Red Rocks Park Loop
Distance: 42 miles; several variations possible
Elevation gain: 2,500 feet
Surface: 50% to 75% trails; balance on streets
Route finding: Moderate. Use caution through the Golden Triangle.
Traffic: Moderate on weekends. Use caution along S. Golden Rd., Golden West Blvd., and 20th Ave. at Lena Gulch.
Direction: Clockwise (south, then west up Bear Creek) makes for a steep climb into Red Rocks. Counterclockwise (west from Confluence Park) makes for a fabulous descent into Bear Creek if you don’t want a big climb up to Red Rocks.
This is one of the best longer rides in the greater metro area. Using mostly streets or as much as 75 percent trails, it takes in Washington Park and the Bear Creek system to launch you west to Red Rocks Park, one of the great destinations in the area. There, you climb steeply through slabs of Fountain Formation sandstone, a stunning backdrop to your ride that helps distract you from the steep, but mercifully short, climb. The City of Denver bought the property in 1926, developed it with help from the Civilian Conservation Corp during the Great Depression, and dedicated the amphitheater in 1941. It now serves as a spectacular site for rock concerts and a famous Easter Sunday sunrise service. Leaving Red Rocks, you scoot through the fossilized bones and footprints of Dinosaur Ridge just east of the park along Alameda Parkway, closed to automobile traffic between Hwy. 93 and Rooney Road. After joining the C-470 Trail, the ride peaks out near Green Mountain, descends to the 6th Avenue Trail, then works its way back to Denver on surface streets. If you ride this clockwise and skip the climb into Red Rocks, the descent on Rooney Road or the C-470 Trail is fast, smooth, and not to be missed.
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If you plan to ride the trails as much as possible, start at Confluence Park. Ride south 8.5 miles on the Platte River Trail to the confluence with Bear Creek. Just before the confluence you will pass under Hampden Avenue (U.S. 285). Go west along the winding Bear Creek Trail 4.2 miles to and through Bear Creek Park. For everyone else, start at Speer Boulevard and Downing Street. Ride south through Washington Park on Marion Parkway and continue south on Franklin Street to Dartmouth Avenue. Go west to cross Santa Fe Drive, using the Dartmouth Dodge to avoid the worst of the traffic there. (See the supplemental map for details.) Climb to Loretto Heights, as in the Lakewood Loop, and work your way south and west around the Colorado Heights University campus on Irving Street and Girard Avenue to Dartmouth. Continue west across Sheridan to join the Bear Creek Trail at Webster Street. You’ll have a great ride up to CHU and avoid most of the unpleasant and crowded areas along the early sections of the Bear Creek Trail.
Whether you've followed the trails or streets, the directions converge on the Bear Creek Trail at Webster and Dartmouth. Go west up the Bear Creek drainage, one of several major tributaries of the Platte River that tumble out of the mountains (the others are Clear Creek, Boulder Creek, and the Cache La Poudre). The trail snakes in and out of towering cottonwoods and makes for a nice ride, dappled with sunlight and cooler temperatures in the shade, but it’s not a great place to go fast (especially on weekends when the trail is more crowded), as there are a number of sharp, dangerous corners. There are several sublime stretches, including a short stint through a meadow with seasonal wildflowers and a thriving colony of prairie dogs. Be sure to whistle at them as you cruise by.
After 3 miles the trail spits you out near the Fox Hollow Golf Course. Take the road (Fox Hollow Lane) or the wide sidewalk, watching out for errant golf balls, drunken cart drivers, and wandering golfers. Wave to the bronze golfers (literally so, as opposed to the sun-bronzed golfers all around you) on your left as you follow the service road up the creek. After a short bit (around 1,000 feet), turn right (the sign says Bicycles and Service Vehicles Only) and start climbing. You are headed up the northeast face of the Bear Creek Dam. There is water for golfers toward the top of the climb near a sand bunker. Grab some if you are desperate. Enter the park proper at the top of the dam and follow the park road on a fast descent toward Bear Creek Lake. A right, a left, and a right will bring you to the entrance to the park at the northwest corner, near the intersection of Morrison Road and C-470. Pause here to reconnoiter. Decide if you want to ride up through Red Rocks or take the slightly easier C-470 Trail. To access the trail, ride .25 mile west on the trail leaving the park. Cross busy Morrison Road at the intersection and head north on Rooney Road. The C-470 Trail starts a few hundred feet up Rooney. To ride into Red Rocks, continue west on the trail, keeping Bear Creek to your left.
