Motorcycle Touring in Curvy Colorado

Colorado motorcycle ride
Nimble handling, ample power and light weight make the V-Strom 650 an ideal bike for exploring Colorado’s engaging back roads. (I rented this one at wdsma.com.)

Winter Park may not be a name you associate with summer entertainment, but the Colorado town of that name provides it. While skiers and snowboarders are longing for snow to play on, motorcyclists can entertain themselves on the region’s curvy roads.

With a Suzuki V-Strom 650 rented from Western Dual Sport Motorcycle Adventures (wdsma.com), I’m set to explore the mountains, valleys and high plains west of Denver.

Riding north from Winter Park at sunrise I’m glad this Wee Strom has heated grips. Though it’s mid-July, it’s only in the 40s.

At Windy Gap Reservoir a right onto State Route 125 takes me into the valley formed by Willow Creek. Though the sun is warming the mountain peaks, I stay cold in the shady valley. On this lonely road I encounter only one other motor vehicle all the way to Rand.

Colorado motorcycle ride
Ranch entrances, like this one at Willow Creek Ranch near Rand, Colorado, make great photo ops, but don’t go beyond unless you’re invited.

A couple miles farther on, I take a left onto County Road 28, a maintained dirt road through wide-open ranchland that offers big-sky views of the snowcapped Rockies. (You don’t really need an adventure bike for roads like this, but stones will likely ding a pure street bike’s paint or chrome.)

To my left I notice several large white birds on a lake. At first I peg them for egrets, but on second glance I realize they are pelicans. Wait, can that be right? My bird app indeed confirms that American white pelicans migrate north from the Gulf of Mexico to their summer nesting grounds in places including Colorado. It’s late July so this group likely includes parents and fledglings.

Colorado motorcycle ride
County Road 28 near Walden, Colorado, is flat and well maintained, with great views of ranch lands and the Rocky Mountains.

When 28 ends at State Route 14, I turn right toward Walden and stop across from the cemetery to rest and shed layers. In just two hours, I’ve gone from shivering under multiple layers to wearing just a T-shirt under my riding jacket. Reviewing progress reveals my proximity to Wyoming. I’ve never been there and it’s only about 20 miles away, so I stay north on Route 125.

Colorado motorcycle ride
The high plains of Wyoming’s southern tier are rugged and remote.

Riding along Wyoming’s southern tier I find more wide-open ranchland, though the landscape is flatter and less green than Colorado. At a fuel stop near the town of Encampment, I meet Oscar and Max, two bearded collies going for a ride with their owners.

Out of habit I turn to my saddlebags to grab Milk Bones for my new friends, but this is a rental, not one of my own bikes, so the snacks aren’t there. Since these pooches don’t know my normal routine, they’re happy with a scratch behind the ears.

Colorado motorcycle ride
Oscar and Max enjoy going for a ride near Encampment, Wyoming.

Farther west I reach Battle Highway (Wyoming State Route 70). This 26-mile seasonal road meanders through the Sierra Madre Range and offers some spectacular vistas. The forestland is different than what I’d seen in Colorado, with stark white stands of birch as well as conifers.

Colorado motorcycle ride
The Continental Divide goes through Battle Pass, Wyoming.

The road crosses the Continental Divide and it’s intriguing to realize that beyond this point the rivers all empty into the Pacific watershed. Leaving the national forest, I turn left on Snake River Spur Road, which crisscrosses the border of Wyoming (where it’s County Road 710) and Colorado (where it’s County Road 129). The surface of this remote road goes from blacktop to hard pack to dirt, but by the time I get to Clark, Colorado, it’s all paved again.

Colorado motorcycle ride
Medicine Bow National Forest dominates this rugged vista.

Not surprisingly I encounter a northern clime’s ubiquitous summer delay: road construction. I pull up, first in line, next to a woman wearing a hardhat and high-vis vest and holding a STOP sign. It’s going to be a while so I kill the motor and say hello.

After a bit of small talk, the woman stops short, looks me in the eye and says, “You sure must be from another country, what with the way you talk.”

No, ma’am, I believe I’m from your country.

“But you aren’t from here,” she insists.

No, ma’am, I’m from Massachusetts.

“Oh, I don’t think so.”

I explain that where I come from in Western Mass, we don’t “pahk the cah in the yahd” like they do in Boston, but she’s having none of it. Her walkie-talkie crackles and she turns her sign around to SLOW. I thumb the starter and wave so long. No doubt that pleasant lady will tell her friends about the foreigner on a motorcycle she met today.

Colorado motorcycle ride
Welcome back to Colorado.

Down the road a piece Route 129 ends at U.S. Route 40. I point the Strom left and soon arrive in another Colorado wintertime playground, Steamboat Springs. The town is smaller than I imagined and I get through the congested downtown in short order. My plan is to continue south on State Route 131 to Toponas and then east on twisty State Route 134, which a rider with local knowledge assured me is not to be missed.

Black clouds and vivid lightning to the south persuade me to stay east on U.S. 40 instead. Under blue skies and puffy clouds I cross back over the Continental Divide at Rabbit Ears Pass (all rivers now emptying into the Atlantic watershed) and enjoy sweepers and elevation changes. My decision to avoid Route 131 is a good one.

Colorado motorcycle ride
The Continental Divide goes through Rabbit Ears Pass, Colorado.

