friend Louise were practicing Sanskrit chants while I ate dinner. When I declined a chocolate ice cream treat because chocolate keeps me awake at night, Renay explained that it's chocolate's "Pitta" properties (Sanskrit for "fire" or "heat") that keep me awake. She loves her adopted religion, and she isn't just a naive practitioner of alternative medicine, since she has degrees in math and biology. She should know how modern medicine works.

My ride to Boulder was flat and easy, which was good because I'm carrying way too much gear and food on my bicycle - 68 pounds of stuff! And that doesn't include the weight of my water. Most bike tourists keep their loads below 50 pounds. Every other day of this trip will have steep hills, and I'm going to notice the extra weight.

Renay (right) and Louise (left) practice their Sanskrit chants.

The first image is Renay's poster of Avalokitesvara, which means "Lord who gazes down (at the world.)" He is the Buddhist embodiment of compassion. In the mythology of various Buddhist cultures he is a person who delayed his own complete enlightenment in order to help others become enlightened. In one legend he is said to have 11 heads and 1000 arms, which help him observe and help others. The second image is one of Renay's Sanskrit worksheets.

Friday, July 10

Distance: 72.1 miles
Riding time: 8 hours, 0 minutes
Average speed: 8.9 mph
Maximum speed: 42.6 mph
Mountain passes: Guanella (11,669 feet)

Today was a really hard riding day. It was very scenic, but also long and steep. I achieved my goal of camping at the trailhead for Mount Bierstadt, but I didn't reach the trailhead until 8 p.m.

The day began well enough when I started my ride this morning, although I didn't get to say goodbye to Renay. She was sleeping on the living room couch, and didn't wake up even though I cooked and ate my breakfast just a few feet away from her. I began my ride by climbing Boulder Canyon and then following the Peak-to-Peak Highway from Nederland south to Black Hawk. Both of those roads were really fun rides. Rock climbers were scaling some of the tall cliffs along Boulder Canyon, and Boulder Creek was roaring from the abnormally large rains that we've had recently. The Peak-to-Peak Highway had good views of nearby mountains, including Rocky Mountain National Park. The temperature in mountain towns along my route was about 80°F, which probably means that Fort Collins was cooking in 90°+. I'm happy to be away on a bicycle trip.

The winding road up Boulder Canyon

Barker Reservoir, just east of Nederland and the Eldora Ski Area.

Riding past Barker Reservoir. The blue sack attached to my front rack contains a bear-proof food canister. I carried 2 of these on my trip, one on either side of the front wheel. They added some weight to my load, but saved me the hassle of hanging my food from trees every night.

Stone house along the Peak-to-Peak highway. The mountains on the horizon are part of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Hills above Blackhawk. The dirt patches on the hillside are old, abandoned gold mines.

In Blackhawk and Central City I saw the fancy downtown areas that have been restored and built out with wealth from gambling revenues. Those two towns, plus Cripple Creek, are the only towns permitted to have gambling in Colorado. I'm opposed to gambling, and I think that it's a net detriment to Colorado, but what I really hate is the way that gambling-related development is destroying North Clear Creek Canyon. The casinos in Blackhawk make room for more development by bulldozing away the walls of the narrow canyon.

By the time I left Central City I was tired, but I was only halfway through my ride. I had started walking my bike up steep hills because my legs were giving out. When I finally got to Georgetown at past 5 p.m., I was exhausted and yet had 12 miles left to ride. Those last 12 miles were all uphill on Guanella Pass Road. I alternated biking with walking, and for the last 2 miles I gave up biking completely and walked to the Mount Bierstadt trailhead. I was lucky that the weather never got bad; storm clouds came in and thundered for a while, but then moved on.

By the time I'd set up my tent and eaten my dinner it was 10 p.m., dark and cold. The trailhead is at about 11,600 feet, so nighttime is chilly, but it was nice to be able to see hundreds of stars while I was eating.

A newly-constructed hotel rises above downtown Blackhawk.

Parking lot behind the Bullwhackers Casino in Blackhawk. Canyon walls have been excavated to make room for development.

Downtown Central City. Compared to Blackhawk, Central City has dedicated itself much more to historic preservation and less to new development. Most of the buildings downtown date from the late 1800's or early 1900's.

This mural on a retaining wall depicts historic Central City (image is wide; you may need to scroll to the right.)

Eating lunch at a park in Idaho Springs. My wife prepared dehydrated meals to feed me for most of this trip. To make lunches I added water to a zip-loc bag in the morning (or the night before) and the meal was ready to eat by lunchtime.

