The Colorado Mountain Pass Tour

4 Days, Twelve Passes

Robert Smith’s objective: ride 12 of the continent’s highest motorable passes, including the 12,000-foot Independence Pass, in four days. Criss-crossing the Continental Divide on Colorado pass roads, Smith shares his views from on-high.

Colorado mountain passes by motorcycle

Always use the cable lock,” says Matt at Eaglerider Rentals in Denver, Colorado, as I collect the Electra Glide. So when I park that night at my motel, I make sure the reinforced steel cable wraps round the front wheel and frame. This baby’s goin’ nowhere. Next morning, packed and ready to roll, I slide the key into the barrel, where it jams solid. I guess I was right; she’s not going anywhere, much less any of Colorado’s 12 highest motorable passes, which I plan to ride in the next four days.

An hour later, Jesus from Foothills Lock and Key arrives, and has no success either. So he slices through the lock with an angle grinder. Emergency over.

West of Denver, I turn off Interstate 70 for Lookout Mountain. William H. “Buffalo Bill” Cody was visiting his sister Louisa in Denver in December 1916 when his health failed. He died there shortly after. Louisa buried him on Lookout Mountain, a move disputed by the burghers of Cody, Wyoming, the town Buffalo Bill founded. The dispute was formally resolved with a ceremonial burying of hatchets … in 1997! The Glide and I wind to the summit on gloriously curvy tarmac lined with fields and shade trees. Cody’s gravesite is an unremarkable rockpile, below which Golden-Denver’s urban sprawl floats in the hazy air.

Colorado mountain passes by motorcycleBack on I-70, I’m cruising past Idaho Springs when the Tommyknocker Pub and Brewery catches my eye. Tommyknockers were miners’ leprechauns—mischievous elves who blew out lamps or hid shovels—but also revealed the richest veins. The former mining town’s side streets hide rows of refurbished miner’s cottages, and its main street’s grand facades point to earlier affluence.

STALLED IN CONSTRUCTION ON HIGHWAY 40 TOWARD GRANBY, I buy water and peanuts at the Last General Store, the peanut bag blown up like a balloon in the thin air. Berthoud Pass (11,315 feet) offers a heady mix of sweepers, hairpins and gentle bends, as I blast to the summit past grinding semi-trucks. I’m exploring the Glide’s cornering characteristics: at medium speeds, there’s predictable if slow turn-in. At higher speeds, surface irregularities initiate a disconcerting weave. 

Over the Colorado pass, I rumble toward Granby through manufactured ski resorts with the weather closing in and rain falling in the surrounding mountains. I turn east for Kremmling, following the nascent Colorado River as it rushes through steep-sided Byers Canyon. That this humble stream becomes the mighty waterway that irrigates California is awe-inspiring.

In Kremmling I ask the gas jockey if it’ll rain. “Ninety-five per cent certain,” says he. I get into my rain gear. Within five miles, a blustery chill buffets the Glide and the temperature plummets as I roll toward Copper Mountain on I-70. Climbing Highway 9’s winding two-laner toward Fremont Pass (11,318 feet), the drizzle threatens sleet, yet crimson shafts of sunlight miraculously split the clouds. 

I leave the precipitation at the pass, and under asphalt-coloured clouds, I roll into Leadville, a charming ex-mining town that is the highest incorporated community in the US. Snuggled in next to the Tennessee Pass (10,423 feet) as it traverses the Continental Divide, Leadville is refreshingly free of tourist kitsch, too; except for the 1879 saloon-turned-Irish-pub with its retro-western façade, boardwalk and hitching posts.

One more Colorado pass today, and it’s a marvel, though barely a climb at all. Highway 24 switchbacks along the sheer wall of a towering cliff and over leaping ravines on bridges that seem to defy gravity.

Interstate 70 west to Glenwwod Springs offers another treat: Glenwood Canyon. With the clouds now behind me, walls of purple-grey rock, laminated like a layer cake, glow crimson in the setting sun.

MANY COLORADO CITIES ARE NAMED FOR THEIR MINERAL-mining pasts: Leadville, Gypsum, Granite, Basalt, Carbondale. I cruise through these last two, now resort service towns, on the gradual climb to Aspen. The famous 7,900-foot resort’s main street is lined with tony stores and chic cafes, while the surrounding streets’ swank houses boast huge picture-windows and Alpine facades.

South from Aspen, 82 deeks in and out along a sheer rock face before opening into a wide two-laner of lazy sweepers interspersed with hairpins. I’m now above the tree line, and the barren, rocky terrain looks scarred and scraped. The last push to the 12,095-foot Independence Pass, the most famous Colorado pass, is steep and the Glide gasps for air. Fifth gear is unusable, and fourth is a struggle. A bitter wind howls over the exposed Pass though the sun is hot, and there’s not a cloud in the sky.

I’M WINDING DOWN THROUGH BROAD VALLEYS OF ASPENS JUST starting their fall colours, a vivid yellow-rust contrasting against the dark-hued evergreens. A broad valley opens on to the magnificent azure Twin Lakes. I’m in high-country range and farmland under an almost indigo sky. Through Buena Vista, the view really is magnificent, the valley lined with snow-capped 14,000 ft peaks. Salida, once a prosperous railroad junction town, is now an “historic” tourist trap. I prefer Leadville’s lack of pretension.