And what’s this? At Kremmling, I see a sign for Route 134 where it intersects U.S. 40. By now the skies to the west look partly cloudy, so I turn right. This is another good decision: I carve through a canyon for 28 miles and reach Toponas, where I would have turned onto Route 134 if not for that storm south of Steamboat. Large puddles confirm it’s rained here recently, but where I just came from the skies are clear, so I turn around and twist back through the canyon again.

Returning to U.S. 40 and heading south returns me to my family and base of operations. Most places I’d care to go after a long day in the saddle are within an easy walk in Winter Park. Hernando’s has great pizza and local brews. At Hideaway Park, there’s a newly built bandshell and hundreds of people gather for a concert on the lawn. Neat stacks of camp chairs are available for anyone to use, and people actually put them back when they leave. Down at the skate park, some groms are showing off. My lovely and persuasive 18-year-old daughter eggs them on and the quality of their tricks somehow improves. With another early start in my plans, I make it an early night.

Colorado motorcycle ride
Vistas like this are one reward for getting up early.

It’s in the 40s again when I head out at first light, this time with Rocky Mountain National Park in my sights. At Granby I turn right onto U.S. Route 34 and continue past Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake.

Colorado motorcycle ride
The first motorcyclist I see this morning is also riding a yellow adventure bike.

When I reach the park entrance at Grand Lake, I am prepared to pay the park entrance fee with that $20 I tucked in my sleeve pocket, but a sign reads “Station Unattended, Please Proceed.” In so many ways, early departure pays dividends. From here to Deer Ridge Junction, U.S. 34 is known as Trail Ridge Road. Eventually climbing to an elevation of 12,183 feet, it’s the highest contiguous paved road in the United States.

Colorado motorcycle ride
Cow elk enjoy breakfast at 12,000 feet alongside Trail Ridge Road.

Across from Green Mountain Trailhead, a group of about eight moose is moving through the meadow. I’ve seen solo moose a few times before, but a group this large is quite a sight. And they’re fast! My forward-facing action camera manages to capture a brief bit of moose video (good enough for proof) but they all disappear into the forest before I can get out my still camera.

The Strom climbs in altitude and the snowcapped peaks bathe in early morning sunshine. At Medicine Bow Curve I stop to take in the view, just as a bicyclist rolls down the hill from the other direction. It’s Kyle from Indiana, who rode his bicycle up here from Estes Park. He’s just passed the highest elevation on the Trail Ridge Road so it’s pretty much downhill from here. I convey my respect for his accomplishment and offer to take a picture on his phone so he has evidence he was up here. With his fists raised in triumph and a panoramic vista at 11,640 feet, he gets a photo for the ages.

Colorado motorcycle ride
Thanks again to the tired-looking father of three from Kansas who snapped this shot of Your Humble Scribe on Trail Ridge Road. (“Daddy, when are we gonna be there?”)

Over the next rise I see one of the park’s best-known attractions: elk. My attention is initially focused down the hill toward dozens of the huge creatures grazing in the meadow below, but quickly I realize that two cow elk are on the slope, perhaps 20 feet above me. They look me over and don’t seem to sense a threat, so I stop to watch them peacefully nibble the tundra vegetation. The Strom gently pulses at idle, ready to zip me away if they suddenly act aggressively.

As my descent continues, I encounter something I haven’t until now: traffic. That’s not surprising as the area near the park’s east entrance is much more populated than the west entrance where I came in. Not wanting my sublime, high-altitude experience to end, I turn around and head back to enjoy the different views provided by reversing course. There are no moose in the meadow where they’d been earlier, so I turn back around and head east again. By now there’s plenty of traffic, including slow-moving tour vans and family trucksters with trailers in tow. Sigh…I join the slow parade downhill.

Colorado motorcycle ride
On days like this, it’s hard to take a bad photo in the Colorado Rockies.

At Deer Ridge Junction I opt for U.S. Route 36 to escape the congestion. A right on Mary’s Lake Road and then a merge into State Route 7 gets me back on a curvy road with minimal company. At an art gallery cleverly disguised as a tourist information center, the proprietor suggests I ride the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway. She even gives me a map. Linking parts of Routes 7, 72 and 119, Peak to Peak runs from Estes Park in the north (which I’m already past) to Black Hawk in the south.

Part way down, in Nederland, I take more advice from a local rider and turn east on State Route 119 to enjoy constant curves and stellar scenery through Boulder Canyon. It’s well worth the diversion. When the city of Boulder suddenly appears, I do a 180 and enjoy that same canyon road back to Nederland where I turn south, still on Route 119. The curves continue to Black Hawk where Casino Parkway winds its way to U.S. 40. Down here, U.S. 40 shares a stretch of asphalt with Interstate 70, but then exits to the north at Empire. Then, after nine superb switchbacks up, over and down Berthoud Pass, I arrive again in Winter Park.

Reflecting on another great day of motorcycling, one conclusion is inescapable: I’ve only begun to explore the great roads in these parts. I can’t get back here soon enough.

Colorado motorcycle ride
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Glad you didn’t encounter the state cops who hang out on US40 was of Winter Park. They have no sense of humor. (It’s a long story.)

  2. Thanks for a most enjoyable write-up, Scott!

    If you like riding adventurous twisties and ever find yourself in South Africa, a ride out to the so-called “Bikers’ Paradise” in Mpumalanga* Province (erstwhile Eastern Transvaal) is a top priority bucket list item:
    http://bikemunch.co.za/2017/03/26/welcome-to-bikers-paradise-the-eastern-transvaal

    (Please try to ignore the article’s poor spelling and grammar; the author is a native Afrikaans speaker.)

    * “Mpumalanga” = Nguni for “[Place where] the sun comes out”.

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