Tag Archives: Colorado Motorcycle Rides

Favorite Ride: Colorado Front Range Figure-8

Front Range Figure-8
The Rocky Mountain Front Range is a rider’s paradise. Photos by the author.

As we sat in the crimson hue of the Colorado Front Range sunset, the stone walls of the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre echoed with familiar lyrics. David Crosby’s face was laced with as many crevices as the surrounding sandstone spires, but his vocals gave no evidence of the octogenarian’s age. As he was joined onstage by Jason Isbell for an incredible version of “Wooden Ships,” the last lines sparked anticipation for the next day’s ride: And it’s a fair wind blowin’ warm out of the south over my shoulder / Guess I’ll set a course and go.

Front Range Figure-8
Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, offers amazing views.

The next morning, that course was indeed set. Our route would be a figure-8 exploration of the eastern slope of the Rockies, flanking the Denver urban corridor. As we packed the side boxes on the Yamaha Super Ténéré with water and a few extra clothing layers, that fair wind rustled the leaves in the trees around our vacation rental in Golden. Thumbing the starter, the big parallel-Twin quickly settled into a smooth idle. I shifted into gear, and my wife, Cheryl, and I were off.

GOLDEN TO ESTES PARK

Figure-8 routes have always intrigued me. It may well go back to my youth watching the insane style of racing at the state fair. Anyway, I mapped a ride leaving Golden to the northwest and tracing that general direction to Estes Park, the northernmost point on our planned ride. The return route would traverse different roads intersecting that path on the way back south.

Front Range Figure-8

View Front Range Figure-8 ride route on REVER

After a little GPS-assisted navigation out of Golden, Coal Creek Canyon Road (State Route 72) was a relaxed warm up. Wide sweepers cut through treeless grassland at the lower elevation, and with the rise in elevation came a gradual increase in vegetation. Soon, it was clear that this was truly going to be a mountain ride. Near the tiny community of Pinecliffe, the ever-tightening corners coiled into a beautiful series of cliff-lined hairpins at an elevation of 8,000 feet. The fun had really begun.

We approached Nederland, which marked the intersection of our figure-8 route. The quaint town is due west of Boulder and sits near the picturesque Barker Meadow Reservoir. After rolling through the town, we resumed our northern trek on the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway (State Route 72). The Peak to Peak is a famous ride in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains that is considered one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the state.

Front Range Figure-8
Golden is a bustling Colorado town just west of Denver with a clear emphasis on outdoor adventures. It’s also home to Coors Brewing Company.

Not a dozen miles into this leg, I spotted something moving in the woods to my right. A moose was standing in the middle of a tiny pond drinking. As we parked the Yamaha and strolled to get a better vantage point, the creature raised its broad, dripping snout and regarded us with supreme disinterest. I did not blame her. After more motorists discovered what we were watching, the shoulder became an impromptu parking lot. It was time to head out.

Front Range Figure-8
Cheryl is of no concern to a hydrating moose.

Back on the bike, we continued the curvaceous route on the Peak to Peak toward Estes Park. Intermittent sprinkles met us along the way. There were patches of very wet tarmac, indicating that we had the good fortune of arriving just after a few downpours. It was becoming clear that, despite the rough winters in this region, the road condition was remarkably smooth and consistent.

The Peak to Peak Scenic Byway lived up to its majestic reputation, and every mile was a joy. Mountain peaks flanked the road on both the near and far horizon. The long morning of riding had us more than ready for lunch as we rolled into the outskirts of Estes Park, which is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and was bustling with tourist activity.

Front Range Figure-8
Spanning 55 miles from Central City/Black Hawk at the southern end to Estes Park at the northern end, the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway runs through the Front Range and is one of many on the list of great Colorado roads.

We pulled into the first diner we saw. After our patty melts arrived, the owner stopped by for a chat. When we told him about the moose sighting, he was genuinely impressed. He said we were in the middle of the elk rut, so seeing those behemoths butting heads would not be that unusual. However, he said that folks who had lived in the area for years have not seen the elusive moose. We felt uniquely lucky.

