2010 Colorado and Utah Trip

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Colorado and Utah 2010

I changed jobs in the summer of 2010, and in between jobs I took a week off to ride.

Planning ahead, I mapped out a route that would let me ride "all the good roads in Colorado." I combined advice from the LDRider mailing list, AAA maps, and Internet sources, and my own prior experience in Colorado to determine where I should go. My goals were to have almost zero freeway, little traffic, and great riding. On the chance that this would be the last time I had the time to get to Colorado for a while, I wanted to consume the territory: leave no place un-seen and no road un-ridden.

Here is the route I plotted, a battered ring running clockwise through the area south and west of Denver:

The numbers on the map correspond to the numbered sections below.

Tuesday and Wednesday: Leaving Home

My schedule had me leaving my home in the San Francisco area on a Tuesday afternoon. I wanted to get California behind me on the first half-day of the trip. I landed in Carson City, NV and found a cheap hotel - $35 or $38 or something, weekday rate. This would be a hallmark of the trip: don't pay more than $50 for a night if possible. Call me cheap, but I just can't bear paying north of $80 for one room that I'm only going to be conscious in for a couple of hours.

Wednesday was my day to get through all of Nevada and most of Utah. I took US50 across Nevada to Ely, with a detour on NV722 through a little place called Peterson Station before getting to Austin. Don't ask my why there's a state highway through there, but there is. It was kind of nice to get off The World's Lonliest Highway for a little while.

Somewhere near Ely, I got a visit from Officer Friendly. As usual, I cooperated, copped to the infraction (yes, I had been speeding), and asked for a break. He wrote me for "speeding in a rural area," which is under $100 and carries no points. Nice one. Then I asked him about Great Basin National Park, which was a little ways ahead on the NV/UT border. He looked around us and said it wasn't much different from what we were seeing already. I decided to give it a miss. This would be about the only National Park, National Monument, or State Park I would drive by on the whole trip without going inside.

August is monsoon season in the desert, and this year they had some doozies. A monsoon is a an afternoon thunderstorm that builds up, dumps a ton of rain, and disappears in just an hour or two. At the Nevada/Utah border I could see I was running into a big one. I figured I was OK for rain and just kept going. Turns out I wasn't OK for wind-driven hail, which is what I got. There were hailstones hitting my arms at speed, and they hurt. I stopped the bike and hunkered down in its wind shadow to take off my outer shell and put on my liner under it, just for the padding. The hailstorm turned to rain, but I still wasn't having any fun as I went through Delta headed for I-70.

Taking I-70 east across Utah is an experience. On the one hand, you're on the interstate, which is never my favorite time. On the other hand, all around you there is this amazing scenery. Canyons, mesas and buttes, all sorts of stuff flashes past to keep things interesting. That, plus the fact that there are no other east-west routes, means there's no shame in taking the freeway on this segment, even on a flower-sniffing trip.

1. Moab area: Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

Wednesday found me at a campground which, fortunately, had a cabin available. This saved me from setting up a tent on wet sandy dirt, and from a little bit of rain in the night.

The day ended with this sunset view of the outside of Canyonlands National Park from my campsite. (Click any image on this page to see a larger version.)

That's one thing about Utah: there are formations and vistas just sitting there along the side of the road, and some of them would be a National Monument in its own right anywhere else.

This night, I discovered something that could have been a mild disaster. Sometime in the past, to save memory in my GPS (a Garmin 276C which can't hold street-level detail for too many places at once), I had deleted Colorado. I didn't check before I left home, and here I was in eastern Utah with no GPS detail. I had my computer with me, but I hadn't expected to need to talk to the GPS, so I hadn't brought the right cable. Luckily it was about the third-most-popular USB cable size, and I found somebody at the campground who had one to charge his phone. I repaid his kindness with a couple of mini-bottles of Tarantula, a potent tequila drink I bring along when camping as trade goods.

Thursday was spent at two National Parks and a National Monument right at the Utah/Colorado border. Before leaving, I had decided: on this trip, I'll at least look into every major park along the way, so I'll know whether I ever want to go back. Better that, than skipping one and wishing later I'd gone. (I had already skipped Great Basin, but that was on the strength of local knowledge.)

