Pedaling Colorado's High Passes

I knew better than to stop, but I did it anyway. High mountains present unique hazards, particularly in late afternoon as thunderheads gather, bringing the threat of heavy weather and worse––lightning. But the sky was too dramatic not to photograph and as I fidgeted with my tripod, the first drops began to fall. I cracked off the shots I wanted and hurriedly packed everything away. I cinched my jacket hood tightly over my head,  remounted my bike, pointed the front wheel upward, and raced towards the thick of the storm and the 12,800-foot summit of Engineer Pass. No sooner had I crested the top, and chanced more photos, the sky opened up releasing a crush of rain and horizontal sleet.

The 3,000-foot descent stretched out before me had been a much anticipated reward to a full day of arduous climbing and now it was wet and slippery, complete with rivulets of gooey water obscuring the better lines. It would have been prudent to regulate my speed more than I did, but my big tires didn’t seem bothered by the conditions so––I let’er rip. Exiting a tight switchback I picked a cautious line through a garden of jagged rocks, released my grip on the brake levers, and with each rotation of my big hoops, felt my speed increase exponentially. With cold rain forced deep into my jacket, I gave an uncontrolled shiver just as I approached the first of hundreds of small rock ledges. I braced myself for a small impact, felt the wheels leave the ground, the first of many brief flights.

It’s always fun to catch air on a bike, and doing it with a full compliment of bikepacking kit on board makes it even more so. Bombing past the occasional rental Jeep, and trundling over rocky ledges at full tilt, I descended back towards tree line, the repeated claps of thunder made more faint with each passing mile. It was the most exhilarating 45 minutes of a three day ride, and I wished I had the energy to repeat it.

A Deadwood on my doorstep

The genesis of this trip began a month earlier when a box containing a Salsa Deadwood showed up on my doorstep, one of only a handful of pre-production samples in existence. Recognizing an opportunity not to be squandered, I quickly hatched a plan to take its stout wheels where they could do their best, on the varied surfaces of the Alpine Loop outside of Silverton, Colorado. Considered one of the most scenic routes in the state, the Alpine Loop is roughly 75 miles of gravel road, some of it considerably chunky and rough. With two high passes and a number of adjacent roads to be explored, it was a perfect destination for Salsa’s new plus-sized bike.

With Silverton at 9,300-feet as my staging point, I made short work of the first day, rolling up and over 12,600-foot Cinnamon Pass in the first hours of a sunny morning. The last few feet of the pass, steep as they were, made me instantly regret some of my packing choices. I couldn’t resist going through a mental inventory of the goodies in my bags, instantly calculating the grams of each item. Although the weight was taking a toll on my body, the Deadwood didn’t seem to mind and portaged my bloated load without complaint.

Having traveled the Alpine Loop countless times over the years, although never before by bicycle, I quickly realized I had not experienced it to its fullest. The constant rush of wind as it rustled aspen leaves and alpine grasses was something new to me. The ever present sounds of nearby streams harmonized perfectly with the audible crunch of gravel beneath my tires, the stillness occasionally punctuated by the raspy caw of a raven on the wing.

Then there was the intoxicating smell of the high Rockies, its sweet aroma I couldn’t begin to describe. As much as I love to ride fast and suffer, this part of Colorado is best enjoyed at a slow mosey, and with frequent stops to drink it all in, my first day’s 40 miles were arduous, but relaxing. Arriving at American Basin, hailed as the wildflower capital of Colorado, I found a patch of grass fit for a brief nap and drifted off to sleep under shady clouds, a half-eaten granola bar in hand.

Before I could really settle into a good sleep, I was rudely awaken by raindrops on my face. Rain used to cause me great consternation, but over the last few years I've come to enjoy it as long as it isn't severe. The storms overhead on this day were mild and produced little moisture, but gave the sky an ominous and beautiful sense of purpose. Slipping into my storm layers, I rolled out of American Basin and before long I was cruising into the small hamlet of Lake City.

Swapping my bike seat for a bar stool, I took the opportunity to suck down a pint of suds before heading back into the hills to find a place to set up camp. With the mosquitos swarming in mass, I dove headlong into my tent, prepared a quick meal in my vestibule, and with the sun long since gone from the day, drifted off to sleep, not even bothering to get all the way into my sleeping bag.

Mornings in the mountains are special; their restorative powers unmatched. Waking to a cool breeze blowing through my tent, I felt compelled to get rolling before the first rays of light reached my camp. After a quick cup of coffee and a round of food bars, I set a course for Uncompahgre Peak, a road I probably should have left for another day. Ascending nearly 1,400 grueling feet in just four miles, the rock-strewn road to the Uncompahgre trailhead punched my lights out. It was worth the effort, though. After stashing the Deadwood in the forest, I walked past the wilderness boundary and set out to hike the two miles to the edge of tree line where I knew I'd find the views I sought.

After finding my next napping grounds, I laid my head on my pack, the chirps and squeaks of rambunctious marmots carried on the wind. As it happened before, the rain came. This time I just pulled my jacket over my face and didn't let the rain spoil a good nap.

My last night’s camp was in a high meadow under 14,000-foot tall summits. The evening’s entertainment provided by a light show of soft alpenglow on craggy peaks. Sipping at my post dinner whiskey and Coke, a heavy luxury deemed worth the weight, I noticed a lanky black bear scoot into the trees; his swift pace suggesting he had someplace he needed to be, which was fine with me. As the impending darkness loomed, I crawled into my bag feeling bummed the trip was almost at its end. Drifting off to sleep, I didn't count sheep, but rather nights I'd spent in the wilderness this year. Twenty nine, thirty, thirty one, thirty two...

The last mile

There are many places in Colorado that capture my imagination, but few as much as the Alpine Loop. Dotted with interesting vestiges of the past, the loop's ghost towns and abandoned town sites serve as constant reminders that big adventures have been a part of this landscape for well over a century. It’s hard not to get lost in the stories of gold miners hitting it rich or losing it all in the deep valleys of the San Juan mountains.

As I descended the last few rain soaked miles back into Silverton, my bags emptied of food and my water bottles gone dry, I did what I thought any good adventurer to this area should do. I rolled up to an antique saloon, leaned my steed against the hitching post, and sauntered in for a cold beer at the bar. Like the miners who had come before me, I probably didn't smell so great, but I had found my fortune. Perhaps not in the form of gold nuggets, but in ways only a good solo bikepacking trip can provide. I was tired, but rejuvenated. And I owed it all to a Salsa Deadwood.

This story first appeared on Expedition Portal: