Wednesday September 24, 2014, 74 miles (120 km) – Total so far: 5,433 miles (8,743 km)
In the darkness and silence of pre-dawn, I roll over to turn off my watch alarm. Then I squint into the light of my iPod to check the NWS weather forecast for Trail Ridge Road. I want to see if they have changed their minds about today’s forecast since last night’s suggestion that it was going to be “Clear. Winds west 5-10 mph.” What? I blink and look again. No way. Get out. I look again. Current conditions: 25F, wind calm. Forecast: ‘Clear. Winds light and variable, becoming southwest 5-10mph after 12 pm’. Wow! Patience is not always rewarded, but it was this time. Let’s get this party started!
I ride into town and down the main street at first light. The streets are empty, and all of the shops selling t-shirts, candy, ice cream and western homewares are closed up and dark. The black window fronts underneath the awnings and upper-story windows almost look like black, gaping mouths of a building gently breathing. The streets are so still, you almost expect to hear Wild West theme music playing in the background as a tumbleweed bounces down the street.
There is one lonely soul walking down the sidewalk, though. A guy about my age with short, dark hair sees me and smiles. He is wearing a Safeway uniform and must be on his way to work. He will be my first of many cheerleaders today. He waves and says, “Good luck! Have fun!” When the western side of town is enveloped by 12,000 foot peaks, and a cyclist is heading toward them, there can be no doubt where they are heading. Up and over. I wave back and say, “Thanks!”
I ride up to the intersection with the town bypass and head upstream along Fall River. The valley is deep and narrow. The slopes are covered with pine and dotted with large granite boulders and outcrops. Old, lodge-style motels and sleek, newer cabin developments line the road on both sides, all the way up the narrow valley. From above, the dots of development along the road must look like bacteria growing along a swab line in a petri dish.
We pass by the motel where my parents used to stay when they came out hiking and snowshoeing each year over spring and fall breaks. Nearly everywhere has ‘No Vacancy’ signs illuminated – I won’t have the road to myself today! But the fall colours are spectacular, and if exposure to beautiful scenery may sometimes translate into support for environmental causes and further funding for the NPS, then I’m more than happy to share the road.
The transition from the V-shaped valley we’ve been riding through to the U-shaped valley up ahead is a gorgeous contrast to look for as you close in on the Fall River Entrance Station. The Aspenglen campground sits on a terminal moraine – you pass the entrance road shortly after the fee station. High above, the rising sun strikes the granite on the slopes of Deer Mountain and fires up the rock so that it looks like the hot coals in a campfire. Swaths of aspen glow yellow against the green pines.
Shortly after, our first steeper gradient of the day pulls us up and over the moraine and into Horseshoe Park. The road angles down off an old lake terrace from times long past when a lake settled behind the moraine. Further down, I stop to inhale a couple bananas beside Sheep Lakes. These are kettle lakes – formed when large blocks of ice were partially buried as the glacier receded. As they melted, they formed a depression which eventually filled with water. The glaciers were about 800 feet thick here.
We loop around Horseshoe Park, then climb the lateral moraine on the other side of the valley and on up to Deer Ridge. The road still lies in shadow as the sun rises behind the mass of Deer Mountain. We’ve been climbing continuously since we left downtown Estes, but shortly after attaining Deer Ridge, the road drops down through thick forest to meet Hidden Valley Creek. Off to the right and above is the lateral moraine of the Fall River drainage. If you look at aerial photos, you will see that Hidden Valley Creek used to drop directly into the Fall River valley. However, the lateral moraine now forces the creek along its edge for some distance, before the creek finds a low point in the moraine further down.
The road curves toward high valley walls covered with pine and stands of bright, yellow aspen. Fire in 1915 has resulted in aspen growth whose colours are breathtaking today. Deep down in the willows along the creek, the sound of a bull elk bugling cuts across the air in a shrieking, multi-note call. It is a unique, primal and urgent call bordering on demand and request.
Just after we pass the Hidden Valley Picnic Area road, the climbing begins in earnest. The road tilts upward as it traverses the edge of a steep slope. At the switchback at Many Parks Curve, I stop for a few moments to admire Longs Peak and the brilliant display of aspen on all of the slopes in the distance. There are excellent examples of glacial features to be seen from here. A man comes up to me and says, “It’s a great day to ride. Do you think you will make it to the top?” I tell him, “Yeah, you couldn’t get a more perfect day. I’ll make it. I just don’t know how long it will take.”
Then I’m off again climbing the slope among aspens whose leaves tremble with the gentlest of wind. We round the corner into thicker forest. The views close in, and I just keep pumping as the road pulls us ever upward. It’s not even 8am, and there is already a fair amount of traffic on the road. I just concentrate on the climb and pushing the pedals as smoothly as I can. I know I’m nuts, but I really do love climbing. Not only do I want to climb Trail Ridge today, but I want to do it in a way that I can be proud – steady, sustained, rhythmic and strong. The conditions today mean I have no excuses.
As I push into the steeper grade up to Rainbow Curve, I see a man down on this knees at the edge of the parking lot, leaning forward close to the ground, pointing a very expensive camera… at me! Good lord, surely he could find a more graceful and elegant rider for a shot! He doesn’t even bother to come talk to me when I roll into the parking lot, though. I wish somebody that took my photo would offer to send me a copy – riding alone you don’t get many photos of yourself in action.
Never mind, there is plenty of drama occurring in the parking lot. Two men are arguing about feeding the chipmunks – which you aren’t supposed to do. They are incredibly obnoxious and all over my bike as soon as I stop. One man has brought a bag of peanuts along. The other man is telling him it’s illegal and causes the animals harm. The other man shouts back, “Well, I am a citizen of this country, damn it, and I think I can do what I want.” I’m far enough away I can chuckle out loud at his rationalization for breaking the rules. The argument escalates, and I’m afraid they might actually start fighting, so I roll away just as I hear the woman who had been standing near me say, “Jesus, I’m glad they have signs saying not to feed the MAR-mots, because I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to.” Marmots? If she thinks the chipmunks are marmots, who knows what she’ll think a marmot is, if she sees one up top. My goodness, these people are all driving vehicles, and they will have to pass me ahead!
I leave Rainbow Curve at 10,820 feet. The hard part is yet to come. I’ve ridden to Rainbow Curve before, but the road ahead is new to me on a bike. The gradient kicks it up a bit, and the road surface goes to fresh chip-seal. It is rougher and slower, but thankfully, there is no wind as we climb along between stunted pines growing at treeline. The road drops steeply to big boulders and talus, but without the wind, it isn’t scary. Up and up we go, before I stop for a short break at the Ute Trail parking lot. I pull in next to a vehicle when a man in a pick-up pulls in behind me. I’m afraid he wants to squeeze into the space where I’m standing, so I just peer out over the tundra and don’t look at him. He rolls down his window and says, “Hey tinsel girl, turn around so I can take your photo.” I turn and smile. He then asks the standard six and says he thinks I’m incredibly inspiring. I tell him, “oh no, you are not allowed to say that when I’ve still got six miles to the high point!” I love his term ‘tinsel girl’ – from now on I will call myself Tinselhead.
I push on. The road sweeps along the tundra on a gentle slope. There are no steep drops like there is on Beartooth Pass. The road just climbs at around a 5 percent grade for long, sweeping stretches across the rolling surface of the tundra. There are phenomenal views across the deep and glaciated Forest Canyon to mountains whose faces have been carved into craggy bowls by cirque glaciers. The sky is a brilliant dome of blue. On occasion I get a few minutes of a light wind, but much of the time, my tinsel streamers sit atop the helmet like lifeless pom-poms. What a PERFECT day!