Some of the arches at Arches National Park were also visible from my campsite, but they are better up close. And some of the most amazing things there aren't arches at all.

This picture is of a formation called Park Avenue. It's called that because the walls are as high as skyscrapers and have the same sheer sides. You can't see it in this picture, but there's a parallel wall on the left that's similar. The valley in between is too wide to be a New York boulevard, but the feeling is similar to the Urban Canyon.

That brings me to a touchstone I would return to again and again during this trip. The sights in Utah and Colorado, as a rule, defy photography. You just can't capture them in pictures. Maybe pros with helicopters and high-end equipment, who can wait all day for the sun to be just right, and can wait until tomorrow if the clouds aren't perfect, maybe they can photograph these places. All I could do is snap my snapshots and sigh.

They do let you walk through this valley, and there is a hiker pick-up area further along the road, but since I was on my own and early in the trip, I didn't want to do too much walking right away.

Arches National Park has, as the name implies, a lot of arches. These are formed by certain combinations of rock formation and erosion. I stopped and saw a lot of them, and walked through/past some on their trails, but somehow I wasn't blown away by them. They didn't photograph very well (at least, not for me, see above), but some other formations were even more impressive, in their ways.

This picture is of "Hanging Rock." Click through to the larger image to get a better sense of distance: that's a really big boulder, hundreds of feet across, teetering on a narrow neck. Large amounts of Utah are shaped by rain that is only occasional but can come in quantity when it comes. That boulder is a tougher kind of rock than the now-eroded surroundings, and it's protecting the column beneath it from being washed away.

Right next door to Arches National Park is Canyonlands National Park. This doesn't just defy photography, it defies description. I took pictures for some other tourists and they returned the favor. It's hard to describe Canyonlands. It's not like you're inside the canyons: you are above them looking across an enormous landscape of water-carved channels. Some are wide and sloped, while others are sheer. If there were more rain, the area would mellow out into hills and grass, but since rain comes rarely and in quantity, you get these sharp edges.

When I get back to Utah, I don't think I'll bother with Arches or Canyonlands again if I'm on my own. It's amazing once, but seeing it again doesn't seem to me like it'll add much to the experience.

Leaving these two parks, I took a back road to head toward Colorado. It was getting into the afternoon, and the clouds in the west were threatening. CO128 runs northeast from Moab to Cisco along the Colorado River. It's a beautiful river-and-canyon road, but when you're running ahead of a fast-moving monsoon, you could wish it would head more east than north. It didn't. Another state border crossing, another downpour. I found out again that my riding clothes are quite waterproof, and even warm when I turn on the electrics, but that only makes riding in the rain tolerable - it's still not fun.

2. Grand Junction and Colorado National Monument

Interstates are passable in almost any weather, and then I reached Colorado National Monument outside Grand Junction, CO. It was only 4:00 or so, a bit early to end the day, and I thought, "What the hell?" So I turned in to see why they'd made this little area a National Monument.

The answer is: because it's really amazing. There's this mesa looming southwest of Grand Junction, and this guy lobbied Congress to preserve it. They built a road that hugs the top edge, so you're constantly looking down over this sheer drop and you can see across the flats of northwestern Colorado practically to Wyoming. Of course, the road was wet and it was still raining, so I couldn't see all that, but I was able to stop for a picture of Chimney Rock, a signature location in the park, and I definitely got the idea.

After getting down off the mesa a Colorado N.M., I found a hotel in Grand Junction. Camping in the rain is not my idea of fun. It was early in the afternoon still, but I didn't see anyplace worth pressing on to, and I decided I wasn't in any hurry. In the hotel room, I turned on the weather and saw that what hit me was just the northern fringe of a big, fat storm that dumped a ton of rain on western Colorado in a short time. The news in was full of dire flood warnings and advisories.

But the thing about the West is, once the rain moves through, it dries out fast. Just an hour or so later, I walked downtown for dinner, and the next day the roads were dry and clear. I could have spent Thursday afternoon cursing the weather for ruining my trip, but being bummed about this kind of thing is a choice, a decision about how to spend your energy. I decided not to. And in the event it would have been wasted, misplaced frustration: that turned out to be the last bad weather I saw, and ultimately it didn't ruin anything.

