Short bike tour of Estes Park, 2008

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It's Labor Day weekend, what should we do? This year we can't do a big vacation as we have in some past years. My parents will be visiting us the weekend after Labor Day, so we can't leave town for a full week. Kathy has a commitment in Fort Collins this Sunday, so she can't even travel for the 3-day weekend. Given these constraints, Daniel and I will be going on a "short, urban bike tour" - we'll bike from Fort Collins up to Estes Park, about 40 miles away, spend a day or two there and then return home. Kathy and I took a similar short bike trip to Denver a couple weeks ago, and it went well. Kathy and Maggie might drive up to Estes Park to join us for one day.

Most people wouldn't call Estes Park "urban"; it's a mountain town of 6000 people surrounded by national forest and Rocky Mountain National Park. However, the town has a few interesting attractions and should be fun to visit for a day or two.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Distance: 39.0 miles
Riding time: 3 hours, 39 minutes
Average speed: 10.6 mph
Maximum speed: 29.7 mph

I couldn't have asked for better weather. Daniel and I set out at 9:30 this morning, and rode up the Big Thompson Canyon towards Estes Park. We took an alternative route through the little village of Glen Haven, following the north fork of the Big Thompson River up a road far steeper and less trafficked than the main route. The alternative route has more national forest access, which makes camping easier.

We ate lunch at a picnic area along the river, and I kept thinking that this was a perfect day - we had mild temperatures, no mosquitoes, and a shady spot by the river to eat lunch. Daniel played in the river and ran around the trees while I prepared food and purified drinking water. He was clearly excited to spend a whole day outside with his dad. Conversations with Daniel keep getting more interesting as he gets older. At one point during lunch he recalled one of his Dr. Seuss books, asking, "Daddy, in Fox in Socks, what is Knox? Is he a bunny?" It's not easy to convince a 3-year-old that Knox isn't really any animal, but just a generic furry character invented by Dr. Seuss. A few minutes later Daniel gazed up at me, pointed into one of my nostrils and asked, "What's that in your nose?" I'll have to teach him not to say that around polite company.

Tonight we're camped near the top of a pass above Estes Park. Our tent is close to the road because there isn't much flat land around here to put a tent on. We're camping on a spot that was leveled to provide access to some electric utility poles. Although I like camping in the forest, I often set up my tent on man-made features: abandoned roadways or utility line clear-cuts. Daniel and I considered another spot higher on the hill, but I wasn't comfortable with it. Not only was the spot on a slope, but it was also surrounded by four nearly complete elk skeletons and many miscellaneous bones. Either hunters like to dump their kills there, or that spot is popular with mountain lions, and I'd rather keep my distance from mountain lions.

Daniel turns a lot in his sleep, and he keeps rolling onto me tonight. I don't expect to get much rest.


Daniel and I begin our ride to the mountains.


Big Thompson Canyon.


Taking a break at a picnic area near Glen Haven.


Daniel watches the north fork of the Thompson River while eating lunch.


Sterilizing drinking water. Rather than haul all of our water up from Fort Collins, I instead brought along my ultraviolet water sterilizer so that we could drink cold water from the river. Sterilizing 32 ounces takes about 30 seconds.


Steep switchbacks near the top of Devil's Gulch Road.


Cooking dinner at our roadside campsite.


Our campsite at dusk.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Distance: 49.4 miles
Riding time: 3 hours, 9 minutes
Average speed: 15.6 mph
Maximum speed: 34.8 mph

After packing up camp, Daniel and I began our ride to Estes Park by walking our bike to the top of the mountain pass above the town. The switchbacks are so steep that I can barely ride up them on a lightweight racing bike, let alone a touring bike loaded with camping gear and a little boy. We rolled into town and stopped at the downtown park, cooking breakfast and chatting with another bike tourist while waiting for Kathy to meet us at the park.

Kathy did meet us, but our day in Estes Park didn't go well - we didn't do most of the things that we'd planned. Because it's Labor Day weekend, the town was packed and Kathy couldn't park the car near us - she had to park on the far end of town. She tried to use our FRS radios to tell me where she was, but our radios were malfunctioning. I had planned to meet Kathy at the car, unload Kathy's bicycle, and put Maggie in the trailer so that we could bike around town, but instead Kathy had to walk over to Daniel and me with a stroller. Then we were stuck walking, with Kathy pushing a stroller and me pushing a bike and trailer. The Stanley Steamer museum that we wanted to visit was closed, so we settled for looking at a single Stanley Steam Car on display at the historic Stanley Hotel. We wanted to ride an aerial tram to the top of Prospect Mountain, but due to Labor Day crowds the line to get on the tram was almost an hour long, much longer than Daniel's patience. Even eating lunch at McDonald's was a hassle due to long lines and crowded tables.

Eventually we visited an alpaca (small llama) festival at the fairgrounds, and the kids enjoyed that for about 20 minutes before the festival shut down for the day. After the festival, I was pretty disappointed. I thought, "This has not been a good day with Kathy, and now Kathy is going home." The day had been frustrating, but I still had a chance to save the evening. I bailed out of camping for a second night, and instead put Daniel and all our camping gear in the car. Kathy drove home, and I hopped back on the bike. The ride from Estes Park to Fort Collins is mostly downhill, so I covered the 40 miles in less than 2 hours, getting home just before 7 p.m. The kids were already in bed, and Kathy was almost done cooking dinner for us. The evening was saved!

This trip didn't go as I planned, but it worked out well enough anyway. Daniel loved camping, and he didn't know what he was missing in Estes Park. Some other (non-holiday) weekend we will go back and ride the tram, pilot a paddleboat and eat chocolate fudge. I enjoyed scenic rides up and down the Big Thompson Canyon, lots of father-son time with Daniel, and a nice evening with Kathy.


Looking down into the Estes Valley. Mount Meeker and Long's Peak are the mountains on the right.


Daniel and me with Rocky Mountain National Park in the background.


Kathy and Maggie joined us a lunchtime.


A 1906 Stanley Steam Car, on display in the Stanley Hotel. F.O. Stanley built the first high-class hotel in Estes Park, and used his company's steam cars to shuttle guests up and down the Big Thompson Canyon. This car has 10 horsepower and a top speed of 45 mph.


Our tour guide explains the steam engine. It was heated by kerosene and required about 20 minutes to reach a drivable steam pressure.






Visiting the alpaca festival.


Descending the Big Thompson Canyon.

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