More people take my photo when I stop briefly at Forest Canyon Overlook. One woman asks, “How do you do it? I’m out of breath just walking up here. How can you ride a big bike up the mountain!?” I respond, “Very slowly. I’m only going about 5 mph. And I’ve been riding every day for four months, so I’m a lot fitter than I’d normally be.” She says, “I can’t believe it. It just blows my mind.” This paparazzi and admirer-thing is just a bit crazy today. Verne tells me not to get a big head about it though, because he would prefer it if I would please just concentrate and go faster. Yes sir, Commander.
We continue climbing to the Rock Cut. My breaths are short but steady. One advantage of having asthma is that you are used to being short of breath, so riding at 12,000 feet doesn’t feel more taxing than any other day when your asthma is aggravated. I really can’t tell what proportion of the shallow breathing is due to my asthma or the elevation. However, I’m not wheezing, so all is good. I feel really healthy and really strong today. I’m just cranking it out in the most perfect riding weather imaginable.
We fly down and around the rocky outcrops to Iceberg Pass at 11,824 feet. It’s not all that often on a bike that you DESCEND to a mountain pass. Then it’s a long, steady climb up the sweeping switchbacks laid out along the next slope. The road was built here so that the sun exposure on that south-facing slope would help melt the snow. There is a lot of traffic now coming in waves, but everyone is giving me room. There are tons of people cheering me on as they go by.
Then, not long after the parking area for the Lava Cliffs (formed around 27 million-years-ago), there is a final climb, and we unceremoniously reach the road high point. There is no pull-out, and I don’t even see a sign. I just know from the map, my mileage ride sheet, and the topography, that we are there. I pull over into the road gutter and get a shot. I’ve done it!!! I’m very proud of the way I’ve ridden today and my ride time stats. They are really good for me. I’m so excited to have both Beartooth Pass and Trail Ridge Road under my belt on the same tour.
I fly down to the next overlook. I pull in and a man immediately besieges me and peppers me with a million questions. I don’t even have a chance to ask him where he is vacationing from. I decide if I can answer all of his questions, he can at least take a photo of me. But he doesn’t bother framing up a nice background, he just takes one of me from where he is standing. I’m perfectly framed next to the handicap parking sign – I swear I did not look that incapacitated!
I roll on down to the visitor centre and walk into the dark interior of the gift shop. I look around for a housewarming gift for the folks but end up with only a small wooden ornament. The food choices are pretty minimal, so I just get a Rice Krispie bar and a hot chocolate. When the attendant asks if I want whipped cream on top, I say, “Sure, I think I’ve earned the calories today.” The man next to me snorts and says, “I saw her coming up. She deserves the whole can.” Then he pats me on the shoulder. Sheesh.
As I’m sitting outside looking over the Fall River Valley, trying not to get whipped cream all over my face, a motorcyclist comes up to me and says, “Has anyone ever said to you, ‘you’re my hero’?” I laugh and say, “Not that I can recall.” He proceeds to tell me how he thinks us touring cyclists are the absolute bomb. Yesterday, his group rode over to Estes Park from Grand Lake. The weather was awful and you couldn’t see anything. But he saw a cyclist heading up. He says the poor guy looked absolutely miserable, like every pedal stroke was torture. The wind, rain and fog were no fun, even on the motorcycle. He then says that the weather today is so totally opposite, and they are really enjoying their ride back to Grand Lake. I tell him that I was in Estes yesterday but wanted to wait the weather out. He says, “Well, it was a good choice. You wouldn’t have wanted to be with that guy yesterday. On your way up, you looked like you were working hard, but you also looked like you were having a ball. There’s a couple more cyclists way behind you, but they are going a whole lot slower. One of them’s got a trailer, even.” I thank him for his kind words and then he asks if he can shake my hand. Sure – that is 400 times better than a hug.
