Colorado 2014 – Day 125 – Ft Collins – Estes Park: Big Thompson Canyon

Sunday September 21, 2014, 41 miles (66 km) – Total so far: 5,358 miles (8,624 km)

The city is still asleep as we pedal south down Taft Hill Road. The streets lie in the grey darkness of first light, and the humans still lie in their beds. The sun slowly cracks open the sky with shafts of light and radiation. The sun hasn’t yet poked itself above the horizon, but it emits warning rays upward that the day is about to begin. I roll down into the Spring Creek drainage and climb out the other side. It brings back memories of the flash flood in 1997 that killed five people and sent water into places you never thought that water would ever go. I have photos of a guy kayaking up West Elizabeth Street from the intersection with Shields Street on that fateful night.

Few cars pass me as I cruise on south and then hit the long, gentle rollers south of town. We pass the landfill entrance – I toured that facility in some class in college – and perform an ad hoc social analysis of consumption patterns based on the rubbish strewn along the road for a few hundred feet either side. I marvel at how much urban growth has occurred and how, someday, Fort Collins and Loveland will become one conglomeration of population separated by a few open spaces.

We ride parallel to the hogback ridges that line the Front Range. We are at the very edge of the Great Plains here. A quarter mile west and we would be swallowed by the foothills. After riding so many miles out on the Plains over the past four years, it is noteworthy to ride just on the very edge of them for 10-15 miles before we turn west and head into the mountains.

Loveland is as lifeless as Fort Collins at 6.30 am on a Sunday morning in September. I stop at Safeway to get some donuts. Australia kinda sucks at donuts. I’ve never found good ones there. If you can find donuts at all, they are usually of the cake variety, and I much prefer yeast. The Aussies do awesome scones and other baked goods, but donuts… not so good. So I always think that I will go nuts eating donuts on tour in the US. But somehow, because I don’t often crave sweet things when riding, I never end up eating very many at all. This will be the second time on this entire trip that I will consume donuts. Inside, the store is dead, except for three old ladies and two middle-aged men who enter the store just after me. Hilariously, we all are headed to the donut case! I get there first and quickly get two plain yeast (my favourite) and a cinnamon roll for later (no cinnamon while I’m riding – it gives me heartburn if I do so). The other patrons wait patiently in the short line we just created in the bakery department. I also get two bananas – my normal morning fuel.

Back on the road, we head west past all sorts of little tourist shops that line Highway 34. Then we begin crossing through the hogback ridges. The Big Thompson River has carved through each of them over the years, and the road shares the narrow, erosional cut with the water course. One year ago, massive floods caused enormous damage up and down the Colorado Front Range. The Big Thompson Canyon suffered heavily and even down here on the outskirts of town, the evidence of the flood is still bewildering. There are still large dumps of gravel debris all along the floodplain just west of town, and you can see where the river has carved new bends and dumped mud and silt in thick layers.

We pass through the final hogback as we round a corner. In front of us rise low rounded hills that lack the red sandstones of the hogback ridges. We are about to enter that mass of metamorphic rock. But first we ride alongside the western face of the hogback which has rocks from the Pennsylvanian Fountain Formation through to the Cretaceous Dakota Formation tilted up and dipping east beside the road. It looks like someone has tilted back the front edge of a couch cushion while searching for change. It represents about 230 million years of deposition from 300 to 70 million years ago.

The four rows of hogbacks we’ve just ridden through would have laid mostly flat, and covered the igneous and metamorphic rock of the Rocky Mountains, up until about 65-70 million years ago. Then, the Laramide Orogeny began and started to uplift the mountains. The sedimentary rocks we just rode through in the hogbacks were lifted up, too, then eroded away from the tops of the mountains in the centre of the uplift. These tilted hogbacks, on the edge of the uplift, are all that remains of the sedimentary strata. Their tilt is a striking visual transition of where the plains meet the mountains.

Soon we enter the Big Thompson Canyon. A sign near the entrance says “Bicycling not recommended. Ride at your own risk.” The floods last year completely demolished whole sections of the road through the canyon and heavily damaged much of the rest. Emergency repairs were carried out, but the road width and shoulders do not currently meet highway standard. But really, it’s an ideal time to ride the road. There is fresh pavement in a lot of places, and though the shoulder is narrow in some places, it is no worse than many other roads in Colorado and most roads in Montana. There is enough traffic that the cars aren’t going more than about 45-50 mph either. I feel safer riding this road than most of the roads I just pedalled for two months in Montana. The next several years, when they are reconstructing the road through the length of the canyon, will probably be much less pleasant. For now, it is quite do-able.

Heading up the Big Thompson Canyon. There is still a lot of evidence of the Sept 2013 floods that wiped out the road in many places, and there is only a small shoulder in places, but do not be deterred by the “Bicycling not recommended. Ride at your own risk” signs at the entrance. It really was not a problem.