Front Range Figure-8
The historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park is an intriguing place to spend an hour or two or a long weekend.

After finishing our lunch, we made a brief stop at the Stanley Hotel, a stately 140-room Colonial Revival hotel built in 1909. It was the inspiration for the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining and the 1980 film, and it served as a filming location for the 1997 TV miniseries. The Stanley was also the setting for the fictional Danbury Hotel in the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber. You can stay in the hotel, drop in for a tour, or pick up a variety of “REDRUM” souvenirs from the gift shop.

We could have spent the rest of the day in the Stanley’s historic lounge, which has an elegant carved wooden bar, a pressed-tin ceiling, and an impressive selection of whiskeys. But the road was calling, and it was time to finish our figure-8.

Front Range Figure-8
The Whiskey Bar & Lounge in the Stanley Hotel.

ESTES PARK TO BLACK HAWK

We rolled southeast out of Estes Park past a few golf courses and lush green hills. U.S. Route 36 proved to be another fantastic motorcycling road in the Front Range. Gray granite outcroppings laced with a variety of conifers lined the winding road. The riding was enjoyably devoid of traffic, and the threat of rain had thankfully subsided.

At the town of Lyons, U.S. 36 started the southern curve back toward the intersection of our figure-8. We were back in the grasslands and rolling hills for several beautiful miles, and then 36 straightened out on its southern line toward Boulder. Of course, the closer to the city that we got, the heavier the traffic became. When the 36 morphed into State Route 7, we were fully in the Boulder suburban area.

Front Range Figure-8
An impressive welcome to the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

When we made the western turn onto Boulder Canyon Drive (State Route 119), we were more than ready to climb back into the foothills of the Rockies. When a motorcyclist hears the word “canyon” in a road’s name, it’s like music to ear-plugged ears. Again, the Front Range did not disappoint. The road snaked through tunnels, beside evergreen-lined rivers, and beneath gray rock formations on its route west. It is a truly spectacular motorcycle ride.

When we were approaching the now familiar town of Nederland, we rolled along the banks of the Barker Meadow Reservoir that we previously saw from a distance on the first half of the figure-8. South of Nederland, Route 119 took a decidedly southern bend toward our next planned stop. In our pre-ride mapping, we discovered a pair of historic gold mining towns that have since undergone a metamorphosis as gambling destinations.

Front Range Figure-8
Central City is a well-preserved remnant of the roaring past.

We were greeted in Central City by historic buildings and narrow streets. Saloons, shops, and restored hotels graced the brick architecture. We saw the quaint and colorful history, but not the gambling, and that was just fine with us. We stopped at a brewpub on the town’s main street and had a nice chat with the bartender. The gregarious barkeep graced us with a few painfully corny jokes before answering our myriad questions about the town.

The treasure trove of local knowledge told us that the town of Central City and its close neighbor Black Hawk were hotbeds of the Gold Rush after a huge local gold strike in 1859. Later in the 1800s, the towns were connected to Denver by rail, and the boom continued. However, as they say, all good things must end, and the towns both declined with the dwindling of the mineral wealth in the 1900s.

Front Range Figure-8
The Yamaha Super Ténéré proved a worthy mount for the Rocky Mountain ride.

After a few more wonderfully bad jokes, our raconteur brought us to the current state of the area. In the early 1990s, Colorado passed limited-stakes gaming in the state, and the tiny towns picked up on the idea. He said the towns have become the gambling heart of the state, accounting for nearly 90% of Colorado’s gaming revenue. Noticing our quizzical looks after scanning the small smattering of video poker machines and one-armed bandits in the pub, he said with a smile, “Wait until you ride south.”

The merry jokester was prophetic. As we left the quaint ambience of Central City, we rolled through a bit more history before it became clear. High-rise casinos and hotels rose like specters as we rounded a corner. The dichotomy that has been created in this area emerges most distinctly in the town of Black Hawk. Juxtaposed with 150-year-old brick buildings are massive, engineered tributes to modern man’s lust for a quick buck. The irony is more than evident. Gone are the starry-eyed miners, only to be replaced by glassy-eyed gamblers.

Front Range Figure-8
Clear Creek flows through Golden and is a magnet for anglers and water sports enthusiasts. The label of Coors beer says “Brewed with 100% Rocky Mountain Water,” and this creek is its source.

We motored out of the unlikely Rocky Mountain “Vegas” and back toward our starting point. The last portion of the ride was a great mix of all that we had experienced on the figure-8 ride into the Front Range. The road was smooth and well maintained, and the scenery was spectacular. We dropped from thick forest, to grassland, to the bustle of Golden.

While not a full exploration of the Colorado Rockies, our tour was a nice overview of the roads and ecosystems of the area. The 40-degree swing in temperatures and the varied precipitation on the ride made it clear that gear choice and preparedness is vital in the Rockies. Because of the elevation, this is strictly a late spring to early fall ride. That said, we would love to return for the spring bloom or the fall leaves to explore the Front Range further.

The post Favorite Ride: Colorado Front Range Figure-8 first appeared on Rider Magazine.
Source: RiderMagazine.com

Favorite Ride: Rockies to Mount Rushmore

Favorite Ride Rockies to Mount Rushmore
We rode from the Mountain State of West Virginia to visit the Rockies. After hundreds of miles across the Great Plains, we were ready for some elevation. (Photos by the author)

I see mountains! It’s Thursday, somewhere west of Anton, Colorado, and after four-and-a-half days and 1,600 miles, the snowcapped Rockies appear on the horizon. My riding buddy Jay and I left our home state of West Virginia on Sunday. Now midday, we see the jagged peaks we’ve been longing for. The Great Plains were beautiful and adventurous, but we’re anxious to ride into some elevation.

In Aurora, Jay makes the required pilgrimage to a Harley shop and buys yet another T-shirt while I get a long overdue full-face helmet. Then we climb up, up, up. West Virginia, known as the Mountain State, has great riding, but its mountains are mere hills compared to the Rockies. West of Denver significant climbing and a diversion onto U.S. Route 6 leads to 11,990-foot Loveland Pass on the Western Continental Divide. Beyond that the road winds through scenic towns like Dillon and Frisco until we stop for two nights in Edwards.

Favorite Ride Rockies to Mount Rushmore Loveland Pass Colorado
Maybe if we stood on the sign we could have reached an even 12,000 feet.

Our next two travel days are memorable! Riding through the high plains beyond Steamboat Springs, the spectacular views blew us away. We stopped for gas in Maybell, Colorado, and encountered three dual-sport riders on their fourth day off-road — and they sure looked it. Our lunch break was at the BedRock Depot in Dinosaur, where delicious sandwiches and milkshakes hit the spot. Then on into Utah, climbing up to 8,300 feet on U.S. Route 191, north of Vernal. In Wyoming the land became so dramatic through the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area that I could hardly keep my eyes on the road. When a cold, wet front was forecast and we could see clouds ahead, the flat broadly curved roads allowed for high-speed fun. We beat the storms, passed the 2,000-mile mark and ended the day’s ride in Rock Springs.

Favorite Ride Rockies to Mount Rushmore REVER map
Our tour route is available on the REVER app in the Rider Magazine community.

Link to Rockies To Mount Rushmore tour route on REVER

Winds were a brutal distraction at the start of the next day, leaning constantly into 30-mph gusts until the wind abated near Cokeville, Wyoming, but soon after lunch in Montpelier, Idaho, the rain started. We climbed into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and it began snowing hard, sticking to trees, bushes and my windshield, but fortunately not the road. We were cold, but it made for a memorable photo at Emigration Pass on Idaho Highway 36. Dropping below the snow line, we ended the day’s ride outside of Preston, Idaho, at the Riverdale Resort. It has geothermally heated outdoor pools where we simmered for an hour. Ahhh ….

