The ride… It’s always the thing that takes me to my better self. At peace with my place, and honest about my frailty. It doesn’t hurt that Colorado has such stunning scenery, and roads that invite you go further and further INTO this beauty.
I’ve been lucky to be able to ride the last few summers with my son Tanner, my brother James, and to complete some ride that I started in my 20’s. I’ve ridden the closest roads dozens of times, and each one has been it’s own meditation. So going further, seeing more on the motorcycle, in the home I claimed 26 years before was the perfect way to end my summer.
My most recent motorcycles have been touring bikes. I’m sure I’ll own one again, but right now it’s the adventure bike. The motorcycle that I can ride on dirt roads and highways, that will take one to all the “other” places. Camping in remote places, a slower, more casual pace, less traffic and ultimately more space. Taking my “Colorado” trip was such a natural ride at this point. I plotted a course that would be both familiar and new. Places I wanted to spend more time in and places not yet explored. It would be dirt, it would be passes I hadn’t climbed, it would be the best of Colorado, it would be deserts that were improbable, and challenges that exhausted me, the motorcycle and my humility.
Crested Butte has such an allure. I’d first seen it 2002 and felt at the time that it was penultimate Colorado mountain town. Nestled in the midst of some of Colorado’s most pristine mountains; the Collegiates to the east, the Elks and West Elks to the north and west, I’d ridden to, AND through Crested Butte half a dozen times in that past three years. I wasn’t so much as wetting my appetite, as it was taunting me. Each trip had never been enough time. Each trip held the promise of “next time!” This would be one of the “next times.” This would be an exploration and a time to “settle in” like I hadn’t before.
Packing the bike was getting easy. This was my 7th big ride in the past few years, and my sixth camping trip in the year, and so I had practice. Left bag clothes, right bag kitchen, dry-bag behind me bedroom. Bike tuned and lubed, and gas tank topped off. Route loosely planned, but clear weather was indicated, so I was excited to push-off, and take it all in. Weston Pass was first on my list. This would be an easy ride out of Park County into the Upper Arkansas Valley, just north of Buena Vista. I’ve eyed Weston for 28 years, and just never made it a priority, but this would be the time. Highway 285 south out of Denver can be a mundane ride for its familiarity, but it isn’t. It is fresh and new with every turn and undulation of its track. Mt. Evans to the north, Pikes Peak in the distance to the south, Evergreens and Aspens waving and dancing as you pass. I’ve wound up this canyon more times than I can count, and only tire when I’m heading home. The first “obstacle” is the north fork of the South Platte river, which you find in Bailey, at the bottom of what can be a daunting descent down Crow Hill. Slowing at the bottom of the hill, and veering hard to the right you catch the first glance of the river that will guide you for the next 20 miles to the top of Kenosha Pass and one of the more prolific view of central Colorado: South Park.
This ancient ocean floor has an average elevation of more than 8,000 feet and is ringed by cirques and the Continental Divide, it’s trampled by elk and trout pool in pockets of water that dot its meadows. Weston Pass is on the western edge, south of Fairplay and the traverse to it’s start quickly puts the highway’s traffic behind you. It’s easy to forget that you START the pass at nearly 9,000 feet, following a tributary of the south fork of the South Platte, passing century old ranches and quickly tucking into the heart of the 10-Mile Range, the Buffalo Peaks just to the south. The road, as always, deteriorate as you climb. Wide and smooth at the start, narrowing and twisting, revealing snow in July, shadows in the long forest, flowers exploding on the hills. Fewer and fewer cars are encountered, yet the trenches and ruts reveal use and not maintenance. Rocks start to protrude, roots leave ledges that slow the pace, but don’t diminish the confidence. I don’t “revel” in this type of travel, but appreciate the challenge. 10,000 feet, then 11,000 feet pass. Trees become more scarce. Creeks and ponds disappear, the sky, which was once pure blue, is now grey threatens to release rain. Soon the “road” IS just ruts, and two more switchbacks bring me to the top the pass.
Being above tree line in the mountains is akin to being in the Arctic. This is the world above 12,000 feet. The vegetation is shorter, the land is nearly bare. It is a delicate yet unforgiving environment. The road down hill presents more steeps, ledges, and rocks than the ascent. I’m tested more than once both with footing and balance. The grey begins to part and the road becomes more passable as I lose elevation, and soon I’m on“smooth” road again, racing south on Highway 24 with the likes of Mount Massive and Elbert off to my right. As I travel south, the Arkansas River to my left, I pull over to enjoy a lunch and to slow down. That’s what this ride is really about, slowing down. Stopping and enjoying as many places as I can. The trip of Weston was slower than I thought, and work to temper my reaction. Normally I would begin to “push.” I would make “haste.” But that’s not what this about. THIS is a different ride. SLOW DOWN I remind myself. Enjoy this.
