Day 31: Hopewell Lake Campground to Abiquiu (55.5 miles, 2,566ft)
Worried that we might encounter awful muddy surfaces again due to the night’s rain, we got up extra early, rudimentarily serviced our bikes, and got on the road by 7:30am. We climbed a few hundred feet to start the day, but from there we traveled mostly downhill for the first 20 miles to a paved road at Cañon Plaza—a small collection of houses in various states of repair. Another five miles of paved descent brought us to Vallecito—another tiny town—and from there we began a relatively mild 800ft climb on dirt forest roads to our only pass of the day.
Thankful for the mild terrain (and the excellent, improved gravel road surface) we made it to the top in no time. We had a small lunch and enjoyed the ensuing descent down to El Rito, where we joined another paved road. From El Rito, we followed the paved road the next 16 miles to Abiquiu, our day’s end point.
We had planned for our friend Mark—a Santa Fe resident—to come help us shuttle our bikes and ourselves to his family’s place in Santa Fe, where we’d have a rest day. As we were waiting at a gas station, however, we met a young couple and their daughter, fresh off a backpacking trip in Colorado, who offered to help us drive our things to Santa Fe. Thankful for this generous offer—apparently you don’t look dangerous when traveling with 2.5 year and 7-month olds—we packed up some bags and took off for Santa Fe.
This was a bittersweet drive for me (Matt)—I’d be ending my trip in Santa Fe and traveling for Chicago, while David would be continuing for the final 550 miles with Anna, Silas, and Eleanor. Happy for the rest, but sad to see the trip end, I had a fun day with everyone in Santa Fe (boxing up and shipping my bike in the process), before catching a Chicago-bound train (via Lamy, New Mexico) the following day.
Day 30: Elk Creek Campground to Hopewell Lake Campground (64 miles)
We woke up a bit later than usual—on account of the shade trees and rushing stream at the campground (and, perhaps, the previous day’s climbing)—but still got off to a reasonable 9:00am start. While we weren’t going to have any single climbs as long as the climb to Indiana Pass, we knew we had a relatively hard day with considerable up and down ahead of us. The ACA maps and GDMBR guidebook also made it sound like the road quality would be less than stellar.
The day began under sun and a bright, clear sky with a 1,500ft climb on a paved road to La Manga Pass, an excellent warm up to start the day.
On the other side of the pass, we soon turned of the paved road onto a dirt road, crossed the Cumbres and Toltec light gauge railroad—a 64-mile high-altitude light gauge tourist rail that runs, largely, along the Colorado/New Mexico border—and entered New Mexico (and the Carson National Forest).
The road was rockier than many of the dirt roads we’d ridden in Colorado, and as we slowly climbed thunderheads built ominously around us.
Soon the road quality deteriorated further, and we passed a sign warning against vehicle travel in wet conditions. We hurried along as we heard thunder in the distance, trying to make miles before the rain hit. Not far ahead, the rain caught us; we found shelter in a spruce grove and pulled on our rain gear—for the the first time in the trip, I felt the weather was wet enough to pull out my waterproof booties.
As the rain slowed, we decided to continue on. Soon we reached an uphill section filled with large, loose rocks that we found impossible to ride; so we pushed our bikes up the hill a half a mile to the Cruces Basin Lookout. From there we pedaled slowly along the wet, muddy road, passing along sections of the trail that had been caked in hail—the hail, incidentally, provided much more traction than the thick, sticky mud we were encountering.
Ahead on a steep downhill we ran into deep mud, and Dave quickly wiped out. (Thankfully, we were riding slowly, and thankfully I was riding behind him and was able to avoid the same fate.) He quickly popped back up, we picked our way along slowly, half walking half biking. Soon we were riding in the grass alongside the trail to avoid the mud; but when trees encroached, we were back on the road in the mud; further along the road, Dave sunk deep into a particularly treacherous (but nearly invisible) pit of muck and went down again; I tried to plow through, but soon my back wheel stopped rotating entirely. I tried putting a foot down and pushing forward, but I just slipped. What a mess. It was now 2:30pm and we’d yet to cover 30 miles; easily the slowest we’d traveled yet on the trip.