Friday morning of my big Colorado trip dawns, and I'm just in Grand Junction, barely in Colorado at all. Still, I've got a lot of days ahead of me, and I'm in no rush. I decide to go back to Colorado National Monument and see what I missed. This time I ride it east to west, just for variety.

This picture is from that trip through Colorado N.M. You can see an arch-shaped erosion pattern in the side of the canyon wall (left of center and up); this is the kind of thing that would have become an Arch if the cliff had eroded differently.

3. CO141, the Dolores River Canyon, and the Swedes

My next destination for Friday was one I'd been looking forward to the whole trip. If you ever get anywhere near western Colorado, you should make a side trip to ride CO141, a road that runs through the Dolores River Canyon. It's a fairly short road: the good part is just 15-20 miles between Gateway and Uravan. But what a road! You run along the Dolores River, which has carved a canyon of steep walls and S-turns you can see all the way through. I knew before I started that I had to include this on my Colorado tour.

This picture is taken at the southern end of the "good part." This is an overlook where you can look down at an S-curve in the river. It's hard to see in this picture (and even harder in the thumbnail), but there is an aqueduct nailed to the side of the canyon wall down there. People will go to great lengths to get gold and silver out of the ground, and that includes building miles-long aqueducts into sheer rock walls to carry water above its natural level, until it gets to where they want to use it and they can operate a man-made waterfall at just the right spot.

This road is so nice, I rode it twice: after taking this picture, I rode the road south-to-north, just to do it again.

At the start of the second southbound leg, I ran into a group of people on BMWs at a photo-op on the side of the road. I stopped to talk to them, and it turned out they were a Swedish tourist group that had rented BMWs in Denver and were seeing the American West. Well, said I, I have a movie camera on my bike, and movies are always better with other bikes in them, so how would you like it if I filmed you as you ride this beautiful road? They thought that was a grand idea, so off we went.

Turned out these guys weren't exactly setting the centerline on fire as they went by, and they spread out a bit, so the video isn't as great as it could have been. Still, I was able to pass them in stages and get them all on camera for a time, and then I sped past them and turned around to film them head-on as they came around a curve. When I got home I e-mailed the ride leader to tell them where I had uploaded the video, but to this day I don't know if they ever picked it up.

You can download the video and watch it yourself. You probably can't stream it, download it first. I haven't cut it down to the "interesting" parts or reduced the bit rate for the web, so it's a 350MB file. It's a QuickTime MOV file, but you don't need QuickTime to play it; use VLC from VideoLan if you don't already have a player that can handle it. For some reason, motorcycle movies (at least, at the speeds I go) feel "slow" when played back normal speed: I find that playing it back at 1.5x makes it feel about like it did in real life.

4. Black Canyon of the Gunnison

I'll try to pick up the pace of this narrative.

After CO141 my route went SE on CO145, then E on CO62 before getting to Telluride, then N on US550, then E on US50. Not much to say about all that, except "Don't expect there to be a gas station in SW Colorado, even at the junctions of major highways." I actually had to continue S toward Telluride to find gas before heading back N and E.

Off US50 east of Montrose is the southern entrance to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This is a big damn canyon, with very sheer sides made of dark slate-like stone (hence "black"), looking craggy like Mordor except there's too much greenery.

This is another picture from inside the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, at river level. Bikers just can't have too many pictures of their own bikes. The road down to the river level is technical without being fun (for me): very steep, with lots of switchbacks.

Leaving the BCotG, you have to travel east on US50 until you get to the junction of CO92. This is the first river crossing if you want to go north. CO92 is a really great road, definitely not to be missed if you're nearby. It's twisty and scenic, with both cliffside and forested areas. But let me give some advice: plan the time of day better than I did. Do not ride CO92 westbound in the late afternoon. With the sun in your eyes, it's a very pleasant ride ruined.

