Michael and Kathy's southwest Colorado tour, 2004

Page 1: Gunnison to Pagosa Springs
Page 2: Pagosa Springs to Mesa Verde National Park
Page 3: Mesa Verde to Ouray
Page 4: Ouray to Gunnison

Introduction

Over summer vacations the past 2 years, Kathy and I have bicycled across America: San Francisco to Fort Collins, Colorado in 2002 and Fort Collins to Chesapeake Bay, Virginia in 2003. Those trips showed us the great variety of landscapes in America. With less vacation time to spend this year, we've decided to take a 2-week tour in one of our favorite landscapes - the mountains. We will ride a giant 540 mile loop in southwest Colorado, which we have never visited before. Many of Colorado's tallest mountains are in that part of the state and so is the San Juan mountain range, which is newer and more jagged than the Rockies. The major towns that we will pass through are Gunnison, Lake City, South Fork, Pagosa Springs, Durango, Silverton, Ouray and Montrose. Most of these are Victorian-era mining towns with an interesting past. We will visit 2 national parks, Mesa Verde and Black Canyon of the Gunnison. We can spend up to 16 days on this trip, though in theory we could finish it in 11 days. If we get ahead of schedule then we might add some hikes or bicycle side trips. We have lots of maps and can change our plans as we go.


Kathy in front of Meeker and Longs Peak, near Rocky Mountain National Park, during one of our training rides.

Saturday, June 19

Distance: 58.8 miles
Riding time: 5 hours, 37 minutes
Average speed: 10.4 mph
Maximum speed: 50.2 mph

Kathy and I woke up at 3:30 a.m. this morning to pack up our car and drive to Gunnison. Due to pressures at work we didn't collect our biking gear together until last night, so we went to bed around midnight. Naturally, we were tired today. We arrived in Gunnison at about 10 a.m. and parked at the police station, where our car should be safe until our return. This town is very accustomed to bikes. We saw many people in bike clothes out for day rides, and many others just riding across town (the town is pretty small.) We even saw a couple riding with their 3 children: Dad and Mom were on a tandem, a young child rode a trailer bike hitched to the tandem, a baby rode in a child trailer hitched to the trailer bike, and an older child followed on his separate bicycle. I wonder if Kathy and I will ride like that years from now.


Reassembling the bicycle at the Gunnison police station.

We rode highway 50 west to 149, then 149 south to Lake City. The first part of the ride climbed a lot through dry, mountainous terrain covered with sagebrush. Once we crossed over a pass the land seemed wetter and had more trees and grass. Closer to Lake City we followed the Lake Fork of the Gunnison river for a while. There is plenty of public land around here, beautiful and spacious. Some is national forest and some is Bureau of Land Management. We saw many deer in this area, and the antlers of the bucks were still covered with velvet.

We ate our dinner at a park in Lake City, where we were entertained by the finish of a 50-mile footrace. I thought that 59 miles of biking today was hard enough - I can't imagine running for 50 miles.

As we left Lake City we rode past 2 private campgrounds and a state recreation area. Tonight I wanted to camp in the forest on my own, without the convenience or cost of a campground. We found a spot as we were climbing to Slumgullion Pass. It's a flat spot in the woods on BLM land, well above the road and out of sight. We had to carry our gear up a small hill to set up here, but it was worth it. The views are nice and our campsite is quiet.

This day went much better than I expected. Fort Collins has had rain for 3 days, and there was a risk of rain in Gunnison today. Instead we got clear, warm weather. I'm glad that we chose to start this tour in Gunnison rather than Fort Collins.


The east edge of Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado's largest body of water.



Arid BLM land along highway 149.


The finish line of a 50-mile footrace in Lake City.

Sunday, June 20

Distance: 59.8 miles
Riding time: unknown
Average speed: unknown
Maximum speed: 52.2 mph

We got up late today and took our time making breakfast and packing up camp. We needed the rest, and we were in a pretty area so it was fun to linger for a while. We stared riding around 10:45. When we got on the road we noticed that there were many other bicyclists on the road. It turns out that Pedal the Peaks, a supported 7-day ride, is this week. Pedal the Peaks is following much of our route, minus visits to the national parks. They started riding from Gunnison early this morning, and there are more than 300 riders, so they were passing us all day. Most of them complimented us, amazed that we could bike through the mountains with such a heavy load. An aid station for their ride came in handy for us late in the day because it let us refill with water in an undeveloped, remote area.


Cooking breakfast at our campsite in the forest east of Lake City.

Our ride began with a 7.5 mile climb to Slumgullion Pass (11530 feet.) I think it took us more than 2 hours to reach the top because we climbed slowly and took breaks to rest and eat. We are in the San Juan mountains now, which were formed by volcanic activity more recently than the Rockies. Past Slumgullion Pass we had a fast descent and then another climb to Spring Creek Pass (10,901.) At this pass we could see the headwaters of the Rio Grande river, the 3rd longest river in the United States. After Spring Creek Pass our speed improved with a long descent into the Rio Grande's flat river valley. At the edges of the valley are steep cliffs carved by the river.


A view of Lake San Cristobal on our way up to Slumgullion Pass.