We stopped to collect ourselves and consider our options. There seemed to be a rough trail on our maps that led to a paved road a number of miles away, but we’d couldn’t be sure of the road quality; we decided to push ahead (literally pushing our bikes). Not far along, on a higher section of road, the surface improved, so we tried to ride. I could not longer shift out of my middle front ring, so I ground my way up hills; Dave periodically lost his chain. We figured we were carrying 10 extra pounds in mud each.
Occasionally, we encountered a bad muddy section, which we’d plow through; but lucky for us we eventually came to an improved gravel surface, and we began to make better time. The terrain opened and we descended, before climbing again through pastureland—by this point our drivetrains were making all kinds of odd noises. After climbing another mini pass, we saw a sign for the paved highway four miles away. We thought we were in luck but ended up slipping and sliding most of the rest of the way through a muddy, mucky mess. A truck towing an RV along the way didn’t seem to be having much better luck than us.
Finally, we reached the highway. A five mile climb and we reached the Hopewell Lake Campground around 6:00pm, exhausted but happy to have arrived.
Day 29: Del Norte to Elk River Campground (72.5 miles, 6,344ft)
While our previous day had been our longest to date (111.4 miles), the ride from Del Norte to Elk River Campground looked to be one of our hardest. We’d be crossing Indiana Pass—at 11,910 feet the highest pass we’d cross on the trip and, with over 4,000 feet of elevation gain, the longest single climb we’d face on the trip. Because of the day’s shorter distance, we left Del Norte at a regular time (for us after making breakfast and packing the car up): 9:00am.
Over the first 12 miles of the ride, we ascended an easy 1,000 feet along pavement. From there the pavement ended and the climb’s grade became much steeper. We shifted down into our granny gears, and began the long, slow, but still manageable portion of the ascent.
Again the changes in scenery as we gained elevation were stunning, and we soon found ourselves in pine and aspen forests—we were lucky to catch the aspen leaves changing color.
Along the climb, we passed a surprising number of trucks—riding on a Sunday, we seemed to be catching recreational traffic—and a number of beautiful dispersed campsites, which would have been ideal for self-supported riders.
Eventually, we did make it to the top of the climb, but our work wasn’t yet done. For the next 13 miles, we rode above 11,000 feet, descending from and ascending to a number of minor passes. The incredible views along the way easily kept our minds off our tired legs, however.
After those 13 miles through the high country, we descended roughly 1,500 feet along a creek, passing a couple of stunning lakes along the way.
Before the bottom, we made a sharp right past a national forest campground, and began our final significant climb of the day, climbing 700-800 feet over a minor pass, before descending to the mountain village of Platoro—the name is a combination of the Spanish words for silver and gold, “plata” and “oro,” a nod to the mining that once took place here.
In Platoro, we took a break in the local cafe and waited out a rainstorm that rolled through. Once the rain passed, we rode the final 23 miles down the Conejos River on a washboarded dirt road to Horca and the Elk River Campground—another wonderful campground nestled along a gurgling brook.
Day 28: Sargents to Del Norte (111.4 miles, 6,063ft)
Based on the coming terrain—relatively flat—and relative dearth of camping that didn’t require long drives on dirt roads, we decided to pull a long day from Sargents to Del Norte.
We started out early, just after sunrise, and enjoyed 13 easy miles downhill on asphalt. Once we reached Doyleville, we turned south onto well-maintained dirt country roads and rode through beautiful, open countryside with mountains in the distance.
After a brief jog onto Colorado Highway 114, we continued south on dirt roads, climbing very gradually toward Cochetopa Pass. The open fields gradually became forests as we arrived at the pass, and we enjoyed a beautiful, forested descent down the other side, rejoining highway 114 at the bottom.
