Over Independence Pass For Ice Cream
Who the hell dialed up the 100-degree heat?
With no air conditioning in my house, to cool off I’m pretty much left with only one option: head for the high country where the air is thinner and a little cooler. That’s the perfect solution—a nice mountain ride to solve my overheating ills.
It occurred to me that I had planned to be the first rider over Independence Pass this year, before Mother Nature derailed that plan with a little rain and snow the day the pass opened for the year. At 12,095 feet, Independence was sure to be cooler than the city, as would the ride up. Then it dawned on me that a little downhill putt off the pass would put me in Aspen, where I happen to know of a little joint that sells ice cream. Thus the plan was hatched; I would ride to Aspen over Independence Pass and eat ice cream with the beautiful people, staying cool in the process.
I wasted little time getting on I-70 heading west into the high country. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, but it was clearly heating up quickly. I twisted the throttle—I couldn’t get to the cool air quickly enough. I slowed down a little on Floyd Hill and through Idaho Springs, but the rest of the way to the tunnels was a head down, ears-pinned-back joyride.
It wasn’t until coming out of the Eisenhower tunnel into Summit County that I hit noticeably cooler air. Slowing down wasn’t really in the cards since I wanted to get off the freeway, so I dared the cops and tempted fate by hammering through to the Copper Mountain exit. There, Colorado Highway 91 took me up and over 11,318-foot Freemont Pass, past the Climax Mine at the summit, and down into Leadville.
It was definitely cooler up here. A stiff cool Southerly breeze coupled with the elevation (most of Lake Country is above 10,000 feet) to give me the cool-down I was in search of. Rolling through Leadville I spotted the Silver Dollar Saloon, which sported an invitation to bikers, complete with cheap refreshments. Looking back on it, that may have been a better way to spend the day…in an air-conditioned saloon lookin’ for dancin’ girls. Instead, I stopped at the gas station to top off before resuming my quest for ice cream with the beautiful people.
I finally got to Twin Lakes and turned onto Colorado 82, also known as Independence Pass Road. It was beautiful. Clear skies, sparkling blue water, and shade to park under—it was damn near perfect. Again, looking back, maybe I should have stayed there. But no, there was ice cream and beautiful people on the other side of the hill. I was a man obsessed.
The run up the east side of Independence Pass is a long, gentle climb until you reach the foot of the pass proper. Highway 82 runs along the North Fork of Lake Creek from Twin Lakes all the way to where the road begins an earnest climb. Running between big peaks like Bull Hill (13, 713 ft.), Twin peaks (13,313 ft.), Rinker Peak (13,783 ft.)La Plata Peak (14,336 ft.) and Star Mountain (12,941 ft.), this is truly a mountain road. Lined by thick groves of aspen and later pine and Gamble Oak, even in this drought year, the valley is a lush green. Beaver dams created a meandering path for the North Fork higher up in the broader valley before the first hairpin turn that signals the start of the climb up this monster pass.
Independence Pass is the second highest paved pass in Colorado. Only the high point of trail Ridge Road at 12, 183 feet counts as a higher pass. Argentine Pass (13, 132ft.) and Mosquito Pass (13,186 ft.) are both considerably higher, but are generally four-wheel drive only. So, good luck making it on a road bike.
Independence’s Eastern approach, even in the climb, is not too tough. With only three pretty tight—ok, really tight—hairpins as the trickiest part of the ascent.
A couple hundred yards from the summit I met a mustachioed guy riding a unicycle down the pass. He looked like he may have ridden up, too. I have to admit surprise, but all I could think was, “Why?”
Once at the top, the views are incredible. A short walk on the path over looking the south/east side of the pass is truly humbling and awe-inspiring.
After trying to round up someone to shoot a photo of me at the top--there were surprisingly few people around--I headed downhill into Aspen.