I join broad, busy I-50 west toward Gunnison, winding along fast sweepers up to Monarch Pass (11,312 feet): the views over the cavernous Black Canyon are awe-inspiring. 

JUST BEFORE GUNNISON, I TURN SOUTHEAST ACROSS OPEN RANGE on 114. The North Cochetopa Pass (10,100 feet) is undramatic with little noticeable climb, and just a few wide, sweeping bends near the top. South from Saguache, I-285 heads arrow-straight across board-flat potato fields, and I idly count down the cross-roads to Monte Vista: 25-mile Road, 24-mile Road …

The tidy, friendly town’s 1930s hotel, Monte Villa, offers quaint small-town hotel rooms with traditional furniture: a refreshing change from soulless modern motels.

EAST FROM ALAMOSA ON 160, I’M SKIRTING THE SANGRE DE CRISTO Mountains, and the climb to the 9,242-foot La Veta Pass is gentle and fast. From Walsenburg, the Glide stretches its legs on I25 as far as Colorado City, turning on 196 for Silver City. The climb is steady and the road winds gently into the mountains through the San Isabel Forest. The trees start as ponderosa pines, but the aspens increase steadily until they’re the dominant species. I crest another Colorado pass, the Beulah Divide, but it would “pass” unnoticed but for the sign.

I see signs for Bishop’s Castle, which appears through the trees with a gothic stone turret and a wrought iron dragon’s head. For 45 years, Jim Bishop has been building this fantastic structure, which started as a family cabin in the woods. Now its soaring buttresses and towers peer over the surrounding forest. I clamber up the steep iron staircase to explore, but the open ironwork walkways and bridges and lack of guardrails are scary, and you enter “at your own risk,” says the sign. Eschewing over-protective government regulations, Bishop, it seems, is something of a scofflaw, rebel and political agitator.

HIGHWAY 69 TAKES ME NORTH TO TEXAS CREEK ALONG THE OLD Denver & Rio Grande railroad. Then the splendid curves of 50 wind eastward between tall bluffs alongside the Arkansas River. By the turnoff to Hartsel is a sign for Royal Gorge, so I detour. Hundreds of feet below, the Arkansas River crashes through a narrow canyon less than 50 feet wide. 

North to Hartsel over more rolling range, and 11 Mile State Park provides delightful twists through the aspens. I turn east on I-24 for the short climb to yet another Colorado pass, Wilkerson (9,502 feet): this is already high country and the pass is barely noticeable but for some climbing turns and ragged cliffs. Heavily trafficked, I-24 sweeps gently over more range into Woodland Park, elevation 8,437 feet.

I find just two motels in town: the first looks, on closer inspection, a lot like the Bates Motel, so I turn the Glide around and settle on the alternative. My room—I’ve been in bigger bathrooms, showers, even—is wretched, dank and musty. My view looks like the set for Junkyard Wars, and the phone belongs in a museum. There’s a truly sinister looking bug on the bed’s headboard: I swipe it with a towel, and the headboard falls off. For this I paid the “special” rate of $55.

IN THE MORNING, HEADING NORTH ON 67 FOR DECKERS, I’M running through stands of ponderosa pine on what must be a weekend commuter road to the lakes and woodlands in the surrounding hills. I pass Jacob’s Creek, a charming one church, one rusty gas pump town, on a delightful two-laner that twists through canyons and creekside valleys. I’m surprised not to find more Friday evacuees riding the roads, but motorcycles are few and far between. 

Kenosha Pass (10,000 feet) opens onto the vast San Luis valley before the gentle push to Red Hill Pass (9,99s feet), a shallow rise with sweeping bends. 

Colorado mountain passes by motorcycleHIGHWAY 9 NORTH STARTS A STEADY CLIMB NORTH BEFORE THE main push to Hoosier Pass (11,541 feet). The road skirts the east side of a steep valley in which nestles Quartzville, with the bald 14,000-foot Mt. Lincoln to the west. Some bends lurk near the Pass, but it’s mainly a straight run. The views are magnificent. We’re above the tree line, and the bare peaks, softer and rounder than the Canadian Rockies, are streaked with glacial ice. A manufactured-looking ski town, all steel roofs, stucco and picture windows, Breckenridge appears far more prosaic than Aspen. 

EAST FROM DILLON, HIGHWAY 6’S FOUR-LANES CLIMB TOWARD Keystone ski resort, narrowing to two lanes for the long sweeping climb to the Loveland Pass (11,995 feet). Devoid of trees, the scenery is starkly magnificent, and the highway’s curves lay exposed to view for miles. I linger at the Pass, watching trucks grow from tiny dots thousands of feet below to become growling monsters as they rumble past me. Interstate 70, a narrow stripe across the valley below, beckons me back to Denver, but there’s much more to the state than just the high Colorado pass, and my four-day jaunt is just a teaser. The canyons and mesas of the Rockies’ western slopes are beckoning, so I’ll be back! 

by Robert Smith, Canadian Biker #238

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