Six miles on the highway brought us to a dirt road turn off, heading south. There we turned right and climbed 11, steeper, miles to Carnerno Pass. A long descent awaited us on the other side, through an incredible, rugged valley following the Carnero River. The final few miles of the descent followed paved road that led us out of the mountains entirely, near the little town of La Garita.
From there, our route turned back southwest toward Penitente Canyon and Natural Arches, following a slow, sandy dirt road. Slowly ascending into a headwind, the next 9-10 miles were a slog; but that slog paid off, once we turned south onto a fun double track trail that rolled quickly through desert buttes down to the Del Norte airport.
We added a few miles when, with Del Norte in sight, we had to skirt around the airport; but we soon arrived in Del Norte, where we camped in the town park. Supposedly, we were supposed to register with the police; but the office was closed, and none of the listed numbers got us in touch with anyone who knew about camping. In any case, we set up our tents, and—lucky for us—the maintenance person for the park arrived in the evening to inform us that he’d turn off the morning sprinklers for our benefit. (There was also an elevated stage at the park that we could have camped on to avoid the sprinklers.)
Our day started with a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy at the local cafe—offering free camping to cyclists seemed to be a pretty solid business model for the establishment—after which we packed up and headed southeast on Colorado Highway 9. Quickly, we turned off onto dirt county roads and enjoyed rolling pasture terrain, similar to the latter half of the previous day’s ride.
After 30-some miles, we began a steep 1,000 foot climb through aspen forests to a watershed divide.
From the top, we descended 3,000-some feet over the next 15 miles to the lovely town of Salida.
We continued on paved county roads to Poncha Springs and from there began a long ascent—nearly 4,000 feet—to Marshall pass. Again the climb’s grade seemed quite moderate (Marshall Pass was another that once had a narrow gauge railroad), and the first 5 miles were on asphalt; so we made good time. The changes in scenery were wonderful—from the arid valley where Salida and Poncha Springs were located to the lush pine and aspen forests at higher elevations. Along the way, we passed many wonderful camp spots—not ideal for us because of the support vehicle and children (established campsites with water, picnic tables, bathrooms, and easy car access worked best for us) but perfect for self-supported tourers.
We reached the pass around 5:00pm, getting some rain and hail on on the way up, and quickly descended the final 16 miles to Sargents—a tiny little town with a combo bar, gas station, restaurant, and RV Park, which at $13 a person including showers, seemed like good value to us.
Day 26: Blue River Campground to Hartsel (75.9 miles, 4,027ft)
We woke up to the rushing waters of the Blue River and, after a quick breakfast, started off toward Silverthorne along Colorado Highway 9. Traffic was heavy into Silverthorne, but we had a wide shoulder that allowed cars and trucks to give us a wide berth.
Once in Silverthorne, we joined a paved bike path that took us up to the picturesque Dillon Reservoir and then through the mountain vacation towns of Frisco and Breckenridge.
While we’d been climbing the whole day to Breckenridge—9,500 feet above sea level—from Breckenridge the grade became more perceptible as we ascended toward Boreas Pass. After riding the first few miles on paved road, we continued on a gradually graded dirt road. To our surprise, the ride to the top of the pass—at 11,482 feet, the highest pass we’d crossed yet and second highest pass of the route—was a breeze. (In 1882 a narrow gauge rail was constructed over the pass—always nice to ride on railroad grade roads.)
After enjoying the views from the top, we hung on tight to our bikes on the somewhat bumpy descent. Once in the valley on the other side of the pass, we felt like we’d entered a different world. We’d left the resort towns behind and now passed into more sparsely populated pasture country.
We road through the small town of Como and continued briefly on US Highway 285, before heading southeast on rolling dirt country roads through open countryside. We soon reached US Highway 24 and turned west, riding the last 5-6 miles into Hartsel—a small country town—on the highway.
Once in Hartsel, we stopped in the only lively joint in town—a roadside cafe/saloon (and apparent camp area)—for $1.25 happy hour beers and gigantic burgers. The cafe owners also directed us to a field across the road (behind some junked cars) that served as the camping area for cyclists riding through. Certainly, not the most traditionally “nice” campground we’d stayed in yet, but a pretty cool experience nonetheless.
