Bicycle touring in the Colorado mountains, page 4

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 16

Distance: 36.4 miles
Riding time: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Average speed: 15.6 mph
Maximum speed: 37.9 mph

The trail to La Plata Peak is steep, rising about 4000 feet over the course of 4 miles. It took me almost 4 hours to reach the top, including time for photography and filtering drinking water. Much of the trail is well-groomed, with rocks rearranged to form stepping stones, but other parts aren't groomed and it's easy to slip on the steep trail's gritty soil. Perhaps because the trail is on a north-facing slope, alpine wildflowers were especially abundant. Marmots and pikas were whistling and chirping above treeline. Because today is Thursday, and because La Plata is not an especially easy peak, there were only a few other people on the trail. It was much more peaceful than the crowded trail at Mt. Bierstadt on Saturday.

Finishing the hike took longer than I expected, and by the time I'd eaten a late lunch, packed up camp and hit the road it was already past 5 o'clock. I knew that I wouldn't ride very far, but I did make it to Leadville, a historic mining town. When I eat at restaurants, I usually choose locally-owned restaurants in the heart of downtown, but I just didn't have time for that tonight. I got a quick sandwich from the Subway at the edge of town and then continued up the highway. I stopped at dusk and set up my tent on some BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land 6 miles outside of town (I had carefully checked my public land map while eating dinner.)

I wish that I'd had time to explore Leadville a little more. On this trip I've passed through a bunch of historic mining towns, the towns that created Colorado, and the only ones that I've explored for more than an hour are Boulder and Aspen. It just shows that I can't do everything in one trip. With limited vacation time, I wanted a bike tour that started and ended at my house and that let me see lots of mountains. I certainly saw lots of mountains during my hike up La Plata today. I'll have to explore the towns some other time, and bring Kathy with me.


Wildflower above treeline on my way to La Plata Peak.




Tiny flowers on the alpine tundra (higher than 13,000 feet.) To survive the extreme wind and cold, these flowers cover the ground like a moss, staying close to the ground to avoid wind and absorb heat. Each flower is about 1/4" wide.


A group of teenagers prepares for their final ascent to the peak.




Views from the peak.


A panoramic view from La Plata Peak.


Relaxing at my campsite after a long hike.


Leadville is the highest incorporated town in the United States. Most settlements at this altitude didn't survive, but the silver mines in Leadville lasted for decades, and gave the town time to get fully established.




The heart of downtown Leadville.


Mural on the side of a building in Leadville.

Friday, July 17

Distance: 100.5 miles
Riding time: 7 hours, 37 minutes
Average speed: 13.1 mph
Maximum speed: 41.9 mph
Mountain passes: Fremont (11,318 feet,) Loveland (11,992 feet,) Berthoud (11,315 feet)

I liked waking up this morning knowing that all I needed to do was ride my bicycle. I had no hikes planned for today, and no fixed destination for this evening. All I needed to do was ride 60 miles or more over Fremont Pass and Loveland Pass to set me up to finish in Fort Collins on Sunday.

My climb up to Fremont Pass gave me a close-up look at a modern mining operation. I know that mining is what established Colorado, but we're still dealing with some of the destructive mining from that era (poisoned watersheds, mostly,) and it's sad to see the modern destruction that continues today. The Climax mine at Fremont Pass extracts molybdenum, which is present on the Pass in very low concentrations - much less than 1%. A mountain top that was here has nearly been eliminated, one truckload at a time, and the waste rock has filled up what was once an alpine valley. I know that molybdenum is useful - there's even a tiny amount of it alloyed into my bicycle frame - but I hate seeing beautiful places destroyed by strip mines, particularly mountain top removal mines.


My campsite on BLM land this morning.


Climbing up to Fremont Pass.


Climax molybdenum mine on Fremont Pass. There used to be a lot more mountain here.


I wouldn't drink water from this pond below the Climax mine, if I were you. The bright turquoise water looks kind of... poisoned.


Fill dumping from the Climax mine has turned the headwaters of the Eagle River into a flat plateau that covers several square miles.

Coming down from Fremont Pass I entered Summit County, where towns like Frisco, Silverthorne, Dillon and Breckenridge live off the money that tourists spend while visiting the local ski resorts (Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin.) I stopped in Dillon for lunch and checked out a street market in the town center. I liked getting the free food samples, but no one at the market was selling good lunch food, and the prices seemed a bit high. After circling the small town center I went into what looked like the cheapest cafe, and ended up paying $21 for a simple 14" pizza - about twice what I would pay for the same pizza in Fort Collins. I hate getting ripped off, even in ski resort towns. I won't ever eat in Dillon again, unless they build a Taco Bell there or some other cheap place.

Loveland Pass had a tough 8-mile climb, but I kept myself motivated by following a bicyclist in front of me. I kept him in sight until the last 2 miles, when I got off my bike to give my bottom a break. We met again at the pass and talked for a bit while resting. Slowly pedaling uphill for hours at a time, day after day has created a strange perception problem for me that was especially acute today - uphill slopes have begun to look level. Sometimes I'll be riding what looks like a flat road to me, but for some reason I can only go 12 m.p.h. After a while I'll think, "Am I going uphill?" I can usually detect that I'm going uphill by looking backwards over my shoulder or by stopping the bicycle for a minute, and then I find that I've been riding up a steep, steady uphill. The flipside of this problem is that true downhills look like suicidal dives that only a daredevil would attempt. Rolling down from Loveland Pass was frightening even though my speed only got up to 40 m.p.h, so it couldn't have been that steep.