The lower section of the canyon is dramatic with high rock walls squishing the river and road into a narrow and deep cleft. Metamorphic rocks stand in near vertical layers. The river and road wind around blind corners in a corridor of rock. My main interest is geomorphology but if your geology interests lie more in the details of individual minerals – then this is the road for you. Different metamorphic rocks are created at different temperatures and pressures. The road from Loveland to Estes Park goes through all of the zones of regional metamorphism – from low-grade biotite at the canyon mouth, to garnets and staurolites formed at higher temperatures to pegmatites near Drake formed at the highest temperatures and pressures.

We continue up the canyon, amazed at the flood destruction and post-flood repair. Wherever the road is freshly paved, we know that that is where the road was completely washed away. Most sections of old pavement are gouged and scraped where front-end loaders and other heavy equipment pushed off the flood debris. I’ve travelled this canyon many, many times in the past – it is dumb-founding to see the scale of the damage. Interestingly, many of the trees replanted after a massive flood in 1976 have survived. All of the places that were turned into public parks or public land after the 1976 flood where people were not allowed to rebuild were again in the path of the 2013 flood.

Wow, the river used to run pretty deep and narrow through here. Drake, and the river and homes just upstream, took a heavy hit. Much of the canyon did.

In some places you can see where the flood has ripped out the inner bend of a river and taken parts of homes with it. One poor house still stands, but its northwest corner sits on air and is missing a section of its stone chimney. Other houses near Drake also hang off hillsides, and a large landslide is visible on the south side of the road. Back down the canyon, the park that had an exhibit about the 1976 floods is gone. The landscaping, the ponds, the picnic tables and bridges are just gone – it’s just a bare patch of gravels and mud that have been graded into a flat expanse on the floodplain. The little neighbourhood of Glen Cove, which sat tucked down below the main highway, looks like a gravel pit. There used to be tons of little cabins and homes. Almost all of them are gone.

By the time I get to Drake, the traffic has become fairly continuous. I don’t really even bother checking my mirror because I know there will be a car or ten every 30 seconds or so. It’s a weekend, so the traffic is heavy. But luckily, everyone is quite courteous, and it’s really not much of a problem. The one guy that does go screaming by me and that does not move over at all will be sad to find the long line of cars just ahead around the blind corner that is following an ancient Winnebago slowly up the grade.

As you climb up the final hill by the edge of Lake Estes, all of the morning climbing (you gain 2500 feet between Fort Collins and Estes Park) rewards you with a view of forest-clad foothills framed in the distance by snow-covered, rocky peaks that rise to 12,000 feet or more. I have been through Estes Park a bazillion times, and that first view up into Rocky Mountain National Park never ceases to amaze.

I finally understand why the traffic has been incredibly heavy. The town is having its Autumn Gold Festival this weekend. The aspen are at their peak colour, and the elk rut is on, so it is as busy up here as any summer weekend. Lines of vehicles are backed up past the intersection with Hwy 36. I weave my way through the cars to McDonalds. It is so crazy in there, I don’t even bother ordering something. I just sit outside and use the wifi to find a cheap motel with vacancy.

We head into downtown, weaving through the cars and pedestrians, to the park. It’s nutso with people just everywhere! I find a bare spot on the grass, plop the bike down, then go purchase a pint of beer and a soft pretzel from the Rotarians. The guys and I enjoy the soft grass while we listen to an Eagles cover band. The band is just okay, but I end up having to sit there and enjoy them longer than I had anticipated. I don’t drink much alcohol – so a pint of beer on an almost empty stomach at 7,400 feet after a morning with 2500 feet of climbing means I have enough of a buzz that I think I better just stay seated for a bit. That traffic was crazy enough to negotiate sober!

It is absolutely nutso in Estes Park this weekend. There is a mud volleyball tournament and the “Autumn Gold” festival going on. The guys and I enjoy a beer and soft pretzel and listen to an Eagles cover band for awhile. That’s Longs Peak in the background. It’s 14,110 ft. I climbed it in 1997. It’s not a terribly difficult hike – just long (16 miles round-trip) with lots of exposure.

Finally, as the blue skies give way to high stratus, and the band moves into the part of the set where they roll out the more obscure tunes, thinking they’ve gotten you hooked with the more known songs, I think the world has stabilized enough to move on. I head up to the supermarket to get some food and then head down to the cheap-ish motel. It’s supposed to be $75 a night but I bargain them to $50 cash per night for three nights. The weather is forecast to be pretty crap for the next two days. There’s no way I’m going over Trail Ridge Road in fog and/or rain and/or wind. If I’m going to ride it, I want to enjoy the spectacular views, and I’m willing to wait until the weather clears to do it.

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