This is where the road is a little nastier. No only is there more traffic, including an insanely stupid number of bicyclists—none of those drivers are really paying attention. Trust me, this is one pass where paying attention counts. It is narrow, and full of twisties. In places it is wide enough for only one vehicle to pass. The scenery is spectacular, too, with distractions all around. Combined, all this makes for an exciting and challenging ride.
The road was originally built in 1881 and named Hunter Pass. The old stage road can still be seen from several places along the pass. The road was built to service the now ghost town of Independence three miles west of the summit. It can be accessed from the road. Independence was home to about 2,000 people who came to work mining claims in the area between 1880 and 1883. When the gold boom went bust, most people moved on to pursue other claims or moved to the friendlier climate of Aspen and become the forbearers of the beautiful people. The final resident of Independence was a. J.R. Williams, who was one of the original miners. He maintained a stamp mill in Independence until 1920.
The pass road as it exists today was constructed in 1927, and was paved for the first time in 1967. It’s now one of Colorado’s 25 Scenic Byways, called Top of the Rockies, and is designated by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation as a National Scenic Byway. In short, this is a nice ride.
When I rolled into Aspen I quickly found a parking spot. The horrors of parking here are less for motorcycles because this town actually reserves motorcycle parking on the ends of each block in the “downtown” area at no charge. As long as local remember to park their scooters properly, fining a place to park a big bike isn’t too tough.
It seemed the town was empty. It was warm, but not the kind of heat I’d come here to escape. Certainly the pampered residents weren’t afraid of this weather. I shrugged it off to wander around a bit. Eventually, I found all the residents of Aspen, including the beautiful people. They were in a huge series of tents that covered a vast park. I’d found the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, where apparently, pretty much everyone was getting buzzed and eating.
Knowing I couldn’t afford to join them, and that my jeans and black t-shirt didn’t meet the dress code, I opted for a quick bite somewhere else. I checked several places out, and finally settle on a place on the walking mall for a burger and beer. It was pricey, but I was hungry. I beer was cold, and the burger was average or less. Fine dining is wasn’t. I got the bill and paid for my $48 burger and $12 beer.
Then, I kicked myself for wasting that money when all I really came for was a little ice cream. So I skulked my way to the ice cream joint.
Standing in line I saw that there were, in fact a few beautiful people around. This would be a fine way to finish my stay in Aspen.
I stayed simple, getting just a plain ol’ chocolate ice cream cone. It was delicious, and I decided to enjoy it on the public seating in front of the store where so many other were doing the same thing.
I found place to park my butt and sat. Almost immediately, all the people on either side of me hurriedly got up and wandered off to where ever. I sat there in the center of the bench, alone with my ice cream. There were no beautiful people. Only a few tourists who gave me a wide berth. A dog did wander up to say hello, but he just wanted my ice cream. Sitting there, I decided, “Fuck ‘em.” I had the bench, and I was staying put. So I did.
About the time I was finishing my cone, a bunch of folks from the wine party began passing by. Here came the beautiful people. One group of women, clearly privileged, or at least acting that way stopped in front of me. Tipsy, they played around, giggled and did what drunken 20-somethng women do. I watched, appreciating the way their sun dresses moved with them. It was a good little show. I made eye contact with one gal, who gave me a sly, flirtatious smile as the four of them darted across the street in pursuit of something.
Wishing I was younger and had more time, I got up and walked back to my bike. My time in Aspen with the beautiful people was done for the day. My bike roared to life and I pointed it back toward Independence Pass. I would go back to the big city the way I’d come.
I reveled in the ride over the pass again. The weather was still great, and I was in the wind. I started seeing more bikes on the road. Everyone waved. Too many waved. But, it dawned on me that I’d finally run into the real beautiful people—other bikers out enjoying their freedom. I started waving back. I kind of made me one of the beautiful people. Plus, I’d had my ice cream and was in a good mood. I kept that attitude and enjoyed every mile of the ride home, where it had indeed been a scorcher. But not for me though. I beat the heat, saw the beautiful people and put quality miles under the rubber. It had been a real good day.