‘Colorful [sic] Colorado’ read the sign as we entered our fourth state. Something of a tautology to Hispanophones like ourselves. But the hue certainly had changed since we hung a left from Highway 191 and climbed past the La Sal mountains towards the (more) mighty San Juans, a cool 4,000m of ascent and three days’ riding from Moab. It was out with the oranges, reds and yellows, and in with green and snow-white. The only ever-presents were the royal blue of the late Springtime sky – though now increasingly peppered with itinerant dark clouds – and the light gray of the asphalt underneath our tyres.
We spent a month in Colorado, winding our way through the state from its Western border with Utah to Wyoming in the North, in such a manner as to make our route map look like it had been drawn by a monkey engaging in an experiment to see if it could use a pen. But there was method to our madness, as we managed to select and pack in some of the (reputedly) most scenic riding in the state, thanks to a lot of help from our friend Chase in Aspen, who we’d first bumped into on the road in Utah, and to many of the other people we met along the way.
But what we’ll remember most about our time here is the incredible generosity we encountered along the way. So the rest of this post doesn’t turn into a long essay I may write about our individual encounters in a brief, matter-of-fact way below; but to Joel & Jess, Mike & Jana, Bill & Sue, Bart & Vanessa, Tony & Sally, Larry & Becky, Chase, Boe & Brenda, Megan, Chris & Mary, Karin, Sue & Lou and Wyndham, it was your kindness and openheartedness that enabled us to have the truly awesome time that we did in Colorado. The length of that roll-call says something about just how common it was for people to open up their homes (and pantries) to us – often by approaching us on the road and insisting we come stay – and we are eternally grateful for it.
1. Western Colorado and the San Juan Skyway (Days 30-37)
First up on our list of convoluted routes was the ‘San Juan Skyway’, a famous 250 mile circuit through the San Juan mountains, of which we rode about 90 percent – meaning that our four days of riding the loop landed us only 40 miles further Northeast than we began.
To reach the start, at the ski resort town of Telluride, we took the almost deserted road from Utah through the verdant Paradox valley. In Norwood we encountered our first taste of Coloradan hospitality, as we were accosted outside the town’s general store by not one but two couples, who began to compete for who would host us that evening! The mention of our own private hot tub and dinner won the contest, and ensured we shortly found ourselves in the beautiful home of locals Joel and Jess. And after an evening discussing our trip and their kayaking adventures, we ended up making plans to stay in their friends’ condo in Telluride for the next two nights, where they also both happened to work. Amazing.
After a couple of days relaxing and walking around the stunning snow-capped mountains surrounding Telluride we headed South an up, over the 3,100m Lizard Head pass. With the rain falling in droves we didn’t stay long at the top before beginning the long descent through the increasingly desolate landscape all the way to the town of Mancos on the edge of the arid reservation lands on the New Mexico border. While en route to Telluride we had randomly been approached by Bill and Sue, a lovely couple from Mancos who had offered us to stay with them. And so after this long day in the saddle we turned up to their beautiful rural home to find dinner waiting (the first of four meals they would prepare for us!) and the keys to their car, enabling us the following day to visit nearby Mesa Verde National Park – home to stunning remains of various Indian civilisations that once called the region home.
And our luck wasn’t to end there On leaving Mancos we turned East along the valley floor to the outdoors mecca of Durango, arriving just in time for the town’s annual river festival, where competitors from across the country and the globe were competing in all manner of petrifying-sounding watersports like ‘river surfing’ and ‘white water rodeo’. Two of those competitors were Mike and Jana, who in their prime had been world-class competitors in wild water rafting and canoe slalom, respectively. For some reason Mike took an interest in us – we must have been quite conspicuous pushing our fully-loaded touring bikes through the crowd – and a few beers later we were taking up yet another invitation to spend the night in a bed! The garage of Mike and Jana’s huge townhouse looked more like an elite sports store, with dozens of bikes, skis, canoes and other such gear, and in the morning we were lucky enough to meet their daughter Katja, who’s just finished competing in the World Mountain Bike Championships. An inspiring family.
Finally the road took us North, battling increasingly adverse weather, past the mining-cum-tourist towns of Silverton, famous for its narrow-gauge railway, and Ouray. And via some spectacular roads, culminating in the thrilling Red Mountain pass – the highest point on the Skyway – where the world seemed to open up in front of and below us as the road wound its way through a huge canyon and out past the last of the mountains. Our final night of this leg was spent in the garden of Wyndham in Ridgeway, another Warmshowers veteran who was hosting for the first time in his new home.
