The Highest Paved Road
I rode one of my earliest Bike Overnights almost seven years ago, during the crazy summer that my son was born. That summer my wife and I spent Memorial Day weekend at the maternity ward, and came home with a baby boy that changed our lives. I loved being a new father, even with the diaper changes and irregular sleep schedules, and I threw all my spare time into being a dad. Yet as summer wore on and I spent night after night rocking my son to sleep, I began to wonder: Do I have to completely skip bike touring this summer? I can't take a long tour, but what if I could leave for just one night? Surely I could go somewhere fun -- somewhere incredible. Maybe I could bike from my house to ... the top of the highest paved road in North America!
To my sleep-deprived mind, that sounded like a good adventure. And it was within the realm of possibility, because the continent's highest paved road is not as remote as you might think. The Mount Evans Scenic Highway begins just 33 miles west of Denver, in the small Colorado town of Idaho Springs. It winds its way uphill 28 miles to the top of Mount Evans, more than 14,000 feet above sea level. Hundreds of bicyclists ride to the top each summer during the annual Mt. Evans Hill Climb bicycle race. Unfortunately, my house in Fort Collins is more than 100 miles from the Mt. Evans Highway, and there are lots of mountains between here and there. In the back of my mind I knew it was impossible to make a round trip to Mt. Evans in just two days, but I had to try it.
Mountains along the Peak-to-Peak Highway; July 4, 2005.
On July 4th I got up before dawn and began the ride. As the sun rose and lit the western mountains in a purple glow, I realized that I hadn’t watched a sunrise for months. It was pretty, and made me think, “Why don’t I get up early more often?”
Soon I was riding between the steep rock walls of Big Thompson Canyon. I’d biked up that canyon many times before, but this morning was different because there was no traffic -- all the drivers were still at home eating breakfast or something. By 9 a.m. I had passed through the tourist town of Estes Park and was climbing to Wind River Pass on the aptly named Peak-to-Peak Highway. The snow-capped peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park parallel this road that leads from Estes Park to Central City. Shortly before the pass I met a couple that was also bike touring for the weekend. They weren’t planning to ride as far as I was, but they were going to camp in style, and had brought along bottles of wine and a violin. There are many ways to enjoy a weekend bicycle trip.
Rocky Mountain Columbine, Colorado's state flower.
Late that afternoon I passed through the historic mining town of Central City on my way to Idaho Springs. These days the best route from Central City to Idaho Springs is the Central City Parkway, a beautiful paved road that you can coast down into Idaho Springs with blazing speed. But six years ago, the Parkway was made off-limits to bicycles. The only alternative was a narrow dirt path appropriately named Oh-My-God Road, and there must have been a dozen switchbacks on the way down to Idaho Springs. I took the road slowly, with frequent stops to cool off my rims.
Downtown Black Hawk, a gold-rush town on the Peak-to-Peak Highway.
I cooked supper in a busy town park where families were getting ready for the evening’s fireworks display. After supper I finally biked onto the Mount Evans Highway; six miles up the road I found a quiet place to camp on national forest land. Dusk was falling, so I turned on my headlamp to look into my panniers. Suddenly, I froze -- in the forest, less than ten yards away, two bright yellow eyes were watching me. Was it a mountain lion? I held my breath until he turned his head slightly, showing me his long, thin nose. Oh, thank goodness … it was just a fox. I set up my tent and checked my bike odometer -- 115 miles. I lay down and quickly fell asleep to the sound of 4th of July fireworks.
The next morning I left camp and pedaled the last 22 miles to the peak of Mount Evans. On the long climb I was surrounded by alpine tundra, lakes, and cliffs. The alpine flowers were in bloom and somewhere above 13,000 feet herds of shaggy white mountain goats were browsing the tundra. At the end of the road I parked my bike and walked the final 200 yards or so to the peak of the mountain. All around I saw jagged, treeless mountains covered with boulders and patches of snow. The place felt wild and rugged, and far, far away from the busy routine that I’d left just the day before. I stood there for awhile, absorbing the scene and thinking, “Wow, I really made it here. This place is amazing!” Then it was time to head home.
View from the Summit of Mt. Evans.
The first 28 miles of the return trip were a breeze (all downhill,) but climbing back up Oh-My-God Road took hours, since I had to walk most of the way.
Mountain goats on Mount Evans.
In Central City I started riding again, and felt like I was getting stronger with each passing mile -- it must have been the scenery. The Peak-to-Peak Highway is a beautiful mountain road, and a few abandoned gold mines dotting the hills are reminders of the road’s wild west past. Since I knew I couldn’t bike all the way home that day, my goal was to get close enough that my wife could pick me up in our car without having to drive too far. When I reached the little town of Nederland that evening it was time to get out of the mountains. I turned east into Boulder Canyon, and zipped downhill 16 miles into the college town of Boulder. Now I was on the plains and close to a major highway. I rode to the northeast end of town and paused at a Mexican Restaurant. It was 9 p.m. and dark, and I didn’t have bicycle lights. My body was starting to fail. I’d already ridden 102 miles, and home was still 43 miles away. It was time to quit and call my wife to rescue me.
Inside the restaurant, the friendly staff took a break from sweeping up to serve me dinner. I ate slowly, barely able to chew or even keep my body warm. I’d bicycled too long without a proper meal, and had little energy left. During dinner I vividly recalled scenes from my trip. There were creeks, canyons, peaks, forests, meadows, and towns. So many climbs and descents that I could hardly remember them all, and it seemed strange that I’d seen all these places in just one weekend of biking. With a little bit of preparation and an early morning start, I’d turned what might have been another typical weekend into an adventure.
Soon my wife walked into the restaurant with our baby, and I hugged and kissed them as though I’d been gone for a week. I was ready to be a dad again.
Tips for this adventure: The Peak-to-Peak Highway leads 55 miles from Estes Park in the north to Central City in the south, and can be accessed by several canyon roads that connect to the cities of Loveland, Lyons, and Boulder. Highway 34 (Big Thompson Canyon) from Loveland to Estes Park might be the easiest access road, but it's also the busiest. There are several campgrounds along the Peak-to-Peak. The Central City Parkway is the quickest road between Central City and Idaho Springs, but Oh-My-God Road (also known as the Virginia Canyon Road) has been improved over the years and is a reasonable route for mountain bikes. The upper half of the Mount Evans Scenic Highway is maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, which charges a small entrance fee. Midway up the road is a visitor center. Most of the land around the road is in the Mount Evans Wilderness Area.