Favorite Ride Rockies to Mount Rushmore Emigration Pass Idaho
Brrrr! Freezing temperatures and snow made for a memorable ride over Emigration Pass in Idaho. Luckily it didn’t stick to the road.

Two nights and friend farewells later, we headed north through Soda Springs, where many of the roads are posted “Open Range.” Sure enough, we rounded a curve to find a herd of cattle blocking the road. We honked, and they genially ambled aside. Idaho Highway 34 followed Tincup Creek on its way to the Wyoming border, and we paralleled the Snake River on U.S. 89/191 through the Bridger-Teton National Forest, reminiscent of our own West Virginia roads. As the valley opened, we finally entered Jackson.

We continued north on U.S. 191 through the incomparable Grand Teton National Park and into Yellowstone National Park from the south. Twice we crossed the Continental Divide at 8,000-plus feet before descending into the Firehole River valley. We enjoyed lunch and a timely geyser eruption at Old Faithful Village before riding a long circle around the park. East of Yellowstone Lake we cursed in our helmets as traffic halted. Up ahead a bison plodded along in our lane. Awestruck and humbled, we eventually rolled past this massive creature.

Favorite Ride Rockies to Mount Rushmore Jackson Wyoming elk horn arch
Ed stands under one of the elk horn arches in Jackson, Wyoming, while the guy with the backpack tries to count them all.

We exited via Yellowstone’s east entrance on U.S. Route 14 and rode over 8,524-foot Sylvan Pass, and rolled downhill for 20 long, pleasurable miles. The surroundings turned from pine green to desert brown as we passed between huge sandstone sentinels along the Shoshone River. We reached Cody, a nice thriving western town. At dinner, Jay smiled and ordered Rocky Mountain oysters. About half a bite was all I could manage of fried bull’s balls.

Continuing east on U.S. 14, we crossed a broad valley and began to climb yet again. The view behind us became breathtaking, the temperature dropped to 45 degrees and we crossed the Bighorn Mountains via 9,033-foot Granite Pass. We picked up I-90 at Ranchester, but I foolishly ignored a gas stop. My engine sputtered to a stop and we had to siphon a quart from Jay’s tank. He’ll never let me live it down.

Favorite Ride Rockies to Mount Rushmore Devils Tower Wyoming
We didn’t see extraterrestrials at Devils Tower, just tourists.

Devils Tower was impressive. No extraterrestrials, just busloads of photo-snapping tourists. Our destination was Keystone, South Dakota, 130 miles away. Signs for Spearfish, Deadwood and Sturgis flashed by, but it was getting dark and drizzling so we roared on. Finally, we reached our hotel. We rode 510 miles over 12 hours and our backsides were numb. What’s half of an Iron Butt — a Wood Butt? An Iron Cheek?

We visited Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is much larger than Rushmore and was the highlight of our visit to the Black Hills. Under construction since 1948, the only recognizable part is Crazy Horse’s face and it won’t be finished in my lifetime.

Favorite Ride Rockies to Mount Rushmore Crazy Horse Memorial South Dakota
The plaster statue shows visitors what the Crazy Horse Memorial will look like — some day.

After 3,300 memorable miles, we became horses headed for the barn. Our tripmeters were just shy of 5,000 miles when we arrived back home in West Virginia four days later. My wife greeted me by asking, “So, where to next year?”

The post Favorite Ride: Rockies to Mount Rushmore first appeared on Rider Magazine.
Source: RiderMagazine.com

Favorite Ride: Peak to Peak Scenic Byway

Favorite Ride — Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
Naturalist Enos A. Mills, known as the father of Rocky Mountain National Park, homesteaded this site adjacent to Colorado Highway 7 in 1885. Story and photos by John Aronson.

