By Alex Roberts
Mid-summer we began planning a bikepacking trip to Colorado. The trip would have us seeing friends in Boulder and touring breweries in Ft. Collins before taking off on the bikes. J.Paks, makers of all sorts of bags for bikepacking and endurance riding, posted pictures to their Facebook page of a Gold Belt Byway tour starting and finishing just north of Colorado Springs.
Joe at J.Paks was a great source of information on the Gold Belt Tour and said he would be glad to give advice to anyone else considering this route. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to check out www.jpaks.com if you need any bags before rolling. I mapped out a route based on his *.gpx files in RideWithGPS. That route can be found here, but please note, due to a somewhat sketchy weather forecast for Cripple Creek and Colorado Springs for the planned days of the ride, we changed plans and did not actually ride the Gold Belt Byway. Therefore, the campsites and creek water refill points are still unverified on this map. It should also be noted that if the distance or the elevation gain is a little daunting, the route could be shortened by about 50 miles and 5,000 feet of gain by traveling directly from Cripple Creek to Victor and not going down to Canon City.
As I mentioned, when it was close enough for the extended forecast to be trusted, it appeared that it was going to be stormy on the Byway for the days we had chosen. Being based in Ft. Collins for our brewery tour, I started to look for Plan B’s in that area. I came across a blog about gravel riding in Colorado, contacted the author, and set about making a new plan for a route from Ft. Collins.
Soon there was a route in place that was 154 miles from Ft. Collins. It promised a mixture of bike paths leaving the city, paved roads for the first 30 miles or so, and plenty of gravel after. It also wasn’t going to be short on big climbs or gorgeous scenery. The route would offer numerous locations for backwoods camping, a developed tent site and restaurant at Glen Echo in Rustic, a restaurant and general store at Red Feather Lakes, multiple creek crossing for filtering water, and a deli and convenience store at Livermore.
We started from Ft. Collins around 7:45 AM on a Tuesday. Traffic was heavy, but we were soon on the bike path that would take us the 10 or so miles to the outskirts of town. Being new to bikepacking, I’m sure we were overloaded, especially with lots of “just in case” items. My bike and gear was close to 48 lbs with Kristin’s being around 35. Leaving the bike path onto Co Rd 38E we encountered the first climb of the day on the pavement up to Horsetooth Reservoir. We passed an unexpected convenience store and restaurant at Mile 15, but this was too early to need anything. Plus, Mile 20 had the potential of another convenience store in Masonville. We rolled on toward a planned stop in Masonville.
The Masonville Mercantile was closed with a sign in the window saying it was only open Thursday through Sunday. Looking at it, I’m not sure I believe it’s always open on those days. The Mercantile was not the only thing closed in Masonville. Buckhorn Road was as well. Apparently Buckhorn Road suffered devastating damage in the flooding of 2013 and crews have just begun repairs on the road. Speaking with a local who definitely knew his way around and who informed me “there’s not a rock up there I haven’t pissed on,” it soon seemed that there was no way around the damage, even if we were prepared to hike-a-bike. The alternative route would require quite a bit of backtracking and put us exclusively on pavement along roads that I hadn’t extended my maps to cover. We decided to return to Ft. Collins and map another route beginning and ending at Glen Echo Resort in Rustic which was the target for Day 1 of the original route.
Note that the Larimer County website says repairs are scheduled to be completed Mid-December 2014. http://www.larimer.org/roads/road_closures.cfm
Glen Echo Resort is a small store/restaurant/bar in Rustic, CO and is close to being the only thing Rustic, CO. The facilities offer cabins, RV hook-ups, and tent sites. The cabins are divided into “modern” and “rustic” categories. The rustic cabins offer no running water but are very close to a central shower and restroom area. The tent sites also are allowed access to these. I personally recommend the rustic cabins. They have electricity, refrigerators, and kitchens all for around $75 per night. But the best thing they offer that the larger cabins do not is scenery and tranquility. The rustic cabins are directly on the Poudre River (locals say “Pooder”), and it definitely feels “away from it all” sitting on the back patio sipping an Odell (available at the store) while watching and listening to the river run. Things here close early. The restaurant and store are said to be open until 7:30 according to the signs on the doors (8 on the internet), but the restaurant closes when there are no more customers, and we were told to be there before 6:45 if you want to be sure to be served. In addition, the store seemed to follow the same practices. The bar is open later, and serves a gas-station quality pizza. The web lists even further reduced hours for October through April, so I recommend a call to verify.
The route from Rustic was mapped to be 87 miles if we backtracked for breakfast at the start of the second day. We planned for 50 miles the first day with our camp spot being somewhere in the Lone Pine Unit of the Cherokee State Wildlife Area.
We spent the night at Glen Echo with some time devoted to lightening the bags, and I feel the final pack still contained enough for even a 3 or 4 day trip meaning we were way overloaded leaving Ft. Collins. But we learned some things, and that’s all part of the process.
After a hearty breakfast at the restaurant, we began pedaling about 9:30 AM. If you have legs that need a good warm-up, you better do it on Poudre Canyon Highway. The route immediately turns onto gravel from Glen Echo and starts a wicked 2.5 mile ascent with an average grade of 9% as you gain nearly 1200 feet. Some sections saw grades of 15-20% which really challenged the legs on a loaded bike.