2. The West Elk Loop and the central Rockies (Days 38 – 44)
From Ridgway we’d decided to head towards the world-famous ski resort at Aspen, to the North East. With our original plan of taking the most direct route – Eastwards via the ‘Alpine Loop’ – scuppered by the lingering snow and ice,we would have to head North toward the city of Montrose and then decide what to do. Option 1 was to head East to the town of Gunnison, where Mike from Durango’s half-brother might be able to host us, then North via the ski resort of Crested Butte and the gravel road over the Kebler Pass. Option 2 was to head North via the winding road along the rim of Gunnison Gorge and the Black Canyon (another National Park), then East past the trendy town of Paonia.
We decided to take Option 3 – i.e. all of the above. It turned out that each route formed one half of the combined ‘West Elk Loop Scenic Byway’, which we thus took almost in its entirety, meaning again three long days of riding resulting in little forward progress. Charlie didn’t sound best pleased when I told her the plan! But it did turn out to be possibly our favourite of Colorado’s many ‘Scenic Byways’, with some unbelievably quiet roads, lots of snow-capped mountains, plenty of deep blue lakes – including the huge Curecanti reservoir and National Recreation Area – and endless green countryside.
Highlights of this stretch were many: the moonscape scenery between Montrose and Delta, found by chance as we sought out an alternative to the busy highway between the two cities; the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, one of America’s quietest, whose peaceful campground, scenic drive and numerous trails overlook a breathtakingly vertiginous canyon; the spectacular Highway 92 that climbs for what seems like an eternity out of the Crawford State Park before winding its way down along the rim of the mighty Gunnison Gorge; the colourful Kebler Pass, one of the only high-altitude gravel roads in the state that is maintained – i.e. not still under 3 feet of snow in early June; the long descent from the McClure pass that twists and turns its way alongside the Crystal River towards Carbondale; and finally the equally long, green, traffic-free Rio Grande rail-trail that took us the final 30 miles into Aspen.
Other highlights were, once more, the wonderful folk who relieved us of the pain having to pitch our tent. Just two sets this time: in Gunnison we spent the night in the new home of Boe – Mike from Durango’s half-brother – and his wife Brenda, who were also huge lovers of the outdoors and planning a rafting trip down the Colorado river, that of bucket-list fame, later in the year. And in picturesque Crested Butte we were hosted by Tony and Sally from Warmshowers, in their huge mansion overlooking Mount Crested Butte. They also cooked us the most wonderful food and took us on a drive into the mountains, a night on the town and a lovely late morning hike, and – best of all – lent us their inflatable canoes to go paddling on the scarily fast-flowing Slate river!
3. The Front Range: Aspen to Denver (Days 44-53)
Arriving in Aspen felt a like a homecoming of sorts, as we were due to meet up with not one but two acquaintances that we’d made on the road, back in Southern Utah. In a bizarre encounter in the middle of the desert, in the space of two minutes we bumped into Chase – who we’d first met a week before in the Grand Staircase Escalante, where he was camping out in his motorhome – and then Megan pulled over to ask us about our trip. Both lived in Aspen, hundreds of miles away to the West, and both invited us to stay.
On arriving we first headed for Megan’s apartment. Megan is a keen cyclist, skier, hiker and general outdoors enthusiast who had previously cycled to Canada on a similar route to ours, so was able to give us loads of helpful tips. She also lived in a killer apartment, in a complex that had its own pool and hot tub. Obviously. To be fair this is par for the course in Aspen, an oasis of uber-luxury that attracts the international jet-set each winter (and, increasingly, each summer: the town’s food and wine festival – at 2,000 dollars per ticket – was on that weekend) – if it wasn’t for Megan we’d have hastily made our way through town as its cheapest hostel would have set us back a staggering 250 bucks.
Before leaving town we brought ourselves back down to earth by visiting Chase in Snowmass Village, Aspen’s main ski resort. Chase gets by as a masseur and hotel coach driver, living in basic (by Aspen standards) affordable housing in order to make ends meet and chase (geddit) his dream of hitting the slopes. Only having a studio flat, after an impromptu barbecue he offered us a spot in his cool motorhome, with the only condition that we had to be out of there by 5am so he could drive to work! A blessing in disguise, as this gave us the chance to do some hiking before cycling up and over the incredible Independence Pass, a breathtaking 1,200 meter climb which marked our first crossing of the Continental Divide, an invisible line separating the Atlantic and Pacific watersheds, and a watershed moment in our trip.
Another wild camp followed, before we bombed it through a huge headwind to the town of Leadville the following morning, so we could arrive in time for the Pizza Hut buffet. Nice. As Charlie wasn’t feeling great, at one point I was carrying eight bags on my bike – but the 20 or so slices of pizza I ended up ingesting proved more than enough motivation to keep pedalling! They also ensured a bloody hard afternoon labouring over the Fremont Pass and down to Interstate 70, the motorway leading East to Denver. And we were ruing our decision when we arrived in Frisco, still full of pizza, to discover the town was having a huge barbecue festival.
