Early Season Putt On Trail Ridge Road
So, with all the great weather we saw in Colorado through March and April, the itch to get up into the high country has been pretty severe. Sure, I joined other brave souls in wandering up into the foothills during the months that usually see the roads either still snowy & slick or hampered by gnarly spring storms that make riding even the Peak To Peak something of a gamble, but going too far into the hills was still something less than prudent.
This year was different. With no snow, a very dry spring and temperatures into the 80’s, getting into the high country looked like it was going to happen early this year.
Like any two-wheel junkie, I began making plans. Then, the news broke. Independence Pass was going to open for the year May 11th. Like a skier determined to get first chair at a ski resort, I made the decision to be the first biker across the 12,095-foot pass, and made plans to be there when the road opened at 9am.
Then came May 10th. So did the rain…and the cold. If it was miserable on the Front Range, it surely was treacherous and downright nasty up on the pass. My worst fears were confirmed the next day when there was snow in the high country. Regrettably, the bike stayed in the garage, and the dream of riding the pass the first day it was open was dashed.
Then a bright alternative presented itself. Trail Ridge Road, the paved route through, or rather, over, Rocky Mountain National Park, opened May 14th. TV reports showed people enjoying sunny skies and a clear road. It was the earliest the National Park Service had opened the road in several years. In 2011, Trail Ridge did not open until June 11, and even then there was a ridiculous amount of snow. This was an opportunity to chalk up a great early season ride.
I promptly made plans to ditch any responsible activity and go ride Trail Ridge Road.
The morning of May 17th found me rolling up Highway 93 into Boulder under clear skies with the song of the V-twin in my ears, and in my heart. I was actually looking forward to getting through the People’s Republic of Boulder because there is always lots of co-ed eye candy around, making for a scenic putt through town. I forgot that Colorado University had finished the spring term, and all the little tasties had returned to their homes. No sightseeing this day, just some annoying bridge construction.
I quickly got through Boulder and blasted up Hwy. 36 to Lyons before wheeling west, still on 36, and headed into the higher hills toward Estes Park. The day couldn’t have been any better. It was warm, there was little or no traffic, and the ride was clearing my head, something I was in dire need of. It wasn’t long before I was descending the slight hill into Estes from the Southeast. Taking in the stunning view, I noticed a few clouds hovering over the Continental Divide, but they didn’t appear threatening. I made a quick stop to top off the fuel tank, and it was time to hit Trail Ridge.
Trail Ridge Road is officially US Highway 34, and covers 48 miles between Estes Park and Grand Lake, Colorado. It spans the Continental Divide, and roughly eleven miles of the road are above the 11,50-foot tree line mark. Constructed in 1931, Trail ridge road has a high point of 12, 183 feet, and crosses three passes—Milner Pass at 10, 758 feet, Fall River Pass at 11,796, and Iceberg Pass, which shows no “official” elevation, but sits at about 12,000 feet between the high point of the road and 12,470 Sundance Mountain.
The road takes travelers through three distinct eco systems by climbing better than 4000 feet in only a matter of minutes, starting in Mountain meadows and beaver ponds, through pine forests, and finally into the high alpine tundra, similar to what is found in the high arctic of Alaska. When they built the road, it was designed to keep the grade between 5% and 7%, so there really isn’t any hard climbing, keeping the ride comfortable and allowing for travelers to look around a little bit. This really is a cool-as-hell ride.
I opted to enter the National Park at the Fall River entrance just west of Estes Park. I stopped to pay my $10 fee to enter Rocky Mountain National Park, and asked the ranger on duty about road conditions and if there had been many bikes making the trip in the three days the road had been open.
Only a few bikes, he said, but didn’t know how many had just gone up and back down the same side, or how many made the trip all the way over the top.
“But your timing is good,” he said. “We just opened the road about an hour ago. It was closed because of snow. They had to get it cleared off before we could let anyone up. It’s nice up there now, though.”
I thought about those clouds I saw coming into Estes Park.
I wasn’t in the park long when I came across several cars and a gaggle of people with cameras stopped on the side of the road. They were focused on what looked to be a very large eagle’s nest hanging in a good-sized tree. Apparently there is a mated pair there, and eaglets are in the nest. I didn’t stop, as it was already crowded, and I was on a mission to get to Grand Lake, which was still a good ways away. I pushed onward, and upward.
I stopped at Many Parks Curve, where there is a parking area and a walkway offering a spectacular view of Forest Canyon and further South to flat-topped Longs Peak. It was warm, and beautiful, and I might have been content to hang there for a while, but the road was calling and the high country was waiting. As I rode through the alpine pine forest, which offered awesome views to the north through gaps in the trees, I came across a large red sign that reminded me of where I was.
