Colorado Cycling - Great rides for all skill levels
by Joe Rohner
We have been taking the family to Vail during ski season for more than 20 years now, but we really hadn’t spent much time there in the summer. The few times we went in the Summer were before Regina and I had gotten seriously into biking so we mostly had done other things; hiking and white water rafting. Our experience with biking previously involved renting rather clunky mountain bikes for a day and pedaling around the village or riding up the gondola with them to get a hand-numbing, butt-thumping downhill rush.
Eagle and Summit Counties: Glenwood Springs left, Dillon Reservoir right. Leadville Loop is purple.
Colorado: Eagle and Summit Counties - self-planned
For more information see http://www.vail.com
This year though we decided to go do some serious road biking. Because our daughter Sheila, who is not an accomplished cyclist, was along, we were looking for a variety of rides; some tougher rides we could do by ourselves, and some easier ones that Sheila could handle if she accompanied us. What we found were a tremendous variety of rides for all ability levels.
Vail is in Eagle county about 100 miles west of Denver. Also in Vail Valley farther west are the ski areas of Beaver Creek, Arrowhead and Bachelor’s Gulch all owned and operated by Vail Associates. Further west still lies the Cordillera resort in the town of Edwards made famous by the Kobe Bryant case and beyond that Glenwood Canyon. Immediately to the east of Eagle County is Summit County. Summit county has several other ski areas; Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapaho Basin. Both counties are very bicycle friendly, all of the ski areas from Arrowhead in the west to Arapaho Basin and Breckinridge to the south are connected by bicycle paths or bicycle lanes – more than 100 miles. Summit County has more bicycling options for the intermediate cyclist, with bike paths surrounding Dillon Reservoir and interconnecting the ski areas there is a lot of biking that doesn’t involve lung taxing climbs up mountain roads. In Vail Valley the cycling tends to be either novice or advanced cycling options. There are plenty of places to ride on the valley floor and through town but getting out of the valley involves some tough climbs whichever route you choose.
Here are a couple of safety tips. First, take it easy in the high altitude. Vail is 8,200 feet. Copper Mountain is 9,400 feet. So even without doing a lot of climbing, you may feel out of breath. Just take it easy, go at a pace at which you can comfortably breathe and don’t worry about your speed. We found that we could ride at our normal pace on mostly level terrain without a significant difference in our respiration. The altitude was more noticeable on climbs. Also due to the altitude you need to drink more water than usual and don’t forget the sunscreen.
Here are some of the routes we found and tried. I categorized them using the same system we use to rate routes in GDB. There are plenty of other rides.
Dillon Reservoir (Level 1-2)
Distance: 16 miles and up
Vertical Gain: 500 ft.
Points of Interest: Town of Frisco
Drive to either Frisco or Dillon and pick up the bike path near the reservoir. Follow it in either direction. The southeast section of the lake does not have a bike path yet and there is a steep climb over a hill to pick up the bike path on the other side, so if you are not up for that you can just reverse direction and go back the way you came. Also you could head away from the lake at the eastern side towards Keystone or head away at the southern end toward the town of Breckinridge if you want more miles.
Another good level 1 ride is to ride the bike paths in the town of Vail. There are about 15 miles of trails right in the town.
Glenwood Canyon (Level 3)
Distance: 35 miles
Vertical Gain: 1,000 ft.
Points of interest: Hanging Lake, Natural Hot Springs, Doc Holidayís grave
Part way up the hanging lake trail
Drive to the town of Glenwood Springs and park. Join the bike trail right at the natural hot springs. Bring your lunch and plenty of water as there is nowhere to get a snack or a drink along the route. The bike trail is wide and much of it is actually what is left of the old highway that was used before I-70 construction was completed. There is a gradual uphill with no more than a 1-2% grade as the trail runs through the canyon floor along the side of the Colorado River. The scenery is spectacular. Leave about two hours to do the hike up to Hanging Lake nestled up in the mountains above the canyon with waterfalls and spectacular views. Take a picnic lunch with you and depending on the timing you can either eat at the picnic area overlooking the river at the trailhead for hanging lake, or you can eat up top soaking your feet in the cold pool at the base of the water falls. If you go all the way to the east end of the canyon it is a little over 17 miles. Then turn around and coast back for a nice 35 mile round trip. In Glenwood Springs you can take a swim in the natural hot springs (myself, I prefer the hot tub back at the condo, too much sulfur in the hot springs for my money, but many people like it) or if you are a history buff you can go visit the grave of Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earpís sidekick at the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. He died in Glenwood Springs at a Tuberculosis Sanatorium a few years after the gunfight.