Peak to Peak Scenic Byway: Fifty-five miles of Colorado Bliss.

The Front Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains was definitely created for the benefit of motorcyclists, although it’s been more than 40 million years since tectonic forces elevated these massive peaks. Like the siren’s song to a sailor at sea, I’m motivated to explore this sublime elevated landscape close to my home along the urban corridor that includes Denver and Boulder, Colorado. An hour from my driveway is the 55-mile Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, established by the state of Colorado in 1918. A mecca for motorcyclists, the Byway is just two lanes and it follows the trails originally forged by Native Americans, fur traders and later miners in search of gold and other precious metals.

Favorite Ride - Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
Map by Bill Tipton (Compartmaps.com)

My Peak to Peak day ride begins where U.S. Highway 6 meets Colorado Highway 119 near the former mining settlement of Black Hawk, Colorado. Hungry riders will find designated motorcycle parking at The Last Shot. Nearby is the gold rush town of Central City, where the downtown storefronts have been restored to emulate their 19th-century origins. Most silver and gold prospecting in Central City and Black Hawk is now done in a bevy of legal gambling casinos. I only want to twist the throttle of my 2012 Triumph Tiger Explorer and head north. Leaving civilization behind, the elevation climbs and the views get better around every bend in the road. There are a few hairpins, but this section of the Byway features straight sections linked by spacious turns with just the right amount of camber.

Favorite Ride - Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
The Central City Fire Department has served the community since the days of bucket brigades.

My plan is to stay on the pavement, but I ride past several dirt roads intersecting the byway that lead to trailheads and campgrounds in the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests. I’ve only traveled 19 miles from Black Hawk, but my priorities include stopping for a freshly baked croissant at the New Moon Bakery & Cafe in the funky village of Nederland. There is plenty of parking on this day, but in March the streets are jammed during the popular “Frozen Dead Guy Days” festival. Look it up. Nearby are the Eldora Mountain Resort and the Caribou Ranch where Elton John, Joe Walsh and a long list of other artists cut tracks in the recording studio there. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the recording studio in 1985.

Favorite Ride — Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
Founded in 1859, the gold rush town of Central City was once considered the “Richest Square Mile On Earth.”

From Nederland, the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway continues onto Colorado Highway 72, rising to 9,450 feet above sea level. Even though the tarmac up here must endure the ice and snow of winter, there are no frost heaves or bumps to upset my Tiger’s suspension through a series of perfect radius turns that ramble past the former gold mining settlement of Ward. Nearby is the entrance road to the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, which has views of the Indian Peaks Wilderness, access to several campgrounds and is a popular destination for canoeing, kayaking and fishing.

Favorite Ride — Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
Just north of the town of Black Hawk, riders can satisfy their hunger at The Last Shot roadside restaurant.

As a general rule, the air temperatures are lower at higher altitudes, so when it’s a hot summer day in the cities of Colorado’s Front Range, riders head to the mountains where there might be near perfect riding weather. Of course, mountain riding in high elevations means rapidly changing weather conditions are always possible. When I’m not watching the road ahead, I notice massive dark clouds replacing my perfect blue skies. Afternoon rainstorms in Colorado are common during the summer months. Stopping to don my rain gear, I meet Mark aboard his Honda Gold Wing F6B towing a trailer and his wife Kim riding her CanAm Spyder. Beginning in their home state of West Virginia, they were halfway through a 6,000-mile journey to all of the lower 48 states. Soon after we part ways, it starts to pour down rain. My ride through the cloudburst lasts only 15 minutes, and happily I stay dry yet all the dead bugs have been washed from my windscreen! Looking back, the intensity of riding through a sudden storm made me feel more connected to my machine and the road beneath its wheels.

Favorite Ride — Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
Mark and Kim included the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway on their ride to all of the lower 48 states.

