Riding Through Autumn Splendor in Colorado’s High Country
by Frosty Wooldridge
photography by Gary Hall
Leaning into the curves, our bikes labored at the higher elevations. On our right, a gray, broken rock wall whizzed past just off our rear-view mirrors. With a lean to the left, the steaming vapors rising off Clear Creek proved the temperatures had dropped in the last few miles. Behind us, deep green pines dotted the gray rock while aspen trees fluttered their bright leaves near the river. Within seconds, the road vanished in the mirrors. But up ahead, around the next bend in the snaking road, a brilliant yellow gold explosion erupted from a grove of aspens standing near the water. Framed by evergreens and backlit by the sun, autumn’s tapestry began its assault on the Colorado High Country.
Gary and I throttled our machines up Clear Creek Canyon on Route 6 west of Golden. At first, warm temperatures prevailed the third week of September, but they steadily dropped with each 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The only window for “peak season” for a color tour in Colorado is September 20th through October 5th. It happens so fast and so powerfully—then “poof,” it’s gone.
Out of the traffic of the city, the road magically turns into a rollercoaster racing along the canyon. At no point during the next 18 miles will a rider hit a hundred yards of straight road. Jumbled, broken rock walls surrender to a mantle of evergreens that invade the mountains all the way down to the stream bed. Because it’s narrow and drops several thousand feet from Idaho Springs, the river exploded into whitewater rage on the south side of the road.
After the initial blast of golden leaves, we noticed sumac turning bright red in patches along the river. At that point, nature had added clear water, gray rock, green needles, golden leaves, red sumac and a sky the color of robin’s eggs. We hugged the saddles and tightened our grips as we wound our way into an amazing tour while riding through autumn splendor. By the time we reached the 1800s mining town of Idaho Springs, whole stretches of aspen trees looked like someone had taken a large paintbrush and made errant strokes across the mountain flanks.
After a quick ride on Interstate 70, Idaho Springs reveals the Argo Gold Mine with its tours into history. The guides paint a picture of hardship, courage and old-fashioned nation building. Throughout the town, walled-in by 10,000-foot mountain peaks, we were treated to homes built 150 years ago and still being occupied by mountain residents.
Back on I-70 for 10 miles, we pointed the bikes up Route 40 heading over 11,000-foot Berthoud Pass. Just before the road begins climbing steeply, Empire offers one of the best breakfast restaurants around. Walk into the 1800s decor of Jenny’s Restaurant for a fantastic breakfast or dinner that’s better than home cooking.
After we had filled our bellies, we swung into our saddles to fill our eyes. Heading toward the pass like a couple of desperadoes escaping a posse, we stole glances at the mountains covered in gold that would overflow any bank vault. Berthoud Pass is one long, curling, gear-changing two-lane road featuring extravagant views, but no guardrails. The road requires 100 percent concentration. To the south, 13,000-foot basins across the valley stand up above the treeline and threatened to swallow our vision. At the top, we watched a golden speckled landscape across the Fraser Valley. Again, old man autumn had worked more of his magical golden strokes throughout the dark green mantle of pines. A full onslaught of Jack Frost had changed the High Country into a tapestry of golden banners fluttering in the breeze.
Two miles before Winter Park, and directly across from the ski area, is a dirt road marked Corona Pass. Take it! It will carry you to the Crown At The Top Of The World, where the old Moffat Railroad once crossed over the mountains. It’s a dirt road easily navigated by touring riders. We traveled through a canopy of golden leaves literally raining down on us. So many leaves fell into the pine trees that they looked as if someone had decorated them with golden lights in their green needles. At the top, it is simply breathtaking! Shimmering lakes stand below while old buildings from a defunct hotel await history seekers.
Once onto the 9,100-foot-high valley floor, we raced toward Grandby along the Fraser River. Campgrounds and river spots allow riders indescribably beautiful spots to enjoy the scenery. The river was a conveyor belt for millions of golden leaves already fallen.
Route 40 continues through Byers Canyon. It’s a gnarly, wild-mouse sort of canyon with the Colorado River raging below. We clamped our legs down on the saddles and throttled through the curves. We cruised along the river, dashed with gold and red leaves all the way to Kremmling. That town sits in the middle of a wide valley where the mountain peaks stand in the distance. Golden leaf changes shimmered ahead of us. We throttled the bikes toward Rabbit Ears Pass.
Just before climbing, a rock formation looking very much like two rabbit ears stands high on the mountain. Within moments, we swooped down into a deep valley filled with thousands of sheep. Once out of that dive, the road climbed past a lake and started spaghetti turns through trembling golden aspen garnished with topaz, bronze and burgundy ground cover.
Once over the pass, the mystic Yampa Valley broke open before us. Quaint ranches replete with sheep, horses, cows and hay crops stretched for miles. We rode our bikes through Steamboat Springs. For weary riders who want a soothing experience, ask directions and ride up to Strawberry Hot Springs on the side of a mountain.
