Biking Mountain Canyons in Northern Colorado

I’m trying to establish bicycling traditions. Every summer our family of four goes on a long multi-day (or multi-week) bicycle tour, a tradition that we hope to keep alive for many years. But sometimes one tradition is not enough. My son and I are working on a new tradition, where at least once a year just the two of us go bike camping for a weekend. Daniel is six years old, and Labor Day weekend 2011 was our third such trip. To keep the rides simple, every trip has started and ended at our house in Fort Collins, Colorado, yet each trip feels unique. I keep them that way by planning new events or activities into the rides, and this past Labor Day weekend offered a great selection -- a bike parade, a mountain festival, a picnic, and crystal hunting were all on the menu.

Daniel and Michael ride Stove Prairie Road on their way to Buckhorn Canyon.

On Saturday morning I mounted my loaded touring bike and Daniel hopped onto the trailerbike behind me. We rode just 4 miles to downtown, where a major road was flooded with bicycles. It was the Tour de Fat bicycle parade, the first stop on our itinerary. This annual event has grown into the largest bike parade in America, with more than 20,000 riders! We sat down on a grassy median to eat lunch and watch costumed riders pass by for two hours. The riders were dressed as superheros, cartoon characters, politicians, bananas, and animals. I spotted several that looked like Elvis. “There’s some tall bikes!” Daniel shouted, as a few 10-foot-tall bikes passed by. My favorites were the large, decorative multi-person bikes, like the four-person pirate ships and the side-by-side tandem that looked like a 1980s DeLorean sports car. A few people had built bicycle versions of the Flintstones cartoon car, and a pair of men rode by in an actual Toyota car that they’ve gutted and converted to pedal power.

The Tour de Fat bicycle parade in downtown Fort Collins.

As the parade traffic thinned we joined in and followed the route west to the Poudre River Trail. Riding beside the river was easy, but when the trail ended we left the river and began biking up Rist Canyon. This canyon is a favorite route for bike racers, and we saw why: low traffic, beautiful forest, and an unrelenting hill to climb.

A rancher moves his horses between pastures in Rist Canyon.

Fortunately, our campsite was just 8 miles up. A 40-acre parcel of national forest land straddles the road there, and is a good place to camp, but we found an even better spot. Over the years I’ve gotten to know a few landowners along this route, and that night one of them let us camp in his small meadow far off the paved road.

Daniel and Michael pitch their tent on a meadow in Rist Canyon.

Our campsite felt like it was in the wilderness, but with a five-minute walk through the woods we had access to water and bathrooms at the landowner’s house.

For dinner I opened up our bear-proof food canister and pulled out bagel sandwiches, dried fruit, and chocolate-covered pretzels. All of our food for the weekend was ready-to-eat sandwiches and snacks, so we had nothing to cook and very little to clean up, and we didn’t need to pack a stove or pot. For one- or two-night trips I love the convenience of ready-to-eat food, and it tastes good, too -- my wife makes great sandwiches!

A father/son dinner in camp.

On Sunday morning we rode just a couple of miles to our second major event, the Rist Canyon Mountain Festival. A large field beside the road had changed into a tent city, with craft vendors, a performance stage, and a fine art auction that raises money for the local volunteer fire department.

The Rist Canyon Mountain Festival.

The artwork was my favorite part of the festival, but Daniel preferred to look at the vehicles parked nearby. A rescue helicopter was on display, and a member of the county SWAT team helped Daniel climb into an armored attack vehicle. We both enjoyed eating the free ice cream cones.

Artists from all over America donate works for the festival's art auction.

After lunch we finished biking up Rist Canyon and paused at the pass to make a choice. In front of us was a steep downhill road that forked to the south and to the north. If we turned south, then we could ride into Buckhorn Canyon, where I had the GPS coordinates for a geocache location. I’d been told that the geocache is close to a rock formation full of black tourlamine crystals popular with rock hounds. To get there, we would need to bike up a long dirt road and spend another night in the forest, but I knew Daniel would love to get a crystal. If we turned north, then we'd enter Poudre Canyon, where some friends of ours were meeting at a picnic area to barbeque dinner. We could joined them for dinner and then finish riding to our house before dusk. The barbeque was mighty tempting.

“What do you want to do, Daniel, hunt for crystals or meet friends for dinner?” I asked. 

“Crystals!” yelled Daniel. I wasn't surprised.

Daniel admires the view from a large rock formation that we thought would contain tourlamine crystals.

A couple of hours later we used our borrowed GPS to find an unmarked trail leading into the forest. It was late afternoon, so we found a campsite, located the geocache, and ate dinner. The next morning we hunted for crystals -- but, darn it, couldn't find them anywhere. This annoyed me, but not Daniel. There were fragments of mica all over the ground, and to him the shiny mineral was just as valuable as a museum-quality crystal. We pocketed a few of the shiniest pieces and began the 33-mile ride back to our house.

A shiny chunk of mica that we found on the forest floor.

The ride was hilly and scenic, and we both felt full of energy. “Dad, why don’t we keep going and camp all week?” Daniel asked.

“Because you have school tomorrow,” I answered. “Don’t you want to tell your friends what a great weekend we’ve had?”

“Yes, I do.”

When we arrived at home, I told my wife what fun we'd had during our father/son weekend. I know we’re looking forward to a similar trip next year, and that the tradition will continue.

Get more information about bike overnights.Tips for this adventure: Our ride roughly followed the Rist Canyon Road Loop, which is the route of a bike race during the annual Fort Collins Bicycling Festival. The basic loop is 43 miles long and has 3,471 feet of elevation gain. There is a campground at Horsetooth Reservoir, and primitive camping is possible on national forest lands in a couple places (you can get a map of Roosevelt National Forest from the U.S. Forest Service). We deviated from the Rist Canyon Loop by starting and ending in Fort Collins, and by riding an 8-mile spur up County Road 44H. In total, we rode 76 miles. The annual Tour de Fat bicycle parade is sponsored by New Belgium Brewery and happens on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. The Rist Canyon Mountain Festival is sponsored by the Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department, and happens on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. The festival tents are set up in a field across the road from the firehouse.

Favorite local bike shop: Lee's Cyclery 

4 responses so far ↓

Ginger - Nov 15, 2011 at 9:19 AM

Sounds like a great way to spend time together. Thanks for sharing.

Stuart - Nov 15, 2011 at 12:13 PM

Sounds a great little adventure, and right on your doorstep. You really don't have to go far to create special experiences. I love the way you planned a theme and things to see and do on the way. This is the way to inspire and pass on that love of biking in kids, it's all about creating that sense of adventure. Great blog and great tradition. We've done lots of touring as a family but you got me thinking whether I should have a boys trip!

Mark - Jan 24, 2012 at 8:20 AM

Great stuff, sounds like a wonderful trip. These are the kinds of memories that will later define our children's recollection of their early years. Can't wait 'till my little girls are big enough to come along on Daddy's biking overnighters!

Ussama Sajid - Jun 7, 2013 at 2:25 AM

Great story... !

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