I follow the byway onto the freshly paved asphalt of Colorado Highway 7 that rolls past the small resort town of Allenspark. The town was once the site of international ski jumping competitions and is near the Wild Basin entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. This is a good place to stop and take in the scenery, but on my ride the afternoon clouds obscure the summits of 13,911-foot Mount Meeker and 14,259-foot Longs Peak.

Favorite Ride — Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
The author poses near the intersection of Colorado Highway 72 and Colorado Highway 7.

Fortunately for me, the tarmac has dried out and there’s very little rain-induced gravel or traffic to impede my Triumph’s progress through a series of lovely S turns down into Estes Park at the northern end of the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. There may be more famous roads, but this one has all the attributes riders crave, including fantastic vistas connected by ribbons of smooth pavement that are ideal for leaning through an endless supply of corners. There’s very little cross traffic, no traffic lights and I only remember two stop signs! Although the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway is only 55 miles long, plan to spend most of your day exploring its charms. During my mid-week ride, I estimate that there was one motorcycle to every three or four cars I saw on the road! From Estes Park, Peak to Peak day riders can easily return to metropolitan Denver, Boulder or Ft. Collins. Estes Park is also a popular gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park and has abundant diversions for motorcyclists looking for good grub, camping and hotels. The historic Stanley Hotel in Estes Park was opened in 1909 by the steam car pioneer, Freelan Oscar Stanley. The hotel is rumored to be haunted and was the inspiration for author Stephen King’s “The Shining.” Even though I don’t believe in ghosts, I decide to head for home…. 

Favorite Ride — Peak to Peak Scenic Byway
Looking west from Colorado Highway 7, the view of Mt. Meeker’s summit is obscured by clouds.

Favorite Ride: Peak to Peak Scenic Byway Photo Gallery:

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Source: RiderMagazine.com

Riding 60 Paved Colorado Passes in Nine Days

Guanella Pass Colorado
Our goal was to cross every paved pass in the state in a single ride—a nine-day, 3,500-mile adventure taking us over many of our favorite roads but introducing others we’d previously missed, like tall and lovely Guanella Pass above Georgetown (left). Twenty-seven of Colorado’s paved mountain passes are 10,000 feet or higher. Photos by the author.

Mountain passes are the ultimate expression of motorcycling, where winding roads and magnificent vistas merge to create the supreme riding experience. For me, the legendary passes of Colorado are the crown jewels of my life on two wheels.

Over the years I’ve dreamed about riding all of Colorado’s passes in a single trip. With summer approaching and a new motorcycle in the garage, I casually suggested the idea to a friend over lunch one day. The next morning I received an email from Bruce listing almost every paved pass in Colorado, including elevation, location and road surface. A day later there was a route stitching them all together. Now we had a plan – in nine days we would ride every paved pass, saddle, divide and high point in Colorado, a total of 59 as listed by DeLorme, and we would add one more on the fly.

Riding Colorado Passes
A map of the route, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

We met at daybreak on Day One, our rides a contrast of style, substance and technology. I rode my brand-new pearl white 2018 Honda Gold Wing Tour with DCT. Bruce piloted his sensibly accessorized and beautifully maintained 2000 Harley-Davidson Deuce. He took the lead and I followed the rumble of his Twin Cam 88 engine.

Colorful Colorado sign
Welcome to Colorado!

We made our grand entrance to Colorado atop Raton Pass and stopped for quick photos to document the event; a process we would repeat 59 more times. This wasn’t the lush green Colorado of previous years. Meadows were yellow, forests were dry, streams and lakes were nearly empty and the usual deep snowpack was missing. Looping west and north through the San Isabel Mountains, we bagged four more passes before stopping for the night in the tiny town of Westcliffe.

What’s the difference between a pass, a high point, a saddle and a divide? I don’t know, but Bruce insisted they all be covered lest we be accused of being slackers. So Day Two we found ourselves battling urban traffic around Colorado Springs to reach the completely unremarkable Palmer Divide and Monument Hill. That afternoon we were bogged down in the foothills of Denver heading for Floyd Hill. But in between were five high passes that brought the day’s total to eight by the time we found our motel in Idaho Springs.