My next adventure came a little ways south of Carbondale on CO133. Remember those rains I told you about? They had extended this far east, and some mud slides had washed out the road. The mud here is red and fine, and when it gets wet it flows and is quite slippery. Work crews were still clearing the road in one spot, but they were also letting cars through in between front-loader basket-fuls of mud to be cleared. Once again, I offer advice: watch out for that last half-inch of muck! At almost no speed, in a congested work zone, I nearly lost it: when the front tire loses traction, you can be on the ground before you know you're falling. Fortunately, I was able to pull it out and nobody's day was ruined.

Friday night ended at a campground just south of Carbondale. I had a tent site next to some German tourists, a father and son, who lived near the Alps and wanted to see what America's mountains were like. I hope they enjoyed them.

5. Aspen and Independence Pass

My original route plan had me going north to the Interstate from Carbondale, instead of going east through Aspen. I'd already been through Aspen two years earlier, and I hadn't enjoyed it. Too much traffic, too little to see, too much deputy sheriff giving me a ticket. (Two years ago, that is.) But Saturday morning, there I was: I just couldn't bring myself to go freeway when another road was available.

So there I was on Independence Pass. This picture is out of sequence so it can't have been taken near there, but it's pretty and similar to the sort of thing one might see in that area. And my prediction of my enjoyment had been accurate: I didn't like it. Nice road, but too much traffic and too little fun.

What I didn't know is, this was just the beginning. I had planned a zigzag route north to I-70, then south on CO9 past Breckenridge, then NE on US285 and SE on a nice-looking river road called County Road 77 on my map, leading to Lake George. Maybe that would have been fun, but by the time I finally got to I-70 and then down into Breckenridge, I was fed up with the part of Colorado where the people are. Forget the Denver area: give me the south and west any day. So I bailed, taking CO9 all the way south to US50.

I was very pleasantly surprised with CO9. A little low-key after all the steep roads and high passes, but it went through some quite pleasant meadows and range land.

6. Royal Gorge

In the part of Coloado west of Pueblo there is one big attraction you should put on your radar: Royal Gorge. This is a true attraction: a thing so amazing they built a park around it just so people could pay to see it. The thing, the nexus, is a bridge: the highest suspension bridge in the world, I guess. It runs across a very steep-walled canyon, not very wide but quite deep. When I was there, what struck me was not the bridge, but something else: the railroad track running along the river at the bottom. I was built around 1877, and that took some engineering. Silver had been discovered, and the railroad was built to carry ore from the mines to the refineries. Like the cliff-hugging aqueduct along the Dolores River, it's amazing what people will do when there's silver or gold involved.

Besides the bridge, there is a very steep funicular that carries people from the top of the canyon to the bottom. That's like a railroad only using gears that mesh with teeth on the track, where a regular railroad has steel wheels on a smooth track. You build one of these when the way is too steep for wheels-on-track friction to do the job, and let me tell you, this one is steep. It's nearly vertical. (The last one of these I rode was up Mount Washington in Vermont. My father is a little bit of a rail history buff, so it's fun to pay attention to these special cases of rail travel.)

Along about here, I started to notice an awful lot of Honda Goldwings with trailers and three-wheeled motorcycles on the highway. I don't know what event they were attending or coming home from, but there were scores of them. And I passed every blessed one of them. Different bikes, different styles, different speeds.

Besides the trikes with trailers, there's not much to say about US50 west to Gunnison. Just another damn spectacular vista, a cliff or a canyon or a river or a forest, around every corner.

7. Creede

Saturday afternoon found me halfway between US50 and US160 on CO149. I had a little adventure in Lakeside: stopped on the side of the road in town, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, I dropped my bike. There was gravel under my left foot as I put it down, and it slid out away from me. No big deal, no harm done, plenty of people around to help right the bike, except... I broke the video camera I had mounted to the side of the bike. It probably acted as a bumper to protect some of the plastic on that side, but it never worked again.

As sunset approached, I was eastbound on this road and I could see the landscape and rock formations in front of me turning red. This same time of day had led to the best Utah bike picture ever (if I do say so myself), so I wanted to see what pictures I could get this time. Answer: nothing much.

