Vail area is full of scenic rides
I grew up in the wide-open spaces of Colorado Farm Country. It’s where I learned to ride, and love, motorcycles.
Living on the flatlands in full view of the Front Range of the Rockies, the mountains always beckoned, with roads that twist more in a mile than a Farm-Country road does over a couple of counties. Living in the mountains now, you’d think rider nirvana would be waiting just outside the front door. Sometimes, it is.
But, like most of life, reality often complicates dreams.
Winter, for instance. For about half the year, our mountains are inhospitable, if not downright dangerous, for motorcyclists. Riding on ice is a good trick, but only until you fall over, which happens almost immediately unless you have one of those cool Russian-built sidecar rigs with two-wheel drive and studded tires. Even then, the wind chill gets old about 12 seconds after you’d have fallen over on a regular bike.
But enough about winter. It’s summer we’re celebrating here, and summer is a great, great time to have a motorcycle in the mountains (provided you have rain gear, eye protection and a reasonable tolerance for being pelted by afternoon thunderstorms).
Again, though, reality intrudes. Down in the flat country, it’s easy to ride a loop to work and back or on a quick Sunday ride. The roads are straight, but there are plenty of ’em, so it’s easy to go out one way and come back another.
Loops are harder to come by in the mountains. In the Vail Valley, there are basically two roads – Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 6, and they run roughly parallel to each other. So a trip from, say, Gypsum to Avon can be done in a loop, but only in the sense that stretching a rubber band between your fingers also creates a loop.
But the Vail Valley’s a great place to ride through on a daylong adventure. Here’s one of my favorite three-county loops. Be sure to allow extra time for photos, but don’t worry about getting lost. There aren’t that many roads.
History in the air
Minturn’s a great place to start a couple of rides, but if you have just an afternoon, head over Battle Mountain and Tennessee Pass to Leadville, then over Fremont Pass to Copper Mountain, then back to Vail on the interstate.
Be sure to take advantage of the pull-outs along the way. Marvel at Gilman, the nearly vertical ghost town between Minturn and Red Cliff. If you’re the type who likes to get off the bike frequently, stop at Mango’s in Red Cliff for a (preferably nonalcoholic) drink and a snack as well as a view pretty much straight up to the World War II-era bridge high above the Eagle River.
Between Red Cliff and Leadville, you’ll find what’s left of Camp Hale, where the famed ski troopers of the 10th Mountain Division trained during World War II. There isn’t much left to see these days, but there’s plenty of history still floating through the air – and some unexploded ordnance in the forests.
A memorial at the top of Tennessee Pass lists the members of the unit that trained here who were killed in action. It’s a long, long list and a sobering reminder of what those and other soldiers faced when their training was complete.
Turning left at Leadville – although you really should take a quick detour down historic Harrison Street and walk around – takes you over Fremont Pass, home to the once and future Climax Mine, which has taken about the top third off a mountain in the name of extracting untold tons of molybdenum over the decades.
If you want to hustle on a twisty mountain road, Colorado Highway 91 over Fremont Pass gives you a few chances for some hooliganism, especially on weekdays. But even on weekends, there are a few spots for passing RVs and the like as you zip over the 11,000-foot pass, then drop back down to Copper Mountain.
Old motorcycling advice holds that you should stay off the interstates as much as possible. That doesn’t apply in the mountains. There’s plenty of breathtakingness available, although fewer places to stop for photos. But, as opposed to, say, Kansas, I-70 through the Rockies twists around enough to keep you focused on your riding, especially at interstate speeds.
Please, either ride or stop and gawk – it’s really hard to do both at once.
This is the Rockies, so other great rides are out there. If you’re visiting and want to rent a machine, you can rent from Vail Off Road Rental in Edwards, or go to Aspen Valley Harley-Davidson in Glenwood Springs. From there, you can ride to Aspen, over Independence Pass, through Leadville and then back to Minturn and Vail. Then there’s the loop starting at Wolcott, going over Gore Pass to Kremmling then back to I-70 in Summit County. Then there’s … you get the idea. Grab a map, hit the starter, and ride.