story and photography by Warren Renshaw
[Colorado Motorcycle Rides: Cañon City, Monarch Pass and Beyond was originally published as a Favorite Ride in the August 2009 issue of Rider magazine]
In the April 2005 issue of Rider magazine I vowed to return to Colorado as long as I was able. It has beauty that cannot be captured on film nor can it be communicated with the written word. To be fully appreciated, a creation such as this must be experienced with the eyes, a keen sense of smell and an adventurous spirit. What I could not know during my ride several years ago was that something would later happen to me that would threaten my ability to return, yet would eventually become a big part of the inspiration for this sport-touring journey.
It was a normal October morning just like any other when my wife Judy noticed a lump on the side of my face. It turned out to be a very aggressive form of cancer. After surgery the doctor said that the tumor was a high-grade stage III cancer that tends to grow and spread fast. Well, being just 45 years old with a wife and a 10-year-old daughter, this knocked me for a loop, to put it mildly. During the long days of chemotherapy treatments in Houston that followed I would read the latest Rider magazines over and over, daydreaming of getting back on my motorcycle. It was during this time I made a mental list of things I wanted to do when the Good Lord returned me to health and full strength. Somewhere on that list below family, friends and neighbors was the item, “Ride a motorcycle back to Colorado.”
Once the treatments were over, Judy and I went home from Houston to Hanceville, Alabama. I had missed motorcycling so much that upon arrival at our house, I immediately put a balaclava over my head and neck to allow my helmet to slip over the skin burned from the radiation. I then quickly swung my leg over my Suzuki SV650, pulled in the clutch and hit the starter button. It roared to life immediately! Ha! Got it made! I had returned to good health and now every day is like being nine years old on Christmas morning.
My bike of choice for my trip of renewal was a 2007 Suzuki SV650 standard, which I modified with a few accessories to make it sport-touring ready and tailor it to my liking. The two items that most transformed the bike were a Givi A760 universal windscreen and a Sargent Seat.
After two days of travel I arrived in Cañon City, Colorado, where I stayed the night. The next morning I began my ride on U.S. 50 West. Bill and Marsha Boeck, a couple of fellow Motorcycle Sport Touring Association members from Colorado, had told me about a neat little side road not far out of town called Skyline Drive, calling it an interesting 15-minute side excursion. Boy was that an understatement! I turned right off Route 50 West at the sign that said “Skyline Drive,” and the next thing I knew I was headed up a steep incline on a one-way road so narrow, a car could barely fit on it! If you are afraid of heights you might want to skip this little excursion. I rode a very narrow crest of a mountain to what seemed like the stratosphere, looking down on the cities below off in the distance. I got off the bike and stood there on top of the mountain just taking it all in. Fifteen minutes into my sport-touring journey and I already had butterflies in my stomach! Skyline Drive took me back down the mountain and into a residential area east of where I had begun. Then I just hopped back on Route 50 and headed west again.
My next stop was at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park located on the south side of Route 50 near Cañon City. This is the highest suspension bridge in the United States (1,053 feet above the Arkansas River) and is 1,260 feet in length. There are shops and food, camping, lodging and a petting zoo on the grounds. As I rode the SV across the bridge, the wood planks moved around and made a racket, giving me an uneasy feeling. I understand that on average they replace about 250 of these planks every year.
Farther west on 50 I stopped at Monarch Pass, elevation 11,312 feet, went inside the store and ordered a sandwich. Food just tastes better when consumed at more than two miles high. Later I set up base camp (in a motel, of course) in Montrose, Colorado. This is a good location to begin a number of great day rides. Montrose is large enough to have plenty of restaurants, motels and museums without being so big that you are always stuck in city traffic. It also has the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which is almost like another Royal Gorge, but without the bridge. There is a road that winds around it, which offers many spectacular views of the canyon.
About 30 miles east of Montrose I rode CO 92 West. This road throws the rider so many curves even the most jaded corner junkie should be satisfied. The route took me around the north side of the Black Canyon, which offers spectacular views, and to the city of Delta, then back to Montrose on 50 East. Route 65 up to Skyway Point and back is all about flowers, lakes and ponds, at least in August. It also offers several beautiful high-altitude views. This is a shorter ride, about 142 miles round trip from Montrose, so if you’re extra tired from a cross-country trip and want an easy day, the route is a good choice.
Another great ride from Montrose is the 550/62/145/141/50 loop, which is about 240 miles round trip. This can be a toasty ride in the summer as you cruise along the Delores River through the canyon, with the Uncompahgre Plateau above. It also has its own unique scenery, with the Gateway Canyons Resort in the city of Gateway an excellent place to stop, fuel up the bike, eat lunch at the Paradox Grill and see the excellent Auto Museum, which has cars from the early 1900s to 1970s.
I’ve saved the best for last, because Route 550 from Ouray to Durango is the best motorcycling road I’ve ever been on. Leaving Ouray headed south, the rider snakes up the mountain and into a Rocky Mountain paradise that simply cannot be captured with a camera. With mountains towering all around you, a waterfall below and a tunnel ahead as you ride on what seems like a ledge around the rocky structures, it borders on sensory overload. Breathe in deep, the air is so clean that it feels like it’s adding years to your life. I just kept breathing in the cool, crisp air, which had the scent of Christmas trees, as the SV’s engine sang happily below. Look at that mountain lake over there! I didn’t want this experience to end. On the way back through I ate lunch in Silverton (elevation 9,305 feet) at the Brown Bear Café, which serves a real tasty Southwestern Grilled Chicken Sandwich.
Several years ago I ended my story by writing that on my last night in Ouray I sat outside the motel room and saw a shooting star streak across the sky, likening it to the lyrics in John Denver’s song Rocky Mountain High—“I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.” Well, this time around I did not see a shooting star, but when I looked up I saw my life handed back to me once more.