Then, the guys and I get the nice long downhill. We sail down the open slopes and lay the bike sideways through the switchback Medicine Bow Curve. We rip through that one! Then it’s down into the Cache La Poudre Valley. The trees grow taller, the tundra recedes, and the mountains seem to grow higher as we lose elevation. Poudre Lake sparkles a deep blue. A small collection of lilypads graces one corner against a backdrop of pines. The nearby parking area is full, and there is some aggro going on as somebody steals someone else’s space. Aspen groves show off their autumn fashion collection – popular colours range from safety yellow to dark oranges to burnt amber. Life is soooo good on the bike today.
Once we cross the Continental Divide (yes, we just descended to another pass), we pick up a headwind. But the downhill is steep enough that it keeps us in the flow as we descend into thick forest. We hit roadworks at Far View Curve. One of the workers calls out as I pass, “Great job!” When I get up to the stop/go guy, he doesn’t hear me approach. He is looking the other way. So I just stop and sit there right next to him. When he turns around and sees me there, he jumps about a foot up and back. “Shit! You scared me lady. I didn’t hear you come up. You can go ahead, just be careful. By the way, I totally love your helmet. Best one I’ve ever seen!” The compliments are never-ending today! But Verne says, “Don’t let it go to your head. We’ve still got many miles to go. Keep pedalling!”
We zoom down through the switchbacks under tall pines and bright aspen. I remember Nigel skipping the tires on our Jeep when he drove through these switchbacks like he was driving a rally car back in 2000. I try to do the tight corners justice – working hard to pick the right line and not lose much speed. The curves are signposted at 15mph, but I can keep it at 25mph with some feathering of the brakes. Yeah, good stuff!
At the bottom, we reach the wide, glaciated Kawuneeche valley. The Never Summer Range runs along the valley to the west with tall, snow-capped volcanic peaks clothed in a dying forest. The pine beetle has killed much of the evergreen growth over here. The wide valley meadows roll out before us, the slopes rise steeply to the east. The headwind picks up to a 5-10 mph resistance that makes the flat valley ride seem more of a chore than the climbing at elevation. We pedal it out and stop for a water and toilet break at the visitor centre before heading on down and over moraines to Grand Lake.
We pedal on into the wind and pass by Shadow Mountain Reservoir and Lake Granby. There has been so much aspen growth over here where the pine beetle-affected trees have been cut down that entire hillsides are on fire with colour. It is so ridiculously colourful that I laugh out loud. Truly ridiculous. And outstandingly brilliant and beautiful.
We fight against the headwind all the way down to Highway 40. Another guy yells out, “HERO!” from his pick-up truck as he goes by. Verne says, “No, don’t get a big head. We are still not there. And you could have gone faster on the uphill.” Yes, sir. The shoulder is wide, the mountains become hills, and the aridity of the area shows itself in cured grasses, clumps of sagebrush and long, brown weeds.
We roll down through the cliffs of the Colorado River past cottonwoods competing with the aspen for the award for ‘most brilliant yellow’. The blue of the river, the yellow of the trees, and the brown of the craggy cliffs, create such vibrancy in an otherwise gentle landscape. I am sooo full of gratitude for the chance to do this ride on the most perfect autumn day that nature could ever put together. I will not ever forget how awesome this day was for the crew and me.
I stop at the hamburger stand on the edge of Hot Sulphur Springs. There are not a lot of food choices in this little town nestled down between the walls of the river valley. I get a rootbeer, burger and caramel shake. They all go down like I haven’t eaten in years. Yum! Then it’s off to the park by the river to find a spot to bask in the sun and settle down for the night.
We pick the spot we think will stay in the sun longest, and then stretch out on the picnic table to relax. I never do see the cyclists who were reportedly behind me. What a tremendous day! I could not have asked for a more fantastic day on tour and better weather to tackle Trail Ridge Road. Yes, I really am the luckiest chick alive to be out here riding and climbing mountains. I wish I could just keep going and going and going. More than ever, these days reassure me that no matter what else I do, or where I go in the future, I am meant to ride a bicycle. For all the days of my life.