Vail to Copper Mountain (Level 4)
Distance: 45 miles
Vertical Gain: 3,400 ft.
Points of interest: Vail Pass
Regina stops for a break part way up the trail to Vail pass.
Pick up the bike trail in the town of Vail and head east. Once out of town, the bike path is mostly the old road that was abandoned when I-70 was built so it is nice and wide. From the minute you get on the trail you are climbing. Through town the grade is only 1-2% but gradually increases to 3-5% as you leave West Vail behind and start up into the mountains. Toward the top there are a few short stretches as steep as 7%. Stop to look at the spectacular views of Vail Valley behind you. You won’t realize how much climbing you have done until you stop and look back at where you came from. Pat yourself on the back. Now get it in gear and keep going. After about two hours, 15 miles and 2,400 vertical feet later you reach Vail Pass. There is a rest stop and panoramic views of the mountains on both sides of the pass. If you don’t think you can climb any more that day, turn around and coast back down to Vail. If you feel like continuing, coast down the bike path on the east side of the pass into Copper Mountain. There are lots of places to have lunch in town. When you are done, it is time to climb again. The climb from Copper Mountain up to Vail Pass is not nearly as tough as the trip up from Vail. It is a 1,000 foot climb over about 7 miles and there are only a couple of steep sections which are very short. Once you are back at Vail Pass, you have 15 miles to go and hardly have to pedal. Cruise back into town and go get a beer at one of the many places in town, preferably one with a nice outside deck so you can soak up the sun and look at the mountains.
Leadville Loop (Level 5)
Distance: 85 miles
Vertical Gain: 6,000 ft.
Points of interest: Camp Hale
This route is the equal of many of the mountain stages of the Tour de France. It climbs three mountain passes in 80 miles. From Vail, head west along the bike path to Highway 24. Follow Highway 24 through Minturn. Just past Minturn you begin a steep 1,000 foot climb through several switchbacks to Battle Mountain. From there the trail continues climbing gradually up through alpine meadows to the site of Camp Hale. Camp Hale was the home of the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. The soldiers of the 10th trained there to learn to skiing and rock climbing so they could fight in the mountains of France and Italy. The founders of Vail Associates were alumni of the 10th mountain division and many other alumni were associated with the development of other ski areas after the war. Many of the ski runs in Vail bear the names of people, places or events associated with the 10th Mountain Division’s role in WWII. Rudder’s Run is named after the commander of the 10th mountain division. Riva Ridge was one of the bloodiest battles the 10th fought; it is also coincidentally where Senator Bob Dole was wounded. Eagle’s Nest was a mountain hideaway that was a summer home to Hitler and many of the top leaders of the Nazi party. Anyone who watched Band of Brothers may remember that at the end of the war the 10th mountain division was in a rivalry with the 101st Airborne to see who could get to Eagle’s Nest first because Army Intelligence believed that some of the top leaders of the third Reich had slipped away to Eagle’s Nest with plans to continue resistance to the allied forces. It turns out no one was there.
Past Camp Hale the road continues a gradual climb to Tennessee Pass, altitude 11,000 feet. Then you cruise down towards Leadville. Highway 24 ends at Highway 90. If you want a break you can ride east one mile to the town of Leadville, the highest town in the US at elevation 10,150 feet. There are lots of restaurants and convenience stores there if you want to eat lunch or take a break. Otherwise turn left on 90 towards Copper Mountain. The road heads downhill a little way before beginning the second climb to Freemont Pass, altitude 11,250 feet. This is the toughest climb because it is higher and there are several steep switchbacks. Once past the pass, there is a long gradual descent to Copper Mountain. The last climb of the day is the 1,000 foot moderate climb from Copper back up to Vail Pass and 15 miles of downhill cruising into the town of Vail. Have another beer you earned it.
Another good epic ride would be to go from Vail to Glenwood Springs and back. This would be about 100 miles. But it is easy bicycling with no steep climbs. The return trip is a slight uphill however so leave more time for the trip back than the trip out.
Other articles in the series:
Riding The Big Mick by Joe Rohner
Talimena Scenic Byway by Warren Smith
Cycling in Italy by Philip Watson and Susan Medlock
From the Third Roman Empire to the Third Reich: Brittany and Normandy by Joe Rohner
10 things you always wanted to know about Ireland but were afraid to ask by Joe Rohner