A family bike tour across the Colorado Rockies, 2010

Our bicycle route from Fruita to Fort Collins (458 miles.)

Page 1: Fruita to Carbondale
Page 2: Carbondale to Bond
Page 3: Bond to Hot Sulphur Springs
Page 4: Hot Sulphur Springs to Fort Collins

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Colorado is a wonderful state for bicycle touring, with beautiful mountain scenery, abundant public land for camping, and challenging climbs over mountain passes. I've bike toured in Colorado in both the past two summers, but my family has stayed home while I ride alone. The mountain roads have always seemed too difficult for our family of four to ride them together.

This summer we're putting those concerns aside and embarking on a 2-week bike tour across the Rocky Mountains. Yesterday we packed a rented minivan full of bicycling and camping gear and drove west to the home of friends in Fruita, Colorado, near the Utah border. Today we've enjoyed visiting John, Chandra and their children, and tomorrow we'll start a 14-day bike trip back to Fort Collins. Kathy and I will ride our tandem bicycle, Daniel will ride his attached trailercycle, and Maggie will ride in her child trailer. We're not sure what path we'll follow across the Rockies, but we have a few ideas and we will cross at least four mountain passes. The ride is bound to be very hard, but we finished a fun bike trip in South Dakota's Black Hills last month, and that has given us the confidence to attempt Colorado.

It's hard to know what weather to expect. Here in Fruita the high temperature has been over 100°F each day, typical for this time of year, but when we cross Cameron Pass near the end of our ride we need to be prepared for snow or freezing temperatures.

I've wondered, with all the steep roads and hot days and cold nights ahead, "Is this going to be a fun family vacation?" I hope so, but I don't really know; we just need to try it. I'm sure it will be a memorable vacation, fun or no fun. We've planned to take a few rest days, and we'll try to find fun diversions in the mountain towns along our route.

Preparing to leave home in our rented minivan. Our tandem bicycle fit inside fully assembled.

Abby and Maggie on the backyard playground in Fruita.

Abby and Daniel follow Kimee up the slide.

Dinner at John and Chandra's house.

Sunday, July 18

Distance: 54 miles
Riding time: Unknown (bike computer error)

Maggie woke up in our room at about 3 a.m. this morning, and after nearly an hour of trying to get her to go back to sleep I gave up and began getting ready to ride. I knew we needed an early start to have a chance at beating the afternoon heat, but after stepping outside I realized that was impossible. Before sunrise it was already warm, maybe 80°F, and the sky was clear. When we started riding at 7:30 a.m. we could feel the temperature rising as the minutes ticked by. While riding through Fruita and Grand Junction sweat poured off my body because the surrounding irrigated farmland held the humidity high, but the humidity dropped abruptly when we turned onto Highway 50 and rode into dry grasslands.

We liked seeing the hills and grasslands today, which looked like a good place to film a cowboy western, but we only observed them from our bike. We didn't dare stop in this heat without a shady spot to cool off in, and there were no trees or shade along the road. At lunchtime we stopped at an isolated cluster of houses - the last buildings that we would see for the next 18 miles - and knocked on a door to ask if we could eat in the shade of the front porch. The kind owners invited us into their living room instead, which was a welcome relief. We talked with the family while we ate our lunch, and Maggie played with their pet dog, a husky much bigger than her.

Riding out of Fruita in the morning.

We rode past the cliffs of Colorado National Monument, across the Colorado River from us.

When we arrived in Delta around 2:30, Kathy and I were so exhausted that we parked at a roadside hotel and laid down on a concrete walkway under the shade of an awning. We were told that it was 102°F outside. Daniel stood next to me with a confused look, so I had to explain that Mommy and Daddy were so hot and tired that we could barely move. We drank a few cold sodas from the vending machine, then eventually got up and biked into the old downtown.