I actually cook my lunch this day, a true rarity. A simple omelet in a bag, cooked in a Jet Boil, eaten in a tortilla, watching the Arkansas tumble along. It is later in the day when I finish, so no stop in Buena Vista be for climbing my third pass of the day, Cottonwood. This pass offers another generous and gentle climb. The hidden beauty of Colorado is revealed in the cracks and canyons that open discreetly, always reminding me water is their greatest tell. Cottonwood Creek is no different, but the pavement that covers many miles as the road gains elevation. The temperature drops and the switch back become more pronounced and soon enough the small alpine lakes and beaver ponds appear and disappear and for the second time today, I’m sitting above 12,000 feet, marveling at the mountain lupine and paintbrush flowers that seem to be more abundant than they should be in late July.
The view to the west of Cottonwood Pass takes in the expanse of Taylor Park, Taylor Park Reservoir, the Elks and West Elks, all while straddling the Continental Divide, with Harvard, Columbia and Yale over your right shoulder, Princeton, Antero, Tabeguache and Shavano over your left. Truly breathtaking at this moment; the clouds had broken, now simply billowing and white, on a backdrop of deep blue. The road down winds back through pine forests and beaver ponds, and moose munching on watery vegetation, and with no real traffic to contend with on a Monday afternoon I can ride with even fewer cares, standing on the footpegs for longer stretches, to both relieve to pressure on my knees, and to take in a slightly different world view.
Taylor Park is an oasis for quads, 4-wheelers, atv enthusiasts and trail riding. A bigger bike really isn’t suited for up here, at least one that you’d like to keep in one piece! I looked left and right at the next major intersection and assuming either choice would most likely be more dirt, more rock and more dust, I continued my course to the paved canyon I knew was just ahead: Taylor Fork Canyon. This is the kind of day that an adventure bike is built for: remote dirt passes, paved, sinewy canyons, all in the same route! I don’t know EVERY turn of the Taylor Fork like I would, but it has such an intuitive quality to it that riding at a spirited clip seems less of a reckless feat and more of a necessary extension. It really is a spectacular 25 romp from the top of the Taylor Reservoir dam down to Almont. There are no precipitous switchbacks, as encountered up higher, only gentle sweepers mirror the course of the river. Than canyon walls are the only real obstacles, sometimes they end right at the roads edge, other times the retreat into stands of Lodgepole and Red Pine.
The fragrance of the evergreen is always intensified in the afternoon glow and today was not exception. Bending the motorcycle along the route, the first second bridge takes me back to the north side of the canyon just before Taylor Fork Ranch. Slowing to pass through this resort ranch I think of fishing and camping here many years ago, I’d like to stay here again under better circumstance. The canyon opens to a generous set of left-hand turns, and a hundred acre meadow of hay no separates me from the river. This only lasts a few moments as the walls close in again, and the real dance with the river begins. This last set of curves produce a classic, fast water canyon. Kayakers from Gunnison and Crested Butte gather along this section to take in the best local water, and the road that accesses the water is no disappointment at all. The protracted, double “S” of the river allows for one last opportunity to practice you counter-steering and visualization. Always looking 12 seconds ahead, never fixating on one object, use only gentle, coordinated inputs to change direction; too cerebral, yet totally connected.
Almont gives you fair warning with more homes and traffic, and slowing to turn north is a completely natural and intuitive move. Crested Butte is a few miles to the north and Highway 135 is a good place to refocus. I purposefully slow my shifts and pace leaving Almont. There will be more cars and more views, I want to be mindful of both. I’m also hungry?! It is getting late, I do need food, I want to set my camp up in the light, but I’m not sure of where to go. I had this “planned,” but not pinpointed after all?! I’ve said to myself that one meal can be purchased a day, but I’m not sure how fast I’ll hold to that rule.
The ELDO isn’t fancy, but their Amber ale is satisfying and with 5 o’clock approaching, it’s time to find a place to set up camp. Gothic, if for no other reason than it’s name, has to offer adequate camping sites. Surrounded by national forest lands on the boundary of the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness area, it doesn’t disappoint! Colorado’s legendary 401 Trail begins at the top of the valley, near Schofield Pass and an abundance of through-hikers and mountain bikers told me I was headed in the right direction. There is a small, maintained campground just past the town site, but there are also three or four more areas that, while primitive, have been used well enough over the years to make for obvious camping for the those of us without a plan. Setting up camp has become a snap, and with all my comforts in order and dinner quickly prepared and cleaned up, I wanted to take advantage of the last of the light. The wildflowers were really hanging on this year. A cooler June and abundant rains would leave more than the usual number of hillsides still in bloom. I ventured out into that last hour of light, content with the surroundings and taking in the cool night air.