Instead of heading out onto the flat plains toward Craig, we backtracked five miles east to Route 131 south to Oak Creek. That route carried us through farmland and Yampa and Topanas and part of McCoy, where we took a dirt road west along the Colorado River. The only sign (and it’s small), says “Burns.” This turned out to be a colorful extravaganza with the winding Colorado River mingling with an array of golden aspen, pink weeds, red sumac and raging whitewater topped off in sparkling diamonds by the sun.
Gary and I agreed that was the prettiest hour of riding we had enjoyed in a long time. We saw deer, antelope, hawks, blue birds and no humans! We camped on the river with the rushing waters bringing music to our campfire.
A quick ride west on I-70 brought us to a turn south on Route 82 that soon branched off onto Route 133. That road curled through a deep canyon along the Crystal River into Redstone, where anyone can stay the night at the Redstone Castle. Nearby is an artist colony of sculptors and painters. But the most beautiful tapestry startled us around every curve in the road.
We crossed over 8,755-foot McClure Pass, which dropped into a valley. A black-and-white sign on the left side of the road read “Kebler Pass,” where we turned and crossed over a perfect trout-fishing river.
Kebler Pass also carried us through a tunnel of golden leaves and white trunks dotted with evergreens and red sumac. We passed some cliff walls that rivaled El Capitan in Yosemite. Again, we were forced to ride slowly through endless curves besieged by a carpet of golden leaves that had already fallen. At 9,998 feet, we stopped at Irwin’s Cemetery for a visit to some interesting grave markers from the 1800s. Soon after we stopped to camp at Lost Lake. There were only 12 spots, so it was important to get there early in the day, but anyone can camp in the wilds near the park. Lost Lake was surrounded by aspen which blanketed the flank of a twin-peaked mountain. For fisherman, the key words are “rainbow trout”!
On the other side, Crested Butte awaits mountain riders for gas, food and breakfast. We picked up Route 135 toward Gunnison, where we took Route 50 west to Black Canyon National Monument. It’s a miniature Grand Canyon in black, and well worth a stop. In Montrose, we headed south on Route 550, known as the Million Dollar Highway. Some believe that a million dollars in gold lies beneath the road; for others, million-dollar views enrich any traveler’s eyes with astounding beauty.
Riding into Ouray was like riding into a quaint village in Switzerland. Vertical black walls rise upward thousands of feet from the town limit. Hot springs, box canyon waterfalls and 1880s buildings await riders who visit this amazing little town.
Heading toward Red Mountain Pass must be the most incredible segment of the tour. It was like riding into a black, deeply vacant canyon of unimaginable beauty. Gary eased his 1100 Shadow into sweeping turns. I followed him with pure delight in every curve. Brilliant golden leaves from aspen groves, backlit by the sun, bedazzled us from their perches along the canyon wall. Below the torturous road with no guardrails, a 1,000-foot drop led to a whitewater raging San Miguel River. It was narrow, steep, dangerous and beautiful all in one.
At the top, Kodachrome reds, browns, tans and topaz sand-covered mountain peaks mingled with the golden aspen leaves and evergreens. Pour a few white clouds into the blue sky, and, voilà, visual excitement greeted us at every curve in the road. We rode along that road with our mouths agape! At the top, a big black bear romped across the road and vanished into the woods before Gary could get his camera trained on him.
On the backside of Red Mountain Pass, we swooped down the winding, golden-garnished road into the old mining town of Silverton. It’s worth a stop into the museum and shops. Everywhere above the town, golden aspen light up the slopes.
Continuing toward Durango, Molas Pass gave our bikes a good workout with curves and an altitude of nearly 11,000 feet. We passed many defunct mining sheds and buildings rusting to pieces in that historic mining area. At the top, a fantastic lake greeted us with an amazing array of colors surrounding its shores. Higher up, gargantuan mountain peaks punctured the sky. Time to camp!
The next day, on our ride over the pass, a brisk wind blew aspen leaves into a golden blizzard that threatened to eclipse any ticker tape parade New York City has ever seen. Gary danced around with his camera trying to capture some shots.
We continued into Durango for what might be one of the prettiest experiences of the Old West: The Durango/Silverton narrow-gauge steam train ride along the beautiful Animas River. Just park the bikes in the parking lot and grab a ticket to yesterday while gold in “them thar hills” renews itself every autumn. The train offers one of the most beautiful color tours in the West with a touch of the past.
Riding out of Durango, we headed east on Route 160. As Gary powered up another mountain pass, I sat back in the saddle watching him lean into each curve. Surrounding both our bikes, a brilliant world of dazzling, trembling, golden leaves continued delighting us. In our rear-view mirrors, miles of memories still sizzled in our minds.
What was the most exciting part of the tour? We couldn’t resolve that question, so we decided to ride it again next year to see what we had missed! In any event, it was a spine-tingling, visual feast to ride through autumn splendor.
[From the May 2006 issue of Rider]