Before we started this trip, Kathy and I decided that we would try to eat at locally owned restaurants in the old downtowns rather than at national chains. On the road we cook most of our meals, but we do use restaurants occasionally, and downtown restaurants give us a better feel for the character of a town. We tried to find a local place to eat today, but we failed because it's Sunday. Nearly all the downtown businesses were closed, and we weren't in the mood for the two Mexican restaurants that were open. We ended up at a Wendy's Restaurant that felt exactly like the Wendy's Restaurant at home in Fort Collins. It was still fun to walk through downtown, mostly because we saw around ten excellent large murals painted on the walls of old buildings.

We set up camp at a private campground on the edge of town, where we all cooled off in the swimming pool. We somehow lost our camping pillows during the ride, and I hope that doesn't keep us from getting a good night's sleep. It's been a long day.

A welcome mural on the edge of downtown Delta.

Old-fashioned bicycle sculpture and mural in a small downtown park.

Kathy talks to a mural man outside an apartment building.

Cooling off in the campground swimming pool.

Eating a late dinner at camp.

Monday, July 19

Distance: 48.7 miles
Riding time: 5 hours, 9 minutes
Average speed: 9.4 mph
Maximum speed: 38.1 mph

Our family had a much better ride today than yesterday, even though the weather was nearly as hot and we climbed much more. A few small changes made a big improvement, beginning with sleep. We woke up at 6:30 a.m. instead of 3 a.m. this morning, so we weren't tired before our ride even started. Of course this meant the temperature was much higher when we started, but by good luck some clouds arrived at 11 o'clock and shaded us for an hour or two, providing a desperately needed break from the heat. The views were better today as we rode closer to the mountains of the Elk Range in the northeast. We'll need to cross some of those mountains in the next day or two, and they look really steep.

Shortly after noon we came into the little town of Hotchkiss and found a perfect place to take a break: a gallery run by a local artists co-op, featuring artwork, photography, ice cream and ice-cold water. It also had a dog for the kids to play with. I like galleries featuring local artists because their art usually reflects what people find special or important in that area. We spent almost 3 hours there eating lunch, looking at art and snacking on ice cream while waiting out some of the afternoon heat. There was lots of wildlife and landscape art, not surprising in this part of Colorado, plus pottery, jewelry, stone carving and more.

Maggie helped me squeeze air out of our air mattresses every time we broke camp.

Looking north from highway 92 to the foothills of 10,000 ft. Grand Mesa.

Walking the bike through a highway construction zone.

Cooling off in a gallery of the Creamery Arts Center in Hotchkiss.

Maggie pets her new friend outside the Creamery Arts Center.

When we finally left it was still 97°F, but at least we knew the day wouldn't get any hotter. Daniel did some irrational complaining from his trailerbike, starting with, "Mommy, I'm too hot."
"Do you want to ride in the trailer with Maggie?" asked Kathy.
"No, I want us to ride really fast to cool me off," he answered.
"Daniel, we can't go fast while riding uphill. Mom and Dad are tired."
"I want to ride downhill right now!" demanded Daniel.
"We can't go downhill until we reach the top of this hill. And the weather is cooler up high in the mountains. Will you help us pedal up the hill?"
"No Mommy, I'm too hot!" Daniel began again.

Towards evening the day cooled down to a comfortable temperature, and then the biking was great. I think we felt stronger just because we were comfortable. We pushed on to Paonia State Park, on the north fork of the Gunnison River, and ate our dinner in the dark. Finishing a ride well improves our impression of the whole day, and our whole family was in a good mood tonight.

Our campground and the surrounding mountains are covered with tall pine trees, and the night is getting chilly. We're truly in the mountains now, and tomorrow we will see if we can truly handle mountain roads.

Mount Lamborn (11,395') and Landsend Peak east of Hotchkiss.

A retired train engineer in Paonia tells Daniel what to expect during the rest of our ride today.

Snack break beside Paonia Reservoir.

Evening sunlight on the Ragged Mountains north of Paonia Reservoir.