“WARNING. Be prepared for rapidly changing weather and driving conditions ahead,” it read. I thought about those clouds again.
Just beyond that, there was a sign that announced I was two miles above sea level—10,560 feet. In itself, that’s not too impressive when you consider that Fairplay, Colorado, has a baseball field at the same elevation, but I made a photo with the sign anyway, just because. That’s where I met Royce Rolph and Rod Reid of Longmont, Colorado.
“We’re just out enjoying the ride today,” explained Rolph. “It’s too good a day to pass up.”
This wasn’t the pair’s first time on Trail Ridge.
“We’ve ridden it before,” Said Reid, “but not this early in the year. We don’t know if we’ll go all the way over. We’ll wait and see. It’s just a nice day to ride up here.”
See, mom! There are other people who think like I do!
Continuing up the road, I rounded Rainbow Curve—no, I don’t know why it’s called that—and found myself above tree line. The wind found me, too. About that time, I realized I’d seen a couple big pieces of snow removal equipment parked on the side of the road—the real big stuff—plows with five or six foot tires, 6-foot snow blades, monster snow blowers—stuff like that. I remembered the ranger telling me the road had been closed earlier in the day due to snow, just as I passed monster snowdrifts towering over the road—twelve or fifteen feet in places.
I didn’t have to remember those clouds from earlier in the day. As I looked out on the Never Summer Range, ugly winter storm clouds were rolling in, obscuring every one of the seventeen named peaks that make up the range. I was riding right into that front. The temperature dropped, and the wind picked up. The bright red sign warning of the changing weather conditions flashed in my head.
Despite the deteriorating weather, the scenery entranced me as I rode along the top of the Rockies. The road sweeps along the mountainsides, becoming part of the scenery and making you part of it, rather than pushing you to it and dominating it.
Rolling along at about 12,000 feet on my way to the highest point on the road, Rolph and Reid passed by me going the other way. They had obviously made up their minds about how far they were going. We exchanged quick waves as they headed back to Estes Park and off Trail Ridge Road. I continued on, into the storm.
At the 12,183-foot high point of the road it was clear I was into winter riding, as snow replaced the light rain I’d encountered. The Alpine visitor center was still closed, so stopping for a few wasn’t really an option. Starting down the West end of the road I crossed Fall river Pass, and then rounded Medicine Bow Curve. Coming out of the curve, I saw it. It was winter.
I’d ridden right into a snow squall that looked like mid-winter. The snow was blowing sideways, clearly visible against the dark green of the pine trees. I asked my self just what the hell I was doing up there right then, but the thought passed, as there was nothing else to do but get down off the mountain. Plus, the conditions, while certainly less than comfortable, were not really all that bad.
Dropping in elevation, the snow turned to an icy cold rain, which made the switchbacks coming off Milner Pass a little interesting and slower than I’d have liked. Dropping further, along the beaver ponds in what’s called the Kawuneeche Valley, it turned into just plain ol’ mountain rain, and I twisted the throttle, eager to get into grand Lake & warm up a little.
Motoring along the long straight section that leads out of the park, I started getting lost in the landscape again. The valley was a lush green; with the low-hanging clouds creating an almost surreal feel. Just north of the Onahu Trailhead I spotted a large cow moose in the distance. I didn’t see any babies, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. Moose populate the entire valley, as the habitat is perfect for them.
Finally, I was out of the park, and into another heavy downpour. I pulled into grand lake wet and chilled, but feeling somehow satisfied.
After a coffee, I got back on the road, heading south on US 34 past Shadow Mountain Lake and Lake Granby. The rain had stopped, and the ride was actually pretty nice. The only downer: bare and dead hillsides where the pine beetle infestation had ravaged the Fraser Valley.
Before long, I was through Winter Park, over all 11,315 feet of Berthoud Pass, and was roaring along I-70 heading back into Denver. I felt the ugly confines of the city creeping up on me the closer I got to town, but shook it off thinking about where I’d just been.
It had been a damned good day. I had shirked any responsible activities, spent all day on a motorcycle having a great ride, been in all the weather extremes Colorado has to offer, ridden one of the most spectacular roads in the West, and had made it over Trail Ridge Road earlier in the year than I ever had. On a bike, no less.
To make it all the better, Trail ridge closed several more times before Memorial Day, and was closed for the first part of the holiday weekend.
Not that I’m keeping score, but WTF, that’s pretty cool.
I am bummed though. I didn’t get to be the first bike over Independence Pass this year. No “first chair” for me. Ahh, who cares? It’s all about the ride, right?