Colorado wildfire
At least four wildfires burned as we crisscrossed the state, creating distant plumes, smoky valleys and up-close firefighting.

Bruce wisely insisted we make motel reservations for each night of our trip. Tourists fill Colorado every summer and many of our motels were full. The only fault in our planning was the daily mileage. Three hundred and fifty miles or so sounds quite doable, but the slow pace of mountain pass roads and tourist traffic expanded our saddle time to as much as 11 hours or more.

The highest passes are narrow threads of twisting asphalt that take you above the tree line to alpine tundra and mid-summer snow banks, with breathtaking views in every direction. Lower passes are sometimes traveled by school buses and lined with homes and businesses. Major passes are celebrated with familiar brown-and-tan Forest Service signs or green-and-white DOT signs, but lesser passes, saddles and divides are seldom marked and sometimes hard to identify.

Slumgullion Pass Colorado
Mountain pine beetles have decimated the once thick forest atop spectacular Slumgullion Pass. Four million acres of trees have been destroyed by the insect epidemic.
Colorado passes
Some passes are marked with simple green-and-white signs…
Tennessee Pass Colorado
…others with large, proud USFS signs.

Colorado’s passes exist all over the state’s western half, requiring a long, circuitous and sometimes repetitive route of almost 3,500 miles to cross them all. Usually they could be linked but sometimes the most efficient route was up and back, bagging a pass then retracing the road down. This is how we covered the Front Range passes of Golden Gate Canyon and Wondervu Hill as we worked our way north toward Estes Park on Day Three.

From Trail Ridge Road (U.S. Route 34) in Rocky Mountain National Park (the highest road of our trip: 12,183 feet), Cameron Pass is only about 10 miles to the north as the crow flies. But the Never Summer Wilderness Area and some of the highest peaks in the Rockies stand in the way. So it was south to Granby, north to Walden, then south again to the pass, backtracking to Walden and west to Steamboat Springs. A long day to be sure but 11 passes in our pockets to show for it.

Rio Grande headwaters Colorado
The Rio Grande River begins its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico in these head-waters above South Fork.

Day Four took us to Granby for the second time, south to Winter Park, across Berthoud Pass and back into the smoke-filled I-70 corridor. At least four wildfires were burning in Colorado and smoke was choking valleys across the state. The largest of them, known as the 416 Fire, was burning near Durango, had closed U.S. 550, the famed Million Dollar Highway, and threatened access to at least three passes on our list. We paid close attention to news reports each night and hoped the road would be open by week’s end.

At Georgetown we did an up-and-back to reach lovely Guanella Pass, then looped above the Eisenhower Tunnel to cross spectacular Loveland Pass. As we descended into Dillon we entered a plume of smoke and could see fire burning right above the town. Helicopters flew low over our heads, dropping water from Dillon Reservoir onto the mountainside right in front of us. Later we bagged our only dirt-road pass, Squaw Pass, when we accidently overshot Juniper Pass. South to Buena Vista and back up to Leadville gave us nine passes that day.

Loveland Pass
Colorado’s highest passes cross alpine tundra well above the tree line, where heated clothing is welcome even in summer.
Squaw Pass Colorado
Bruce’s 2000 Harley-Davidson Deuce and my 2018 Honda Gold Wing Tour peacefully coexist atop Squaw Pass, the only dirt-road pass in our adventure.
Juniper Pass Colorado
From Juniper Pass, the road snakes down toward the smoke-filled I-70 corridor.

Leadville sits more than 10,000 feet above sea level and it was just 38 degrees when we left to gather the first three passes of Day Five. We were riding the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway and the Gold Wing’s heated grips and seat sure felt good. Being from higher country, Bruce and I aren’t bothered by the elevation but, apparently, many others are. Convenience stores and hotel lobbies sell cans of oxygen to combat altitude sickness.