Day 25: Blacktail Creek Campground to Blue River Campground (74.3 miles, 6,436ft)
We woke up to a cold frosty morning at the Blacktail Creek Campground—not surprising as we’d camped around 9,000ft. After the normal couple of hours of tear down, pack up, and breakfast, the sun was already high in the sky and feeling significantly warmer we set off.
The first 15 miles to Radium were simply amazing. We followed a narrow rolling trail through forest, tight valleys, and the occasional open pasture as we wound our way toward the Colorado River. For the first time in our trip, we were riding along trails with sheer drop-offs, and we took the descents with care.
After descending some 2,200 feet to the Colorado River at Radium (6,800 feet above sea level), we crossed the river and turned back, climbing toward the Gore Canyon. Layers upon layers of mountain ridges surrounded us—many of which were barely perceptible on the horizon because of the lingering smoke—and we wondered what the views might have been like on a clearer day.
Around 10 miles later we were back at 8300 feet as we crossed a watershed divide and descended back to the Colorado River and Colorado Highway 9. We jogged north on highway 9—at this point also the Trans-America bike route—and quickly turned right onto the first county road we reached, just short of crossing the Colorado River and entering the town of Kremling. From there we continued upstream, traveling roughly east with the Colorado on our left.
Soon we angled south, following a tributary of the Colorado upstream past a reservoir. Just past the reservoir, we were able to refill our water bottles at the house of a kindly resident of the area; and after the quick break we were off again.
The miles passed quickly—with the exception of my first flat of the trip, an internal tube failure caused by subpar rim-tape on my replaced rim—as we continued along fast, smooth county roads.
Slowly, we ascended the river valley, rolling up and down at times, before reaching asphalt surface at the base of the final ascent to Ute Pass.
A few more miles of gradual grade and we reached the top of the pass at 9,524 feet.
After a speedy descent back to Colorado Highway 9, we turned south and followed the Blue River upstream for around 5 miles to the Blue River Campground, one of the nicest national forest campgrounds, we’d stayed at yet, pleasantly situated along the rushing Blue River.
After an uneventful supper, we realized that we had a stowaway in the car—a field mouse—and we spent much of the rest of the evening (unsuccessfully) trying to chase it out of the car. (Some mouse traps brought two mice to an inglorious end later in the trip.)
Day 24: Steamboat Springs to Blacktail Creek Campground (47.8 miles, 3,546ft)
We had planned to spend a rest day in Steamboat Springs but weren’t particularly interested in spending a second night in a motel; so we decided to spend the morning in town and ride a short day day to Blacktail Creek Campground.
Leaving town around noon after perusing outdoor shops downtown and enjoying a pizza buffet (where we definitely ate our money’s worth), we followed minor paved roads south of town through lovely ranch countryside. Passing Lake Catamount, we continued on to Stagecoach Reservoir, where we followed a wonderful little dirt multi-use trail along the east side of the reservoir.
From there we followed a wide dirt road, upstream along Morrison Creek, before climbing over Lynx Pass—despite the name, we saw no lynx.
On the other side of the pass, we rode through lovely highland countryside and, despite having to ford Rock Creek, we thoroughly enjoyed the last few miles to the Blacktail Creek Campground.
Similar to much of the riding we’d experienced since entering Colorado, the roads and trails were wonderfully maintained, while the climbing grades were quite comfortable. The mountains might have been bigger, but the riding was feeling easier than in previous states.
Day 23: USFS Work Camp to Steamboat Springs (79.3 miles, 4,764ft)
We packed up, thanked the work camp hosts, and got off to a relatively early start (for us) riding on Wyoming Highway 70. With the exception of a short climb from the work camp, the road to Slater was almost entirely downhill for the next 17 miles.