Tuesday, July 20

Distance: 39.1 miles
Riding time: 3 hours, 38 minutes
Average speed: 10.8 mph
Maximum speed: 42.6 mph

It's my birthday! I turned 37 and spent most of the day biking through the mountains with my family, which seemed like a good way to celebrate. Kathy and the kids sang "Happy Birthday" at our picnic table this morning, and I blew out a candle in one of the four brownies that Kathy brought along just for this occasion.

We crossed our first named mountain pass today, 8755 ft. McClure Pass. The first three days of our trip have all been climbing towards this pass, but today was the toughest. When we were 4 miles from the summit our legs couldn't pedal up the steep grade anymore. We got off the bike so that I could push it up the hill, but my body couldn't handle that either. We were hot and dehydrated (I hadn't purified enough water for us to drink this morning) and feeling weak. Fortunately, I'd planned for this situation. Instead of pushing the bike, I pulled it up the hill using our rope and a set of backpack shoulder straps that I'd brought along for this purpose. I pulled the bike like a mule while Kathy walked and kept it balanced. I had no trouble towing the bike that way, although it was hard work for Kathy to keep it balanced.

Celebrating my birthday during breakfast at Paonia State Park.

Sterilizing beaver pond water for drinking, because there was no drinking water at our campsite. We were surprised by the water's good taste; it was better than typical well water.

Towing our bike up the 8% grade to McClure Pass.

The hardest part of towing our bike up those last 4 miles was not the pulling or the balancing, but the constant interruptions from our kids. It seemed like every few minutes they would start arguing, or open the trailer and drop something out, or Maggie would try to climb out of the moving trailer (she knows how to wiggle out of her 5-point seatbelt.) Meanwhile a thunderstorm was brewing above the mountains, and eventually Kathy began to loose her temper. There wasn't really a good reason to get upset since our bike trip is already about a day ahead of schedule, but between dehydration and fatigue I don't think that Kathy or the kids were behaving rationally.

Everyone behaved better after we reached the top of the pass. The thunderstorm caught up with us there, so we walked into the aspen forest and waited out the storm in our raincoats. That gave us some rest, and then we climbed back on our bike for a fast, 17-mile ride through the Crystal River Canyon and into the small mountain town of Carbondale. Downtown we found the house of Aaron, a host from the "Warm Showers" hospitality group that I contacted before our trip. Aaron and his wife, Midge, have a home that lets them host in style. Guests stay in a separate apartment over the garage, complete with multiple beds, kitchen, widescreen television, deck, porch swings, and access to the hot tub. Down in the garage is nearly a whole bike shop worth of tools that I could use to service our bike.

Staying here after a long day of biking was like paradise, but we did have a couple unfortunate faux pas between our hosts and us. Midge arrived later in the evening and seemed surprised to find us at her home. Maybe Aaron hadn't told her when to expect us - I hope she wasn't annoyed. Worse, tonight Maggie fought going to sleep for almost 2 hours, crying most of that time. Our vacation has changed her routine so much that she's been uncooperative at bedtime. At 10 o'clock an upset Aaron came out to us on the deck and said, "She's got to stop. A little bit of this is O.K., but she has got to stop." We didn't know that he could hear Maggie in the house, or that his family was trying to sleep. It turns out that this neighborhood gets very quiet at night, so everyone leaves their windows open, and the houses are so close together that any noise echoes through the whole neighborhood. Maggie's crying had probably been annoying 6 or more neighbors. We went back into the apartment, closed all the windows and rocked Maggie yet again, and this time she fell asleep. Lesson learned. Aaron and Midge must enjoy hosting guests, or they wouldn't have built such a nice place for them to stay. It's too bad that we annoyed them on our first night here. We're planning to stay for two nights to visit the area better.

Aspen forest on McClure Pass.

Waiting out a thunderstorm in the forest.

Riding down from McClure Pass.

Maggie rides the "bed swing" on Aaron's front porch.


Page 1: Fruita to Carbondale
Page 2: Carbondale to Bond
Page 3: Bond to Hot Sulphur Springs
Page 4: Hot Sulphur Springs to Fort Collins