By Bill Plock
Most towns in the Colorado Rockies began as mining camps and supply depots. 303 visited some of the most rugged and historical towns in Colorado looking for cycling and recreational opportunities—especially ones maybe not as well known and not on the I-70 corridor. Our journey originally started in Buena Vista. Here is link to part one of our story ending in Lake City: Part One Article
Part two began with a climb out of Lake City over notorious Slumgullion pass. It’s not only home to the Alfred Packer grisly tale of cannibalism (did you know he missed hanging by death on a technicality, ended up in jail in Canon City and was released in the early 1900’s dying a confirmed vegetarian?), but Slumgullion pass is the steepest continuously paved road in Colorado averaging a 9% grade. No wonder it was tempting to break out the road bike and try this challenge!
Once over the top you find yourself in a very high alpine, fairly flat expanse of land at the headwaters of one of America’s most famous rivers—the Rio Grande. There are miles of gravel roads sprawling in several directions and begging for adventure in one of the most sparse parts of Colorado. A few miles down the pass on highway 149 you will see a turnout out to North Creek Falls. You will be shocked. About a tenth of a mile off the highway lies an enormous water fall. There is no indication falls could even be possible. It’s like a some giant put a footprint in this otherwise wide open flat land and a meandering creek suddenly creates one of the most scenic falls in Colorado.
Highway 149 would be a great road ride. The shoulders are limited but in non-covid mountain traffic it would feel fairly safe and the scenery is spectacular. It meanders like the river with amazing views and leads to one of the to the last silver boomtowns in Colorado—Creede.
In 1891 Creede’s population went from basically zero to 10,000 people in little over a year. Famous folks like Bat Masterson, Wyatt Erp, Poker Alice, Soapy Smith, Bob Ford (who killed Jesse James) swarmed into Creede. It is commonly thought to be one of the wildest of the wild west towns. Like most silver towns the party ended in the mid-1890’s but Creede held on, barely at times, because of its rich, concentrated deposits and a few upswings in the lead and sliver markets. The last mine there permanently closed in 1985. It was then that the city started to cultivate other things and strangely became known for its now nationally recognized live theater that has cultivated some well known actors. Hunting and fishing are big draws and there are several good restaurants and a few galleries and a great mining museum.
From there we followed the flow of the Rio Grande south to South Fork and the base of Wolf Creek pass. The entire area on Highway 149 would be wonderful roads to explore on all kinds of bikes. Wolf Creek pass, on the East side at least, has new pavement, and was a tempting ascent. But, with narrow shoulders in places, traffic felt a little too heavy to attempt it on this trip. Wolf Creek will definitely be on the be back list, especially in the fall.
In consolation, we rode in the San Luis valley towards the Great Sand Dunes. It felt like riding in a scene from Breaking Bad as tumbleweeds bounced down the seemingly infinite dirt and paved roads that criss-cross this massive, dry agricultural valley rimmed by the San Juan and Sangre De Cristo mountains. It’s a lonely and humbling place to pedal. The mountains take forever to come into focus and finally those small, tan hazy patches emerge as giant piles of sand. Instead of hills, you navigate persistent winds with lots of time to daydream.
With a short stop for pizza in the San Luis Valley hub town of Alamosa, it was time to head to the front range over La Veta pass. Alamosa is an interesting place that feels sort of big (about 10,000 people) and like it’s trying to be either touristy or business-like as a distribution point and home of Adams State University. At the train station you will find some vintage passenger trains that until just recently provided scenic rides to La Veta.
La Veta pass is the highest elevation in North America with active standard gauge freight trains. At about 9,800 feet and connects the San Luis valley with the front range and I-25 corridor at Walsenburg. On the east side of the pass, lies the small town of La Veta which sits at the north end of a spectacular valley and canyon that leads south to Stonewall, Cuchara and Trinidad. This is home to the scenic Stonewall Century road ride and the Pony Xpress Gravel 160. It is incredibly beautiful, and more so, incredibly quiet, and a place to come back and ride for sure.
From there we took the sleepy road of highway 69 northwest from Walsenburg to Westcliffe. Yet another awesome road ride with monstrous views of the East slope of the Sangre de Cristo’s. Westcliffe lies in the valley between the Wet Mountains and the Sangre’s. Its very agriculture with some potential great gravel rides. Westcliffe, yet another silver born town has become a popular tourist destination along with an economy built on cattle. It has an attractive downtown with artisan shops and restaurants and big views. It is also a gateway to the Arkansas River valley with highway 69 leading to highway 50 intersecting east of Salida. But there is also a much less traveled dirt road that connects to Canon City. This road would be a great gravel ride and could be combined with other dirt roads in the De Weese Plateau for some gravel adventures.
Canon City, gateway to the Royal Gorge and to the gold mines of Cripple Creek and Victor, is also home to largest prison population in the United States and has an interesting vibe. A vibe of adventure combined with a transient feel no doubt related to the some 9,000 inmates in the area. But its downtown has some impressive buildings and feels like an opportunity to regain its glory days as it holds on to some of its charm. The recreation opportunities are phenomenal. The two dirt roads connecting to Cripple Creek and Victor would be amazing gravel rides and offer some great hiking and technical climbing. Just be careful of some the single car passages that have some serious drops of over a thousand feet. The road to Cripple Creek is called Shelf Road for a reason.
We took the road that was an old railroad bed to Victor called Phantom Canyon. It climbed about 3,000 feet over 18 miles and hugged narrow canyons with many twists. It had a few tunnels made for one car but otherwise was very navigable. Victor is alive and well and on the upswing it seems. It has a surprisingly vibrant downtown complete with a year round hotel (with the oldest bird cage elevator in Colorado), an outdoor hockey rink (think Mystery Alaska complete with a “sunday game”) and soccer camp converted from a 100 year old school building. In Victor there are countless gravel roads leading to the old mines and to Colorado Springs. Just north is the famous gold town of Cripple Creek and home to some of the most lucrative gold mines in history—and still mining. But there is also gambling, so that authentic charm is gone. Go to Victor if you want the feel of an old gold town and to see how an old mining town is rebuilding its glory days.
With that, the journey ended in Colorado Springs but in reflection, it seems all of the places we visited are as equally similar as they are different. While all were born from mining some like Crested Butte have embraced a much different, affluent culture like skiing. Others like Lake City have welcomed the seasonal traveler who lives in their RV’s and loves to explore with their ATV’s.
With COVID it feels like all of these towns might enjoy a resurgence as a haven for a simpler life. In every place we visited, everyone said the same thing—that they have seen a rapid rise in real estate interest. Based on license plates, trailers and RV’s, the great American road trip is alive and well!
The Rocky Mountains are a great playground for all types of biking, good luck choosing which type to explore, but its safe to say there are no shortage of opportunities. Our best advice, put the map down and go explore……