Cycling southwestern Colorado’s Rocky Mountains

Thrills and chills abound on a 242-mile bicycling trip through southwestern Colorado’s Rocky Mountains

Special to The TribuneJanuary 11, 2013 

Imagine riding your bicycle through the thin air in the Colorado Rocky Mountains surrounded by views of brilliant fall colors, towering peaks and an intense blue sky, and you’ll have a picture of my recent 242-mile cycling trip over the Rockies.

I teamed up with Bill Kurtz, former Cal Poly professor, now retired from the University of Missouri. My wife, Connie, volunteered to drive the support car, delivering and picking us up each day.

Our route started in Telluride, Colo., on Sept. 25 and wound through the mountain towns of Montrose, Gunnison, Sagauche and ended in Del Norte.

As we motored our way up the Rockies toward Telluride, we were awed by the brilliant fluorescent colors of the aspen trees contrasted with the deep green of the thick fir, pine and spruce forests. At Lizard Head Pass, 10,200 feet, we were welcomed to the high country by a passing hail and snowstorm. The snow collected on the high peaks, giving us an incredible welcoming view into Telluride valley, a former mining town-turned-ski resort, with its colorful main street boasting great restaurants, art galleries and trendy shops.

After an evening exploring the town, we set off early in the brisk morning to ride 39.1 miles from Telluride, 8,800 feet, to Ridgway, 7,100. The first leg of the ride was a real thrill with a 1,500-foot descent down Highway 145 to Highway 62. But now our challenge was ahead, a daunting 12.5-mile uphill stretch to the Dallas Divide at 8,970 feet.

As we neared the divide on Highway 62, we soon realized that no words could adequately convey the blaze of glory the aspens offered. Light yellows, blended with dark yellows and greenish yellows — nothing short of stunning. Around the next curve, the vistas were enhanced by the fresh snow on the rugged Rockies. It was as if the heavens had opened the divine paint shop to display such unearthly colors. The mix of yellows and red gave a brilliant glow to the trees — the “Aspen glow,” as the ranchers said.

On our second day, a bridge and road closure forced us to take a county road for 12 miles, mostly on a graveled surface. Worse yet, for a road bike, the washboard caused such impact that it seemed to shake the bike and rider to pieces.

We finally returned to the main road, Highway 550, and continued along the flat high mesa through farms and cattle ranches to Montrose, a thriving town of 20,000. Montrose was settled in the mid-1800s to provide supplies for the miners. The best restaurant of the trip, Camp Robber, featuring Santa Fe-style meals, was located here.

Unexpectedly, we found the route, Highway 50, from Montrose, 6,000 feet, to Blue Mesa Reservoir the most difficult so far. It started with a strong headwind and then the climb, 1,900 feet to Cerro Summit, 7,900 feet. Then down we went, racing like never before with speeds up to 38 mph, bottoming out at Cimarron River at 6,900 feet. No rest as we immediately began the assault on Blue Mesa Summit, 8,700 feet. This, the second major ascent of the day, really took us to our knees. After many, many switchbacks we eventually topped out after the 1,800 feet of uphill pumping.

We literally sailed off the top on an ultra steep descent. This was my only brush with disaster. It seemed I was instantly at 35 mph and had just begun to shift my hand position from upper handle bars to the lower ones. But I was already into a left hand curve and my momentum, plus lifting my left hand from the bike, swung me wide right — right to the thin edge of the shoulder. It was a breath-stopping few seconds before I regained control and moved back to the road.

Down we flew, winding through a narrow stream-cut canyon to the low point, where, unfortunately, there was no shoulder. Highway 50 has lots of fast traffic including many semi-tractor trailer trucks. It was a few harrowing minutes negotiating the tight canyon curves and staying clear of traffic. As we left the canyon we could see cars high above — wow, our third major ascent of the day. This one took us onto a large bluff at 8,500 feet. Coming off the bluff proved to be the steepest yet, reaching a maximum speed over 41 mph on the 1,000 foot descent.

We were thankful that the next day, day four, had very little elevation change. We followed Highway 50 along the 20-mile long Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest body of water in Colorado. It was created by the Blue Mesa Dam built on the Gunnison River in 1965, as one of three reservoirs to store water for the western United States. After the reservoir, we cruised down to the welcoming high country town of Gunnison, another historic mining and railroad town established in 1870.

Our fifth day took us along Highway 114 from Gunnison to the Continental Divide, 29.50 miles. It started in farmland with a classic mountain stream meandering through the valley. As the valley narrowed, farmland gave way to ranches and cattle. Continuing up, we left civilization and threaded through a steep-walled canyon guarded by towering spires and rock columns.

The last section was eight long miles of grinding out the switchbacks until we topped the Continental Divide at 10,135 feet. Here, we found that our “conditioning” wasn’t what we thought as we sucked in the scarce air.

But this was the crowning moment — the elevation target of the trip, the Continental Divide! This marked the geographic point where suddenly the streams and rivers were flowing with us instead of against us. It was like standing on top of the United States. We congratulated each other heartily and basked in the moment, with the wind joining in to applaud. It was a grand feeling of accomplishment.

We returned to the Divide for our sixth day start. The morning wind was ripping over the divide, evidenced by the fact that it blew our gloves and helmets into the forest while getting ready. We took off, and down we went, faster than ever, over 40 mph with the wind whipping us wildly. The first six miles I averaged over 30 mph. It was scary keeping that speed up for so long under those steep and windy conditions.

On down we “blew,” dropping off plateau after plateau, finally reaching a low point. We saw a small cattle drive along the way. We continued on to the little village of Saguache (pronounced “suh watch”), 31 miles, but weren’t really tired. So instead of ending the day there as planned, we biked on to our final destination, Del Norte, another 37 miles for a 68-mile day.

Before entering town we crossed over the famed Rio Grande River and passed a Bison farm. Suddenly we were in Del Norte and approaching the Windsor Hotel, built in 1874, where Connie was waiting. The hotel was nearly destroyed but saved at the 12th hour, and Connie’s brother, architect Mark Jones, has recently restored it to its original condition. So this grand hotel — an icon of the past — was our finishing point.

Amidst many pictures and congratulations for the 242-mile, six-day ride, we reflected on the adventure. It was a challenge indeed, but a successful one, and one I’d recommend to all but the faint of heart.

If you go …

• Holiday Inn Express provides excellent and economical lodging with complimentary breakfasts throughout the Rockies. Telluride has a large variety of hotel types depending on your budget. We chose the new Hotel Telluride downtown for its location and amenities, including a lodge style main room with a big fireplace and a very helpful staff. All of the hotels along the way allow you to store your bicycle in your room.

• A nonriding ‘support driver’ is needed to get to and from the starting/stopping points each day, with a vehicle that can hold your bicycles. The support driver can keep quite busy exploring the towns, shops, hiking and walking, and swimming in the indoor pools at several of the Holiday Inns.

• Weather in September is usually good for riding, but occasionally early rain and snow will dampen your trip plans. The advantage of going in late September is experiencing the autumn colors, and encountering less traffic on the roads after the end of the summer tourist season. Take cycling clothes for all weather options.

• For those who would rather ride with a guide and an organized group, there are many outfits in Colorado that provide this service. We saw several such groups as we rode. Use your browser to find “Bicycle touring guides in Colorado.”

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service