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Guide to cycling 1,000 km of climbs and descents through Colorado, USA

Cycling independently through small towns and vast national parks in the USA offers a truly unique way to experience a destination.  From the amazing people we met, the thrill of reaching the top of the summit and the excitement of the quick descent to finding the best Philly cheese steak in the middle of nowhere (Herk’s Cafe in Rico, we salute you) – there is no better way to explore the great outdoors.

I only wish I had discovered the joy of ‘slow travel‘ years ago.

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Two woman and 40 kg stuffed compactly into our panniers!

In August 2012, my friend Sandra and I hit the road and cycled part of the ‘Great Parks South‘ route, which covers 695 miles from Steamboat Springs, CO to Durango, CO. With only 2 weeks available, we cycled from Idaho Springs, CO to Cortez, CO (just outside Durango).

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Adventure Cycling Association’s extensive route map

Flying into Denver, we cycled over 1,000 km experiencing challenging climbs and scenic descents through local treasures such as the Rocky Mountain National Park, Frisco, Breckenridge, Salida, Gunnison, Montrose, Telluride, Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez and more!

Distances covered:  Starting – end point / distance cycled / altitude (high – low)

  1. Idaho Springs – Black Hawk / 40 km / 1100 m – 550 m
  2. Black Hawk – Rocky Mountain NP / 80 km / 1000 m -500 m
  3. Rocky Mountain NP – Grand Lake / 80 km / 1200 m
  4. Lake Granby – Empire: 84 km / 1100 m – 900 m
  5. Empire – Silverthorne: 62 km / 1100 m – 900 m
  6. Silverthorne – Buffalo Springs: 88 km / 700 m
  7. Buffalo Springs – Salida: 72 km / 850 m – 650 m
  8. Salida – Gunnison: 98 km / 1100 m – 900 m
  9. Gunnison – Montrose: 107 km / 650 m – 350 m
  10. Montrose – Telluride: 104 km / 1200 m – 1100 m
  11. Telluride – Dolores: 104 km / 950 m – 850 m
  12. Dolores – Mesa Verde National Park: 72 km / 450 m – 300 m
  13. Mesa Verde National Park – Cortez: 32 km

> Google map of our trip

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Cycling through Georgetown

DAY 1: Idaho Springs, Central City, Black Hawk and Rollinsville

Covering a short 40 km distance, we kicked off with a fairly steep climb that took us just outside Central City, quickly descending into Black Hawk, before taking a steady elevation to Rollinsville.

Bikes and panniers set up, we decided to get straight off the main road and put our faith in Road 279.  Excited and ready for the adventure ahead, we had no idea what was waiting for us around our first corner.

Five minutes into our first climb and with no time to adjust to the altitude, we were struggling. After months of planning, we had unwittingly started our trip on a steep gravel road, aptly named ‘Oh-My-God Road‘… let’s just say steep is an understatement! Once we had managed to stop laughing at ourselves as we walked up our first hill, we reassured ourselves that as we would get fitter along the way – the hills will get easier, the hills will get easier….

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Dinner at The Stage Stop, Rollinsville CO

On-route to our campground, we passed a great place for a dinner (‘Stage Stop’, Rollinsville) and with only quick cycle to our campsite, we arrived with enough light to set up comfortably and settle in for the night.

Starting point: Idaho Springs, CO
End point: Just outside Rollinsville, CO
Total distance: 40 km
Campground: Kelly Dahl Campground

Kelly Dahl Campground – located 1.2 miles outside Rollinsville, adjacent to the Peak-to-Peak Highway
+ Great scenic location
+ Plenty of room for two tents (or more), with picnic table and campfire ring with grill
– Limited facilities such as vault toilets, drinking water and trash collection
– There are no shower or laundry facilities

DAY 2:  Rollinsville, Nederland, Ward, Ferncliff, Allenspark, Meeker Park, Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.

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Today is our first full day on the road, cycling around 80 km on highway 72 and 7. The route takes us through many small towns and is not too challenging as there are no major climbs, except for a 6 mile ascent from Estes Park to the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Starting point: Rollinsville, CO
End point: Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
Total distance: 80 km
Campground: Aspenglen Campground

Aspenglen Campground – located 5.3 miles outside Estes Park and then inside the Fall River entrance of the park
+ Scenic location in the heart of the Rocky Mountain National Park
+ Each campsite is equipped with a picnic table, fire ring with grate and tent pad
+/- Wildlife is often seen in the campground
– Limited facilities such as flush toilets, drinking water and food storage lockers
– There are no shower or laundry facilities

Day 3 – Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Lake and Granby

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Today is one of our most challenging days, cycling 80 km on highway 34 – also known as ‘Trail Ridge Road’.  From our campground, we ascend 23 miles to the Visitor Centre before climbing ‘Milners Pass’ (10,758 elevation), followed by a 23 mile descent all the way to Grand Lake.

Visiting the Rockies is one of the highlights of our trip.  We cycled along ‘Trail Ridge Road’ – America’s highest continuous highway.  12,183’ above sea level, there was never a dull moment with breath-taking scenery.

Starting point: Rocky Mountain National Park, CO
End point: Grand Lake, CO
Total distance: 80 km
Campground: Stillwater Campground

Stillwater Campground – located 6 miles southeast of Grand Lake, on the northern shore of Lake Granby (off Highway 34).
+ Scenic location on Lake Granby, part of the Arapaho National Recreation Area
+ Lots of facilities available including hot showers, flush toilets and drinking water
– Little or no shade available (due to removal of hazardous trees)

For the full story, please visit www.outdooradventuresusa.blogspot.com

Useful links:
> Adventure Cycling Association – order maps, cycling equipment and more
> Reserve America – easy way to book your campgrounds online

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