By the time I'd come down from Loveland Pass I had already covered enough miles for the day. All I needed to do was ride down the road a little bit, set up camp and get ready to climb Berthoud Pass tomorrow. However, that plan got all messed up when I sat down at Dairy King in the tiny town of Empire and ate a large Chocolate Flurry - 32 ounces of chocolate ice cream with chunks of chocolate blended in. I like chocolate, but my body is super-sensitive to the caffeine in it. When I hit the road again I was super alert and my legs felt no fatigue at all. Soon I was racing up to Berthoud Pass, and I crossed the summit at 8:30. After racing down the other side I called a Warm Showers host in Granby, still many miles away, to get permission to stay at his house tonight. With my bike lights on I arrived at his house after 10 o'clock, still feeling wired from eating chocolate.

It's hard to believe that I rode 100 miles over 3 major mountain passes with a full load of bicycle touring gear. When I called Kathy from Empire and told her what I was eating she had joked, "Maybe you'll make it over Berthoud Pass after all," because she knows what caffeine does to me. But neither one of us thought it would happen.


Street market in Dillon.


Resting on top of Loveland Pass.


Tight curves in the descent from Loveland Pass.


The mountains at sunset during my climb up to Berthoud Pass.

Saturday, July 18

Distance: 103.2 miles
Riding time: 7 hours, 22 minutes
Average speed: 13.9 mph
Maximum speed: 42.0 mph
Mountain passes: Trailridge Road summit (12,183 feet)

My big question as I looked outside this morning was, "Can I make it all the way home today?" Seeing the perfectly clear skies, I was sure that I could. Today's route crossed Rocky Mountain National Park on Trailridge Road, the highest road of my trip, but after reaching the summit the next 60 miles were all downhill or flat.

This was the first day that I met another bike tourist traveling in the same direction as me. James caught up with me in Grand Lake while I was taking off my windbreaker. He had started in Missoula, Montana, and was finishing in Boulder, so we were both riding more than 100 miles on the last day of our trip. We didn't try to ride together, but we kept passing each other throughout the day. I rode faster, but I took several breaks to snap photographs, visit the visitor centers, eat lunch, and shop at a gift shop. James took no breaks at all until he reached the top of Trailridge Road at 4 o'clock, when he finally ate lunch. This must have been his habit during his whole trip, because at the top of Trailridge he handed me his camera phone and asked me to take the first and only photographs of his trip. I can't imagine crossing so much beautiful country without trying to capture it in pictures. Pictures help me remember, and I don't want to forget my bicycle tours. James's opinion is that most tourists are so fixated on taking pictures of every pretty scene that they fail to see and appreciate their surroundings with their own eyes. I understand that opinion too. I try to look around and appreciate the landscape that I'm biking through. It's too easy to focus on the next challenge or the next destination and so fail to appreciate the current moment.


Mark and Katie, my hosts in Granby.


Horse riders in Rocky Mountain National Park.


View on the way up Trailridge Road. As in most of northern Colorado, many of the trees in Rocky Mountain National Park are being killed by an infestation of mountain pine beetles. The beetles have thrived due to recent warmer winters and drier summers, and the infestation might eventually spread across all of Colorado.


Headwaters of the Colorado River.


A bull elk grazing above treeline.


The flat-topped mountain on the left is Long's Peak, the tallest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.


James, my biking partner for the day, pauses for a photograph at the top of Trailridge Road.

As I rode, I tried to figure out how to make my arrival at home this evening more special, and I came up with two things. First, I went into the Park's gift shop near the top of Trailridge Road and bought 3 huckleberry-flavored lollipops for Daniel, Kathy and me - they were too big for Maggie. Daniel likes it when I bring him things from mountain tops and other "exotic" places. Second, as I descended through the Big Thompson Canyon east of the Park, I stopped at a little store that sells foods made from cherries and other berries - jam, cider, syrup, pies, etc. Kathy and I have biked past that place many times, and we always comment that we should walk in and check out the foods sometime, but we've always been too hurried to stop. Today I walked in and checked it out, buying Kathy an overpriced jar of cherry jam just to show that I was thinking of her. When I finally arrived at home Daniel ran to the front door to hug me. Kathy had let him stay up past his bedtime so that I could put him to bed. Kathy and I ate a late dinner together, happy not only that I was home, but that I'd even finished one day early after a great trip with good weather.

The whole trip covered 679 miles and went over 12 mountain passes. Off the bicycle I climbed two mountains and hiked around the Maroon Bells, and I visited some interesting mountain towns. Overall I had great weather, especially for the mountains, where afternoon thunderstorms are common. Tomorrow I'll let my body recover from the ride, and on Monday we'll have a bunch of friends over for a dinner party, celebrating both my birthday and my successful return from a Colorado mountain adventure.


The Cherry Tree store in Big Thompson Canyon.


Late in the afternoon I returned to the familiar sight of hills with sandstone cliffs. Some of these hills are just west of Fort Collins, and I've hiked them many times.


My family follows me to a restaurant on the day after my return.

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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