Bicycle touring in the Colorado mountains, page 3

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

Tuesday, July 14

Distance: 43.2 miles
Riding time: 3 hours, 52 minutes
Average speed: 11.1 mph
Maximum speed: 26.7 mph

Ralph and I ate a big breakfast of omelets and hash browns out on his patio, admiring the great view of Mount Sopris. Ralph is in the construction business, so he designed his house and had it built about nine years ago. What a great place for me to visit during my bicycle trip. We spent so much time talking about bicycle trips and comparing our gear that I didn't leave the house until 11 o'clock, with Pat calling out, "Come back and visit anytime!" as I rolled away. I was happy to linger this morning because I didn't have far to go today.

My ultimate destination was Maroon Lake, a small lake on the edge of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, but first I had to ride to Aspen. The recently completed Rio Grande bicycle path connects Carbondale to Aspen along an old railroad bed, so I took the bike path and skipped the highway traffic. The path is adjacent to the Roaring Fork River and has several picnic areas, so it's a popular path. After 30 miles I was in Aspen, the most expensive town in Colorado. You wouldn't guess that Aspen is expensive just by glancing at it, because it looks similar to several other mountain towns. The historic downtown is nice, but not as nice as Central City, and the pedestrian mall is fun, but much smaller than the one in Boulder. Aspen does have a world-class ski resort, but so do several other towns in this area. I guess it's just a herd mentality that has brought so many celebrities here to buy homes, most recently Lance Armstrong (who is competing in the Tour de France this very week.)

Ralph and Pat in the kitchen at breakfast time.

Eating breakfast with Ralph on his patio.

Our view of Mt. Sopris from the patio.

The Rio Grande bicycle path that runs from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.

A grand old home along Main Street in Aspen.

A newer Aspen home with modern architecture. This house was on a street that restricted automobile traffic - motor vehicles were not allowed to drive straight through any intersection, so they could only drive for 1 block before they had to leave the street again. This essentially turned the road into a bicycle/pedestrian road, and lots of people were strolling down the middle of the street. I had read about these types of streets before, but had never been on one. It seemed like a good way to add bicycle access to a downtown that had no room for bike lanes or bicycle paths.

The Aspen Art Museum was right next to the bicycle trail, and admission was free, so I checked it out. Unfortunately, this may have been a case of "you get what you pay for." The main exhibit was a huge pile of blue outdoor gear: a pick-up truck, tent, patio furniture, wading pool, etc. all colored blue. The secondary exhibit was showing a variety of short movie clips without any sound. Neither exhibit impressed me with either its artistic statement or quality of design. Downtown I walked into an upscale art gallery to get a different perspective on art. The paintings in that gallery were stunning, but so were the prices. Prices ranged from $10,000 to $140,000, with the $20,000 to $50,000 range being most popular.

From Aspen, Maroon Creek Road leads 10 miles up to Maroon Lake, one of the most popular scenic spots in America. There are a few campgrounds along the road, but I wanted to camp all the way up at the lake so that I could see the area in early morning light tomorrow. The rules for camping near the lake are unclear, so I hiked up a trail to a spot where people are allowed to hitch their horses, and I set up my tent there. I'm out of sight from all the other trails, so I don't think that anyone will mind me being here.

The main exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum - lots of outdoor stuff, all colored blue.

Many art galleries line the streets of Aspen.

Two nice oil paintings in an Aspen art gallery. Both canvases were about 6' tall. The detailed painting of the ballerina was priced at $52,000. The painting of a woman's face, made with squirts of paint, was priced between $20,000 and $30,000.

This watercolor painting of a parade can be yours for about $20,000.

A sign along Maroon Creek Road. Although it looks amusing, it's serious. I saw road-killed marmots on many roads during my trip, and I even watched a poor marmot get squished by a pickup truck on my way up to Cottonwood Pass.

Waiting for dinner at Maroon Lake. Rice takes a long time to cook at 9,500 feet.

Wednesday, July 15

Distance: 40.6 miles
Riding time: 3 hours, 37 minutes
Average speed: 11.1 mph
Maximum speed: 38.8 mph
Mountain passes: Independence (12,095 feet)

Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak, known as the Maroon Bells, are the most photographed mountains in North America. The most popular place to photograph them from is Maroon Lake, and photo galleries throughout Colorado sell posters of nearly the same image: the Maroon Bells lit by the morning sun and reflected off the mirror surface of Maroon Lake. This morning I was down at the lake trying to reproduce that image myself. A light breeze kept me from getting a good mirror image off the lake, but I still enjoyed taking pictures where so many professional photographers had gone before. The steep faces of the Bells, combined with their visible sediment layers, make them fun to look at.

When I was planning this bicycle trip I considered climbing one of the Maroon Peaks or nearby Pyramid Peak because all three are taller than 14,000 feet. I ruled them out because of difficulty - they all have class 3 or class 4 ascents, meaning that the risk of death is relatively high and that many climbers use ropes or other technical climbing gear. I wasn't going to climb them alone without climbing gear. Instead I took an easy hike up to Crater Lake, a lake right below the Maroon Bells, and then I biked down into Aspen for lunch.

Looking at the Maroon Bells from my campsite just after sunrise.

The Maroon Bells and Maroon Lake

A marmot guards his territory near the Maroon Lake picnic area.

Flowering bush along the Crater Lake trail.

Crater Lake at the base of the Maroon Bells.

Me in front of Crater Lake

Blue columbine, Colorado's state flower.

I called Kathy during lunch to ask how my family was coping without me. They're fine, but Daniel has been telling everyone he meets, "My Daddy is on a long bicycle trip." Every morning he asks Kathy, "Is it Saturday yet?" because he thinks that I'm coming home on Saturday, even though we've told him that I won't be home until Sunday. I guess he's used to having me home on Saturday at the end of the work week. Maggie isn't so verbal, being only a year old, but she's been acting more emotional and probably misses me too. I'd love to have my family with me on vacation, but a family bike tour in these mountains would be nearly impossible, and I really wanted to bike the mountains.

After lunch I was off to Independence Pass, one of the higher passes at 12,095 feet. During this trip people have been warning me about Independence Pass, saying that it's a huge, hard climb. It is huge, of course, but it really didn't seem that hard, and I never needed to walk my bicycle. It was easier for me than Cottonwood or Guanella. This could mean that: (A) Independence isn't that difficult, (B) I'm getting stronger as the trip continues, or (C) I'm carrying less weight now because I've consumed much of my food. I've certainly eaten a lot of my food, though most of it is dehydrated stuff that doesn't weigh much.

My ride ended early today at just 40 miles, when I got to the trailhead for La Plata Peak. A quick dinner and an early bedtime should help me prepare for the big climb to the top tomorrow.

Cabins in the gold mining ghost town of Independence, near Independence Pass. A gold rush started here in 1879, and by 1882 the town had about 1,500 residents. After the gold mines played out a few years later, most of the residents migrated down the valley to Aspen, where the weather and work opportunities were much better.

A switchback on Independence Pass Road.

Me on Independence Pass.

A small lake on the tundra of Independence Pass.

Mountains between Independence Pass and the La Plata trailhead.


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