But just a little later, something strange happened in the sky. The landscape was already mostly dark, and the clouds were too, but there were these orange bands in the air, and a rainbow. I think what happened was that the setting sun was being reflected, not from the clouds, but by the rain itself. Pretty cool. (Click on the picture to enlarge it and scroll around. If you use Firefox you might have to click on the picture after it opens to be sure the browser is not auto-scaling the picture to fit your window.)

I stopped for a bite at the general store in a town called Creede, Colorado. This was obviously a mining town until the ore was gone, and now they've reinvented themselves as a bit of an artist's colony. This was the one place during the trip where I "camped rough," opting for a wide spot off a dirt road up in the foothills above town rather than a full-on campground. When I camp I'm completely self-contained, with water and fuel to heat it and even "TravelJohn" bags for waste management.

8. The Million Dollar Highway

I honestly remember nothing about the stretch of US160 from South Fork to Durango. At some point I had captured some online Colorado road advice that said this segment was the best part of US160, and I must have traveled it on Sunday, but after two full days in Colorado it left no lasting impression.

US550 north from Durango is more memorable. As with so many roads in Colorado, it's amazing it's there at all. Some segments cross such impressive mountains and follow such steep cliffsides you can't imagine anybody deciding, "Yes, there, that's where we'll build a road." But once again, silver and gold are powerful motivators. The road was built to get ore from Ouray south to Silverton and Durango, and part of it is called The Million Dollar Highway because it cost that much per mile to build.

North of Ouray, I turned west on CO162 and retraced just a few miles of the route I'd traveled three days before. Then I turned south on CO145 past Telluride and on to Cortez.

This stretch of CO145 is almost the perfect Colorado road. It has everything: mountain passes, river runs, forests, meadows, everything. And very little traffic, at least when I was there. It's not as twisty or steep or exciting as some other roads, but in a short 60 miles it's got a nice taste of all of the rest.

9. Mesa Verde National Park

We've reached Sunday afternoon, but we're not out of Colorado yet. Down in the lower-left corner of the state is Mesa Verde National Park. The mesa itself is an unmistakable landmark seen from below, and a fascinating history lesson from above.

About a thousand years ago, people lived in this area. Weather patterns changed and caused populated shifts, but for a time you could scratch out a living around here.

The cliff dwellings here are really elaborate: it's clear that people lived there a long time and found ways to adapt. The circular pits are a way to build a relatively small fire and keep warm in the winter (without suffocating on the smoke), and also to keep things a little cooler in the summer. 

One intriguing thing I learned at this place was that when white explorers found these places, the storerooms contained pots with corn and other food inside. I find this amazing: what made people abandon this place when they still had stored food? If they were suddenly run off by attackers, why didn't the attackers eat the food? In a stone-age society (working with wood and leather but no metals) you don't abandon stored food lightly. The oral traditions and histories don't say what happened.


10. Beyond Colorado

I've reached the end of Colorado, and it's late so I think I'll stop writing. Monday saw me continue to Hovenweep National Monument, Mexican Hat,

Monument Valley Tribal Park,

a place called "The Goosenecks" where you can see yet another kind of erosion at work,

those gnarly gravel switchbacks on UT261,

Natural Bridges National Park,

the bridges across the Colorado and Dirty Devil Rivers at Glen Canyon,

and camping in Hanksville, UT.

Tuesday was UT12 (Escalante) with a side trip (which I recommend) on Burr Trail east of Boulder, UT, and then Bryce Canyon National Park

(which continues the theme of defying photography).

I skipped Zion National Park this year because of construction at the eastern entrance, where that cool cliffside tunnel is. Instead I rode west into the late-afternoon sun on UT14 - another ride that I recommend you take at a different time of day.

Tuesday night was in St. George, Utah, and Wednesday is too boring to mention: mainly NV375 (the Extraterrestrial Highway) past Rachel, NV and Area 51, Tonopah, Yosemite and home.

I hope you enjoyed reading this. I certainly enjoyed the trip. Maybe next year I'll go north, Oregon/Idaho/Montana. We'll see.


This page was last edited October 25, 2010.