Looking down on Georgetown from Guanella Pass Road.

The evening view from my campsite on Guanella Pass. Mt. Bierstadt is on the right.

Saturday, July 11

Distance: 82.5 miles
Riding time: 5 hours, 41 minutes
Average speed: 14.5 mph
Maximum speed: 37.8 mph
Mountain passes: Kenosha (10001 feet,) Red Hill (9993 feet,) Trout Creek (9346 feet)

Mount Bierstadt is well-known in Colorado as "the easiest fourteener." The trail is only 3.5 miles from the trailhead to the peak, and although the trail is steep, it isn't very dangerous. The views from the 14,060 foot peak are great. For all those reasons, Bierstadt is one of the most popular fourteeners.

It may be the easiest 14'er, but it still felt hard to me and my worn-out body. I'm usually one of the fastest hikers on the trail, but today dozens of hikers passed by me. Surprisingly, a woman that I helped yesterday spotted me on the trail and called me by name. She had walked up to me last night to ask for directions, when it was well past dark and I was sitting on the ground cooking dinner by the light of my headlamp. As she was leaving I had said, "Maybe I'll see you on the trail tomorrow," forgetting for a moment that there would be hundreds of people on the trail, and that I barely knew what she looked like because of the darkness. She answered, "Yes, I'll probably recognize you because you're tall." Sure enough, she immediately recognized me as I passed her today, even though I was wearing different clothes and a hat. Amazing. Am I so tall and skinny that I can be spotted anywhere? At the top of the mountain it was cold and windy, but dozens of people and several dogs were sitting up there eating lunch and enjoying the view.

Looking back at Otter Mountain near the start of the trail.

Filtering drinking water from Scott Gomer Creek.

The final scramble to the peak.

The crowded peak of Mt. Bierstadt.

Sitting on the peak of Mt. Bierstadt.

A panoramic view from the peak.

After hiking back down the mountain I tried to quickly ride down from the pass because a thunderstorm was approaching. Instead my descent was slow, because Guanella Pass Road is in terrible condition for a state highway. The road is mostly dirt, but that dirt is supposed to be maintained well enough to serve 2-wheel-drive passenger cars. You can drive a little car on this road, as many people did today, but you better drive very slowly to avoid breaking your car. I did my best to dodge the giant potholes, but there was no way around the miles of washboard. After leaving Guanella Pass Road I crossed three more mountain passes - Kenosha, Red Hill and Trout Creek - but they were so much easier than Guanella Pass that they hardly slowed me down. On Kenosha Pass I was riding through a thunderstorm, and even that didn't bother me much.

At dinner time I stopped at a Pizza Hut in Fairplay, both because I was hungry and because I could see two touring bikes outside. Finding the riders inside was easy - they were the two young men in spandex. They're riding from Austin, Texas to Vancouver, British Columbia. It turned out that today's storm, while just a minor annoyance for me, was a hailstorm for them that nearly blew them off the road. I guess I was lucky.

I never did eat at the Pizza Hut. The restaurant was busy, and I would have lost too much time waiting for food. I wanted to reach Buena Vista tonight, even though it was still 38 miles down the road. I jumped on my bike and started riding, but around 7 p.m. I realized how foolish I was being. Between Fairplay and Buena Vista there are virtually no services, and certainly no fast-food restaurants. Biking all the way to Buena Vista without eating dinner would have pushed my body too hard - Cool-Aid and snack bars just weren't enough. Then, just a few minutes after realizing my predicament, a miracle happened. A pick-up truck pulled off the road ahead of me, and the driver leaned out his window to shout, "Do you want any food?" I stopped and asked, "What?" just to make sure that I heard him correctly. The driver, Joe, is a bike tourist who has biked from Alaska to Wyoming, and he likes to help other bikers when he can. He quickly pulled out a dinner of bagel ham sandwiches, bananas, orange juice and chocolate. We talked for a minute and then he was gone. It was like roadside assistance for bike tourists!

Getting to Buena Vista took even longer than I thought it would, and I had almost given up when a fun 7-mile descent gave me encouragement to keep going. I didn't arrive at a campground until after 9 o'clock. If Joe hadn't stopped to give me dinner then I don't think I would have made it here.

Potholes on Guanella Pass Road.

A storm approached on my way to Kenosha Pass.


Page 1: Fort Collins to Buena Vista
Page 2: Buena Vista to Carbondale
Page 3: Carbondale to La Plata Peak
Page 4: La Plata Peak to Fort Collins