Sunday, June 26, 2011

Let's Bike Up To 12,240 Feet and Mount Evans in Colorado on This Rainy Tampa Day

It's a rainy day in the Tampa Bay area and I'm betting many bicyclists are keeping their rigs dry in their homes or garages. Maybe you're sufing the Web. and I thought I'd post a story I wrote about biking the highest paved road in North America -- the Colorado road about 90 minutes from Denver to Mount Evans at 14,240 feet in the Rockies.

I have re-visited Mount Evans twice via bicycle since writing this story about a decade ago. so I have added some photos to spice up the read. Stay dry on this wet Tampa day and I hope this story inspires you to one day bike up to Mount Evans.

* * *

The mountain goats wear goofy expressions. The shaggy-coated bighorn sheep
pose for photos. Summit Lake is a gem.

By now, they're are all in my review mirror - so to speak.

I'm pedaling way above 13,000 feet above sea level, en route to the summit of
Mt. Evans at 14,264.

The last five miles to the end of North America's highest paved road is
classic switch backs. I rise out of my saddle and I head into a U-curve,
working the mountain in the opposite direction. This routine will play out at
least a half-dozen times.

I'm not moving fast. Maybe six miles per hour up this steep grade. I don't
even notice how slow I'm going. The mountain scenery is too mesmerizing to be
concerned about speed.

The slower the better, I figure. More time to gaze at the alpine landscape
above the tree line of Pike National Forest. It's some 40 miles west of
Denver, outside of Idaho Springs.

It's been more than two hours since I parked my car at Echo Lake, 10,000 feet
above sea level. Cars have to pay a $10 fee for the right to climb Colorado
Highway 5, which climbs some 15 miles to the peak of Mt. Evans from Echo Lake.

But I park my car at Echo Lake before I reach the toll booth and pedal in for free.

The grade for the first 10 miles is challenging, but within grasp of any
experienced long-distance bicyclist. Instead, I breathe deeply, my lungs
expanding, then compressing, to the smooth and steady cadence of my ascent.

There is an annual race up the mountain every July called the Bob Cook
Memorial Hill Climb. Riders start in Idaho Springs at about 7,540 feet and
reach the 14,264-foot summit in about 10 minutes shy of two hours. Not bad.

Today is an early July morning in 1998. I have to start early because the
weather can turn ornery after high noon.

It'll take about two hours to reach the summit, and less than 45 minutes to descend.

There is snow in places along the road. After five miles, I catch up with a
woman on a bicycle who works in the Boulder DA's office.

We chat about the infamous Jon Benet Ramsey case as we pedal side by side. The killer of the little Boulder girl has never been caught.

I suggest she go ahead because I want to go slow and absorb the sights - the
undulating valleys below, swaths of pine forests and the jagged peaks to the

The mountain goats and the bighorn sheep are hams. It's show time and the
tourists with their license plates from coast to coast can't snap off
photographs fast enough.

As I approach Summit Lake, elevation 12,500 feet, I marvel at this road.
Sure, it can only be open between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But it's
smoother than most Denver city streets.

The state began construction of a road to the Mt. Evans summit in 1917 and
workers took a decade to complete it. It was totally paved by 1930.

The road led to a restaurant and gift store at the summit in 1940, but a
propane explosion wiped out Summit Lodge in 1979.

Nobody was killed. Its concrete frame still endures.

These days, thin-air entertainment comes in the form of a little hairy critter called the marmot.

These whistle pigs dig burrows next to the road for easy access to people -- and their food.

I stop at Summit Lake to take photos and chat with the handful of visitors
who have stopped to take in the lake buffeted by snow-covered walls of rock.

A ring of mountains, carved by a glacier, is the backdrop for the lake.
Wildflowers fill a grassy area between the road and the lake.

I mentally prepare to tackle the final five miles, which are more difficult
because of the steeper grade.

I pass a runner. Yes, on early summer mornings you will find runners striding
the 15 miles from Echo Lake to the peak.

The final five miles must take 40 minutes. The peak's first sign is the Mt.
Evans Meyer-Womble Observatory, the highest operating observatory in the
West, standing tall at a prolific 14,148 feet.

Finally, I pull into the parking lot. By now, dozens of cars have reached the
top. It's exhilarating up here. It enlivens your soul. There are no other
places to look up at - just tilt your head down to forests and valleys and

I'm not tired. Just the opposite, in fact. I practically skip around the
parking lot to a sidewalk that yields views that capture miles and miles of

It can snow and sleet in July, so I unravel a windbreaker and wear it as I
stroll to the remains of the restaurant and gift store. It's a mere shell,
but I study the concrete walls in one moment, then stare at the mountain
terrain in the next.

Kids are frolicking on rocks that lead go the official peak next to the parking lot. It's quiet up here, with no gaudy gift stores or hot dog stands. Photography is the main endeavor.

A woman takes my photo, and I do likewise. In fact, I take several photos of
people who smile for their cameras. They are genuinely thankful.

I stay about 40 minutes until noon, knowing I'm pushing the envelope of good
weather. The descent will take a mere 45 minutes.

I keep the jacket on. In fact, I don tight cotton gloves knowing I will hit
speeds of 40 miles per hour down the mountain. I hope my brakes work.

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