We soon got over our woes when locals Sue and Lou, who had a son who had cycled cross-country, found us outside the local Walmart using the wifi to plan our evening’s camping spot, and offered us to stay with them just down the road. And by this point we were very good at saying “yes”! Not only that but the following morning Lou rode the scenic route out of town with us, leaving us at the foot of the 700 meter climb to the Loveland pass, which cyclists have to take as they aren’t allowed through the motorway tunnel. Despite the huge climb we managed to make 125km in the day to arrive, shattered and in need of a long break, in Golden, one of Denver’s outermost suburbs, in Karin’s house – another lovely Warmshowers host.
We didn’t do a whole lot in Denver except get drunk, see the city’s Pride celebrations, and watch a Rockies baseball game. This was partly because we were so knackered after a series of gruelling climbs, and partly because a new heat record was being set in the city, with temperatures rising to well over 100 degrees. We also moved on from Karin’s house to stay with Bart, who we’d met outside the Grand Canyon (see Arizona blog), and his partner Vanessa. Their big and tranquil house in the far reaches Denver’s outer suburbs proved the perfect base to do not-a-lot.
4. Northern Colorado: Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park, Steamboat Springs and the Road to Wyoming (Days 54 – 62)
60 percent of our time in America down, and we still weren’t half way up the country. So we had to get moving!
According to our new route plan, Denver would represent our Easternmost stop on this continent, and we would now climb back up to the Rockies, crossing the continental divide, several more times as we followed the mountains’ winding trajectory towards the state of Montana. We first cycled to Boulder, the outdoor mecca now filled with hipsters and software engineers sipping expensive filter coffee and craft beer. But Boulder is also a quintessential university town, with its tranquil campus located at the very foot of the Western Slope, home to some of Colorado’s most famous hiking, biking and climbing. Not that we did any – our sedentary lifestyle over the past week was beginning to feel quite normal and we did little more than hit up the local Indian buffet restaurant and a Capital One bank that was curiously giving out free food and drinks all week.
We actually visited Boulder twice: once on a day trip with Bart (who worked in town) and again when leaving Golden. During the latter we stayed with Chris and Mary, again Warmshowers hosts, again incredibly generous with their enviable pantry and huge selection of maps and atlases to satisfy my inner cartography geek. But unfortunately it was just one night with them before we set off for the ‘Peak to Peak Highway’ (Americans love their fancy road names) via some very steep, very bad roads, and then North to Estes Park, gateway town for the Rocky Mountain National Park, which as the name suggests, is located in the heart of the mountains and contains some of America’s best mountain scenery.
We were very lucky to be hosted by Larry and Becky in Estes Park, as RMNP has no walk-in sites reserved for those without cars, unlike many of America’s other national parks, and we otherwise would have struggled to spend much time there. The fact that Larry was the park’s head of planning also helped, and he was able to give us some excellent tips for a couple of days’ worth of hikes, and even drove us and our bikes to the head of the lesser-visited Thunder Lake Trail.
With good and unrestricted road access, and many trails still under a few feet of snow, RMNP was one of the most crowded national parks we visited. But even the (very) heavy traffic couldn’t spoil our much-anticipated ride over the Trail Ridge Road. After leaving Estes Park, a whopping 1,500 meters of climbing on the park’s main thoroughfare brought us to the summit – which at 3,713m above sea level makes it North America’s highest continuously-paved through road. Work that one out. Anyway it was a huge effort, helped by several motorists offering us Clif bars and water on the way up, and the views at the top were superlative.
We wild camped three of the remaining four nights in Colorado in the expansive Arapaho and Routt national forests as the mountains gradually got smaller and our average elevation lower. After passing quickly through the relatively dull towns of Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling – the latter only notable for the huge increase in the number of cyclists as this was on not one but two of the mega-popular ACA routes – we did have time for one more treat: two days early, a birthday celebration for Charlie in Steamboat Springs. Not to ruin our record of not yet having stayed in a hotel in America, I booked us a campground and we had an excellent breakfast at the much-hyped Freshies, visited the town’s hot springs and even took an inner tube out on the river – which turned out to be pretty scary!
On 30 June – Charlotte’s actual birthday – we took a long and unexpected-dirt road through the ranch lands of the Routt National Forest. The land was now much more arid and less mountainous, a sure sign that our time in Colorado was drawing to a close, and that we were approaching the great dusty, windy desert of Southern Wyoming. A section of the trip we hadn’t exactly been looking forward to, but which turned out to be quite the adventure. And you can read all about it in my next post.
From Kremmling it was one final pass before Steamboat Springs, and Charlie’s surprise birthday! After a huge breakfast,