At 12,095 feet, iconic Independence Pass was the highest on our list and a pure joy to ride. In Hotchkiss we enjoyed the best burgers of the trip at a pleasant little place along State Route 133 called 133 BRGR. We crossed cool, green Grand Mesa and then plunged into the 103-degree heat of Grand Junction for a 65-degree contrast and seven more passes scratched off the list.

Independence Pass Colorado
Every pass we crossed became a photo op documenting the ride as well as the elevation and appearance of Colorado’s high spots. Independence Pass was the highest of them all.

Often the little-known passes offered delightful surprises. Douglas Pass was more than two hours out of our way, but it was a gorgeous early morning ride to a beautiful red rock pass. Similarly, unpretentious Unaweep Divide was hidden in a wonderfully rugged sandstone canyon. We rode the breaks above the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to get Blue Mesa Summit then skirted Blue Mesa Reservoir and dodged a thunderstorm on our way to Gunnison, the last two passes of the day before our hotel in Salida. Another seven passes, check.

We did another up-and-back to Monarch Pass then rode south toward the rugged San Juan Mountains. As we approached Durango, we could see smoke pouring off the mountains to the north. Evidence of the firefighting effort was all around, smoke hung in the air and hundreds of “Thank You Firefighters” signs covered buildings and fences. Our desk clerk was a wealth of fire information including news that U.S. 550 was now open and could be traversed in police-escorted caravans.

Day Eight dawned with steady rain – an answered prayer for everyone in the area. Now it was the rain, not fire, that concerned us. We headed west to cross the imperceptible Gypsum Gap into Disappointment Valley. Flat and barren, this is not the Colorado pictured in tourist brochures. The rain increased as we rode back toward the mountains, so at Telluride we hunkered down in a convenience store to reevaluate our plan. Ouray, Silverton and the high passes of the Million Dollar Highway would most certainly mean more rain, and the day was more than half gone. For a moment, we actually considered skipping the passes in favor of drier riding. I suggested we cover nearby Lizard Head Pass then talk about it some more.

The weather to the pass was atrocious and an hour later we were back at the same convenience store. As we gassed up, a ray of sunlight lifted our spirits and we boldly headed for Ouray and the Million Dollar Highway. Light rain was falling as we snagged Red Mountain Pass and dropped into Silverton. With the national forest closed, the highway closed and the famed steam railroad closed, the normally bustling tourist town was virtually deserted. The headline in the local newspaper proclaimed, “Silverton Under Siege!”

Lizard Head Pass
The ride up Lizard Head Pass was cold and wet…
Wolf Creek Pass Colorado
…while storied Wolf Creek Pass was covered with dead trees.

We pressed on and checked off Molas Pass and Coal Bank Pass. About 30 miles north of Durango a state trooper led us through the burn area – about 15 miles of blackened forest reaching right to the highway’s edge. The 416 Fire had consumed some 40 square miles of forest and disrupted the entire economy of the area. Hopefully the rains would give firefighters the upper hand.

Our last night on the road was in Chama, New Mexico, with the last two passes on our list just a quick dash back into Colorado the next morning. But Colorado didn’t give them up easily. The 45-mile ride up and over the passes went from low clouds to dense fog to cold, hard rain that just wouldn’t stop.

At Cumbres Pass we took our usual quick photos but, at La Manga, we hauled out the selfie stick to get a double thumbs-up to celebrate our final pass. We’d done it! Sixty passes and a nine-day motorcycle buddy trip. We still had some 300 miles to get back home, which brought our total mileage to 3,476. A maiden voyage for the new Gold Wing, another notch on the Harley’s belt and an unforgettable adventure for two seasoned motorcycle riders.

La Manga Pass Colorado
With well over 3,000 miles behind us, we celebrate our final pass with a thumbs-up selfie.

Source: RiderMagazine.com