You’ll soon come to the town of Morrison, notable for brunching weekend crowds and beer-drinking motorcycle heads, and a convenient place to grab a coffee or snack. When you’re ready, leave the path and ride west along Morrison Road about .5 mile to Entrance #3 to Red Rocks. The gentle climb out of Morrison suddenly turns vicious. Turn right on the park road, then left onto Ship Rock Road, and climb up, up, up to the Upper South Parking Lot. This will connect to Trading Post Road (turn left) and in turn to Alameda Parkway (go right). A slightly easier ascent ignores Ship Rock Road and continues on Red Rocks Park Road to join Trading Post (a left). Even on concert days you are free to cycle in and out of the park with only a slight risk of running into a mushroom-buzzed Phish fan. As you suffer through the climb, distract yourself by trying to guess which of the many is Ship Rock.
From your high point in the park, make a fast decent on marginal pavement to Red Rocks Entrance #1 on Alameda Parkway. Go straight across the highway (Hogback Road), staying on the parkway. This next stretch through Dinosaur Ridge to Rooney on the east is closed to auto traffic, which makes it one of the nicer parts of the ride. Climb
up through Dinosaur Ridge, famous for the 19th-century discovery of late-Jurassic-era dinosaurs. We’re talking really big animals here, and there are a number of exhibits and panels scattered along both sides of the ridge. Some caution is required on the descent, since the visitors working their way up the east side are not necessarily expecting you to be descending at 35 mph. From here, go left on Rooney or rejoin the C-470 Trail just east of C-470. Turn right from Alameda to access the C-470 Trail. William F. Hayden Green Mountain Park is on your right, the Hogback on your left, and a dirt bike park in between. Climb up to and then under I-70, then descend to Colfax Avenue on Rooney. At Colfax turn right, then immediately left after 100 feet (alternatively, cross with the light and jump on the sidewalk), and follow the Golden Bike Path in a northerly direction, riding along next to C-470 until it crosses (at a light) 6th Avenue. The path narrows but roughly follows Johnson Road to its intersection with 10th Avenue. On a low traffic day, riding right down Johnson is a great alternative.
At 10th, go east to McIntyre Street (it is one way against you, but there's a designated bike lane), north to Golden Road, then work your way through or around the small shopping center, using the Golden Triangle map and the Lookout Mountain Loop for detailed instructions. Once past the shopping center, you have a long and fast cruise back to Denver on 20th Avenue. The skyline views coming into the city are fabulous. Eastbound, there’s a bike lane (or an adequate width) the length of 20th, save for one steep stretch between Willow Lane and Union Drive where the road narrows, drops precipitously, then climbs vertically 100 feet up the other side of Lena Gulch. In its infinite wisdom, the city has replaced the bike lane with what are euphemistically called “traffic calming” medians, theoretically designed to horizontally deflect traffic and slow the cars coming down both steep sides of Lena Gulch. For cyclists, there’s nothing calm about this stretch. Instead, it forces us to duel mano a mano with the cars in a narrow band of road at high speed (going down) or ultraslow speed (going up the other side). This is a good place to assert your right to the entire lane. Just before you come to Sloan’s Lake, turn right on Depew Street and go south to 17th Avenue, then continue east. Seventeenth will bring you directly back to Invesco Field. Go either way around it. Finish the ride as you need to, along the Platte River or Cherry Creek trails.