Slumgullion Pass


Riders from Pedal the Peaks at an aid station just past Spring Creek Pass. The mountains in the distance are part of the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado's largest wilderness area.


A bend in the Rio Grande. In this area much of the Rio Grande is bordered by cliffs like this one.

Around 4 o'clock we rolled into Creede. All the riders from Pedal the Peaks are camping in Creede tonight, so there was a lot of activity in town. Creede was a farming/ranching town that became a mining boomtown in the 1890's when silver was discovered. The area's population jumped to 10,000, and many people became rich. There was so much silver here that mining continued until 1985, when the price of silver became to low to justify mining. Today Mineral County, which contains Creede, has only 850 permanent residents. Tourism is the biggest business these days because the mountains and river are great for outdoors adventure. 95% of Mineral County is public land.

We continued past Creede about 12 miles then stopped just before 6 o'clock. We could have gone further, be we wanted to stop before reaching South Fork, 9 miles down the road, so that we can get water at South Fork in the morning. We found a nice spot in the forest to set up camp, up a slight hill from the road. While setting up camp we discovered that we left our rope at our last campsite, so I had to hang our food by climbing up a tree.

Highway 149, which we've been riding for the past 2 days, has very little traffic and an excellent road surface. We've seen more bikes on it than cars. 149 is a state scenic byway nicknamed "The Silver Thread" because it used to be a toll road that miners used to haul silver ore to market.


Cliffs and pasture in the Rio Grande river valley.


Kathy carrying our panniers to our campsite.


Eating dinner at our campsite west of South Fork.

Monday, June 21

Distance: 52.8 miles
Riding time: 4 hours, 49 minutes
Average speed: 10.9 mph
Maximum speed: 44.2 mph

Our ride today was frustrating at times, but had enjoyable times as well. We got up slowly this morning and didn't start riding until about 10:15. It was a little cooler this morning and a tailwind helped us quickly reach South Fork. South Fork was originally a supply town for mining operations upstream on the Rio Grande. The main supplies were lumber and hay. We spent about 40 minutes at the visitor center looking around, getting water, and talking to the staff. Then we began our ascent to Wolf Creek Pass.

The tailwind that we had earlier was now a headwind so we climbed slowly. On top of that, we were stopped at a road construction zone and had to wait 30 minutes to pass. While we were waiting we got to listen to the traffic control women exchange sexual innuendos and other coarse talk with a group of motorcyclists who were at the front of the traffic line. After the wait we continued at a slow pace, and I started to feel weak - I don't think that I'd eaten enough. Near the pass we walked the bike a couple miles to rest. Wolf Creek Pass is part of the continental divide and the continental divide hiking trail passes through here. We didn't take much time to look around at the top because it was starting to rain and we had a long 7% grade to descend. At speeds of 40+ mph rain drops feel sharp, like little pin pricks. We descended only a few miles before we were stopped by another construction zone. The road was being widened and resurfaced, and it wasn't safe for us to ride downhill on the gravel lane that was still open. We had to walk our bike several miles down the hill. On the positive side, we had some great views while walking downhill.


Waiting at a road construction traffic stop. Traffic had to be stopped in both directions because the construction crew was using dynamite blast away the face of a cliff.



A creek and an overlook an the way up to Wolf Creek Pass


A cliff next to the highway. It must have been a huge construction task to cut this highway into the mountain. There are signs by the cliff warning drivers not to park, walk or linger since the cliff frequently drops boulders onto the road.


The top of Wolf Creek Pass, right before the rain started.



Views on the way down from Wolf Creek Pass.

Once we started riding again it was easy pedaling all the way to Pagosa Springs. We decided to stay at a campground in town, but hadn't yet picked one when we met some riders from Pedal the Peaks. They told us to set up camp at the high school, where all 300+ Pedal the Peaks riders were camped. They didn't think anyone would care that we weren't part of their tour. We set up at the school.

We still needed to shower, so we decided to try out the hot springs, which include shower facilities. The natural hot springs made Pagosa Springs a resort town in the 1800's. Visitors believed that drinking and soaking in the mineral-rich hot water promoted physical healing. Even before the 1800's the Ute Indians visited these springs for their healing properties. The Ute word "pagosa" means "stinking waters," but these days the resorts prefer to translate the word to "healing waters." Today the springs can be accessed through either of 2 side-by-side resorts that use the spring water to fill various pools and hot baths. The resort we picked (the cheapest, at $8 per person) has an 85 degree F swimming pool and several 105 degree F hot baths. We pedaled downtown, ate a nice dinner at a Chinese restaurant, then relaxed in the hot springs. I don't know if it promotes healing, but it felt really good.


Soaking in a hot bath at Pagosa Springs.

Now we're back at camp in a small "tent city" set up next to the high school football field. We expect to wake up early because most of these riders like to hit the road before 7 a.m., and they will make a lot of noise as they pack up.

NEXT

Page 1: Gunnison to Pagosa Springs
Page 2: Pagosa Springs to Mesa Verde National Park
Page 3: Mesa Verde to Ouray
Page 4: Ouray to Gunnison