Around Mile 3, the grade slacks a bit, but the hill keeps going up. You’ll still be gaining 200 feet per mile for the next 3.5 miles before any noticeable flats or descents. We initially thought that Red Feather Lakes would be too soon for a stop, but seeing as how the 11.7 miles to there gained 2250 feet in elevation, we welcomed a break and recharge at the general store. Red Feather Lakes also offers two restaurants, the Potbelly Restaurant and The Sportsman’s Café. Both seem to have flexible hours so call ahead if planning a trip. We grabbed some snacks at the general store, ate Fritos and bean dip, then continued rolling. I decided the remaining Fritos would be a good standby as a salty snack for later so we threw them in the backpack before heading out. I would come to regret this.
The next 6 miles along Prairie Divide Road offered gradual descents and some of the most beautiful scenery of the entire ride. The dirt/gravel was well-packed and fast, but I was slowing down often to snap pictures. The sky was partly cloudy and the temperature was perfect. This was bliss!
The climbing started back up, but the scenery was ample reward for the work. 21 miles in, we decided on a divergence from the planned route. At this point, we were to turn off of Prairie Divide Road (19/179) onto 82E. Looking at the section of 82E, it definitely looked like a less traveled and less maintained road. The little we could see was quite rough and 179 looked like a much better road. The map showed we could follow 179 to 80C (Cherokee Park Road). We decided the improved road was worth the few extra miles.
Cherokee Park Road has a lot of downhill with some punchy climbs. For the 14 miles we travelled it, it gained 1000 feet and lost 2150. The views really opened up on this section and you could see lots of Colorado countryside. As had been the norm since Red Feather Lakes, traffic was non-existent and the roads were smooth. I was definitely enjoying the day in the saddle, even though the stomach was persistently letting me know that it would like some real food as we neared our dinner stop in Livermore.
Should I do this ride again, I would definitely explore the roads on the map such as 76H that seem to allow one to reach Livermore with less time on 74. 74 was quite busy, has a high speed limit, and no shoulder. The ride to The Forks in Livermore at the intersection of 74 and 287 was hair-raising.
The Forks was a nice stop with a wonderful deli. We made the easy decision, however, that backtracking there for breakfast was not worth extra miles on 74. We grabbed some food for breakfast after having dinner at the deli, maxed-out on water, and headed towards camp. Unfortunately we were in after-work traffic on 74 and we had a few nervous moments. I advise avoiding this road during high traffic times.
We set-up camp in the Cherokee State Wildlife Area. Please be aware that this area is closed September 1 through May 1 to all activities except hunting and fishing. However, there is ample camping opportunities just past the gate, so I recommend a call to the parks department if you’d like to camp near the road during these times. I would anticipate they would allow it. The area offered camping anywhere and bikes were allowed on the double-track and trails. We didn’t venture far in and camped just below a ridge with a cattle trail on it. We had some snacks, hung our food, and bedded down for the night.
Sometime during the night I heard the grunts and growls of a bear walking the cattle trail (we found the tracks the next morning). I heard a series of four grunts followed by about a thirty second pause. This pattern continued as I heard it move from east to west across the cattle trail. It was a nervous 10 minutes or so, but the bear never seemed to venture off the trail meaning it was always at least 50 yards away. I was glad when the grunts faded. But an hour or so later, I hear it now moving west to east across the trail. It was at this time that I regretted bringing the Fritos along. We had forgotten to remove them from the backpack, and they were inches from our heads. I began to imagine each series of grunts was now a bear saying, “Fritos…Freettoos…Freeetttooosss…Freeeeeetttttttoooooosss!” Luckily we were downhill and downwind and the bear continued a perpendicular path to us without getting any closer than the first pass.
We were treated to a beautiful sunrise. The mileage was going to be short that day, but the climbing was going to be intense. We had 8 miles on Red Feather Lakes Road. Luckily, the traffic was light heading west even at 8 in the morning. After 3 miles or so, near the community of Glacier View, the road widened with a shoulder. This made a big difference.
We left the pavement on Boy Scout Ranch Road/68C and didn’t see asphalt again until back at Rustic. There were several rollers along 68C but the overall gradient was much less than on Red Feather Lakes Road. We took a short detour to check out The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya at the Shambala Mountain Center. It was a longer walk than anticipated to get to the stupa, but it was quite a site.
Leaving the Shambala Mountain Center, we had a three mile segment that gained 200 feet per mile. Of course the steepest kick was saved for the last half mile. Topping that and knowing it was all downhill to Rustic was a relief. The nearly three mile descent took us down the same road we had slogged up the day before. It was much better going down.
We had reserved Cabin #4 at Glen Echo for the night. It is a rustic cabin and the only one with a covered back patio. We picked up the key and dropped the bikes off. After cleaning-up, we had chicken-fried steak at the restaurant before sitting on the patio during a rain shower sipping some Odells while talking about the trip.
All-in-all, despite the set-back on Buckhorn Road, it was a wonderful experience. You can see a video of it here. We definitely learned some things, but it went smoothly for our first real foray into bikepacking. I know we’ll do it again, and I have a strong feeling we’ll be going back to Cabin #4 at some point. I’d really like to get back and do some exploring of Pingree Park Road and the areas west of there and the roads west of Red Feather Lakes. Maybe some of you will join us.
Growing up on several hundred acres of family land, Alex loved riding logging roads on his BMX bike while pretending he was LeMond winning the Tour. His ambitions of standing on the podium in Paris may be gone, but he’s rediscovered his inner child and the joy of back roads exploration on his beloved REEB.