At Slater, which supposedly has a post office but didn’t seem to be much more than a point on the map, we turned south and entered Colorado on County Road 1, following Slater Creek upstream. We’d follow that stream for the nest 30 miles to our day’s only pass.
Slowly but surely we gained elevation, and we made fairly good time thanks to the smooth dirt road. Soon after leaving Moffat County and entering Routt County, we arrived at the Brush Mountain Lodge—a lovely place tucked on the hillside, where you can grab a meal or a drink while chatting with the owner, Kirsten—and ate our lunches. From the lodge, we continued to climb the well-graded dirt road, which, with a tail wind, felt like a walk in the park.
Eventually, after passing through an open valley with majestic mountains on either side and into a grove of aspen trees, we turned left onto Forest Road 42—a narrow multi-use trail that began to climb more steeply.
The first couple of miles were relatively easy, since the the trail was smooth and well-maintained. Soon, however, the trail was littered large stones and rose more steeply. We rode what we could but had to hike several sections.
Finally, we made it to the top of the pass, where we met Daniel and Simona—an Italian couple two years into an around the world bike tour (becycling.net).
Descending on the other side was a mess—large rocks were scattered all along the road, and despite our best efforts we and our bikes took a beating on the way down. (Both Dave and I agreed that this was the first time that we’d suggest just taking a route alternative—a dirt road through Columbine.)
Once on a smoother section of road, I heard an odd creaking when I pedaled. I stopped and noticed that my back wheel was seriously out of true. Checking for broken spokes—which I unfortunately didn’t find—I realized I’d cracked my rim.
Frankly, I was incredibly lucky—I couldn’t have cracked my rim at a better point in the trip: Steamboat Springs had three bike shops in town, and the next 30 miles into town ran gradually downhill along smooth dirt and paved roads. I rode as easily as I could and limped my way into Steamboat Springs. Once there, a local bike shop managed to replace the rim that same evening.
On the way into town, we witnessed a huge forest fire growing to our west—apparently the result of a lightning strike. Smoke billowed in the sky and blocked out the sun. Under the shadow of the smoke, we rode on while the occasional flake of ash floated down onto us.
With no affordable camping in town, we decided to stay in a motel for the night—a bit out of character for the trip but a nice chance to clean up.
Day 22: Teton Reservoir to USFS Sandstone Work Center (42.4 miles, 3,622ft)
Today, we had a shorter day than we’d had in a while, but we returned to the mountains and had a good deal more climbing than the previous few days, even over a much shorter distance.
Hoping to be in Steamboat Springs in two days, we planned a relatively short day to a primitive campsite near Aspen Alley (a narrow dirt road bounded on either side by aspen groves) followed by a long day into Steamboat Springs.
We started out from Teton Reservoir, still riding in open, arid countryside on a wide, relatively smooth dirt road (County Road 401).
Around 15 miles into the ride, we reached the top of Middlewood Hill—our 15th divide crossing—and an aspen grove. These were the first trees we’d seen in a while.
Those trees aside, the terrain remained barren for the next 15 miles along a winding and rolling road until we entered the Medicine Bow National Forest on Forest Road 801. Here the road quality became much more gravelly, but the scenery improved greatly. We rode through beautiful aspen forests, descending to and ascending from several clear streams—good for water filtration (the largest of which was Big Sandstone Creek).
Our map noted a primitive camp area where we hoped to camp, just before Aspen Alley. Unfortunately, when we arrived the Little Sandstone Creek was mostly dry, and the pipe and pit toilets that we’d heard of had been removed in recent years.
On the advice of some locals camping in the area on account of Labor Day weekend, we continued via Aspen Alley to Wyoming Route 70 and rode a couple of miles to the US Forest Service Sandstone Work Center—our map noted water and restrooms here.
When we arrived at the center—a few cabins and the work center hosts’ RV—we asked about camping options in the area, and the gracious hosts said we’d be welcome to set up a tent by the cabin picnic tables for the night. Complete with restrooms and water, we couldn’t have found a better spot (for camping with kids).