Autumn trickles softly into the dense green wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. Each day, blue skies mingle with magnificent towering peaks. Here and there, new fallen snows create a white backdrop to their majestic demeanor. At the lower altitudes, aspen trees, “aspen tremulous” also known as fluttering leaves, turn gold before their final flight back to the earth.
A quickening occurs at high altitude, with marmots and pikas preparing for the long siege of Old Man Winter. As the sun sets earlier in the day, elk, moose and deer munch on the last green grasses of summer.
For humans, the warm summer days languish with cool evenings that slowly drop below the freezing line.
John Muir said it best, “Camp out among the grass and gentians of glacier meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of Nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Over 100 years later, Muir’s wisdom soaks into my bones and sparkles in my mind. I love immersing myself in Nature. It feeds my soul from every stream, lake and river to wildflower-filled mountain meadows colored beyond the realm of the rainbow.
Thus, I must take advantage of the middle of September for a bicycle ride from Evergreen to Aspen and the famed Maroon Bells. On this journey, Robert Montgomery from Alabama, and Robert Case from Edgewater, Colorado shared the ride for 220 miles, six passes and extraordinary campsites along the route.
As we stood astride our bikes on September 13 at Buchanan Recreation Center, we raised our hands into the sky for a photograph to create a celebration of our journey. Fully loaded touring bikes weigh anywhere from 40 pounds of gear to as much as 80 pounds for domestic rides. We carry four panniers filled with cooking gear, food, cold weather gear and extra clothes. On top of all that, a sleeping bag, tent and air mattress.
“You boys ready?” I asked the group.
“Gettin’ saddle sores just waitin’ around here for these dad-gummed photographs,” said Robert.
“Head ’em up,” I said. “The road awaits.”
We pedaled out of Buchanan Rec Center toward Squaw Pass. For six hours and 18 miles, we cranked up 4 percent grades that wound around the mountains like a giant serpent. The higher we climbed, the more aspens presented their golden treasures.
At the top, we coasted down to the entrance for Mount Blue Sky at 14,200 feet, the highest paved road in the U.S. leading to the top of a 14er mountain.
We found an excellent campsite on Echo Lake at 11,000 feet. Nothing like sitting around a campfire with flames curling into the night air. We cooked our dinners, enjoyed small talk and hit the sleeping bags.
After a sublime night on Echo Lake, we broke camp the next morning to blue skies and more golden aspens changing overnight.
“We’ve got 14 miles of winding downhill all the way to Idaho Springs,” I said.
“Get out the cameras and let’s make a run of it,” Robert said. “Man, these trees seem to change colors before our eyes.”
We walked the bikes around Echo Lake before reaching the highway. Smooth, clean and beautiful! We coasted down the road toward Idaho Springs. In front of us, majestic mountain vistas replete with enormous golden patches kept us in rapt attention. The road snaked around the sides of the mountain we descended. Above, brilliant sunshine lit up green pines and golden aspen alike.
In the next 14 colorful downhill miles, we dropped from 11,000 feet to 8,000 in Idaho Springs. We followed the frontage road west out of town that paralleled Clear Creek and I-70. Pedaling along a river makes our efforts incidental to the beauty surrounding us. The river splashed whitewater and the mountain peaks featured deep green with patches of gold wherever aspen congregated. We also noticed that underbrush turned red, topaz, bronze, purple, tan, yellow and mixed colors.
Along the route to Georgetown, we passed dozens of abandoned gold mines with tailings cascading down the mountainsides. Some of the mines shot out of mountainsides a half mile up from the canyon.
We pedaled past the Silver Plume narrow gauge railroad hauling hundreds of tourists past the changing colors. As the road gave out, we followed a bicycle path that dove back into the woods. We followed it all day until we reached a spot to camp before sundown.
“Looks like a good place to set up camp,” Robert said.
That evening, we built a roaring campfire, ate great food and sat around telling stories as the stars twinkled in the sky.
After breaking camp next morning, we faced gray skies with spitting rain. Within 10 minutes, we rode our bikes up to the entrance of the Loveland Ski Resort. However, no snow, so we kept pedaling upward to our intended goal: Loveland Pass.
What’s it like grinding up a mountain pass? Especially with 80 pounds of gear loaded onto your bicycle? In the rain? At 6 percent road incline? For starters, I’d rather pedal up a mountain pass than ride a bike through city streets any day.
Wallace Stegner said it best: “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed… if we pollute the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence.”
As I traveled upward, the floor of the canyon grew more incredible because it’s like I soared on an “asphalt updraft” that carried me to heights only eagles, hawks and clouds enjoy. Sure, it takes leg strength, but I trained for the ride, so the pedaling remained an insignificant part of the climb. With food and water, I fed and hydrated myself at frequent stops along the route.
Loveland Pass reached 12,000 feet within four miles. That meant increased incline over shorter miles. As I cranked through the first two miles of the climb, the canyon floor became fabulously dramatic. The road wound around several switchbacks to climb up the mountain. The rain dissipated while blue skies shot through the gray clouds.
What happens on such a climb? My body labors and my muscles pour their heart into the pedals. My downward pedaling becomes upward thrust. The sky comes closer while the valley floor morphs into an intricate mosaic seen only through the eyes of a long-distance touring cyclist.
In the last two miles of the climb, my heart quickened at the beauty around me—my mind energized with the understanding that the summit would soon be mine. Finally, after two hours, I stood at the sign: Loveland Pass, 11,990 feet, Continental Divide.
“Wow,” I yelled. “Great ride! How about you guys?”
“Incredible,” Robert yelled.
We took a dozen pictures along with video. As the skies cleared, brilliant sunlight raced across the green tundra from where we stood above the tree line. We breathed fresh, clean air. We scanned the horizon for hundreds of miles. Wow, what a life on the road!
Follow Frosty and friends on the next part of their journey in the November issue.